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Shakespeare — The Borrowed Conceits of the Sonnets

by Sidney Lee


Slender autobiographical element in Shakespeare’s sonnets.  The imitative element.

At a first glance a far larger proportion of Shakespeare’s sonnets give the reader the illusion of personal confessions than those of any contemporary, but when allowance has been made for the current conventions of Elizabethan sonnetteering, as well as for Shakespeare’s unapproached affluence in dramatic instinct and invention—an affluence which enabled him to identify himself with every phase of emotion—the autobiographic element in his sonnets, although it may not be dismissed altogether, is seen to shrink to slender proportions.  As soon as the collection is studied comparatively with the many thousand sonnets that the printing presses of England, France, and Italy poured forth during the last years of the sixteenth century, a vast number of Shakespeare’s performances prove to be little more than professional trials of skill, often of superlative merit, to which he deemed himself challenged by the efforts of contemporary practitioners.  The thoughts and words of the sonnets of Daniel, Drayton, Watson, Barnabe Barnes, Constable, and Sidney were assimilated by Shakespeare in his poems as consciously and with as little compunction as the plays and novels of contemporaries in his dramatic work.  To Drayton he was especially indebted. Such resemblances as are visible between Shakespeare’s sonnets and those of Petrarch or Desportes seem due to his study of the English imitators of those sonnetteers.  Most of Ronsard’s nine hundred sonnets and many of his numerous odes were accessible to Shakespeare in English adaptations, but there are a few signs that Shakespeare had recourse to Ronsard direct.

Adapted or imitated conceits are scattered over the whole of Shakespeare’s collection.  They are usually manipulated with consummate skill, but Shakespeare’s indebtedness is not thereby obscured.  Shakespeare in many beautiful sonnets describes spring and summer, night and sleep and their influence on amorous emotion.  Such topics are common themes of the poetry of the Renaissance, and they figure in Shakespeare’s pages clad in the identical livery that clothed them in the sonnets of Petrarch, Ronsard, De Baïf, and Desportes, or of English disciples of the Italian and French masters.  In Sonnet xxiv. Shakespeare develops Ronsard’s conceit that his love’s portrait is painted on his heart; and in Sonnet cxxii. he repeats something of Ronsard’s phraseology in describing how his friend, who has just made him a gift of ‘tables,’ is ‘character’d’ in his brain.  Sonnet xcix., which reproaches the flowers with stealing their charms from the features of his love, is adapted from Constable’s sonnet to Diana (No. ix.), and may be matched in other collections.  Elsewhere Shakespeare meditates on the theory that man is an amalgam of the four elements, earth, water, air, and fire (xl.-xlv.) In all these he reproduces, with such embellishments as his genius dictated, phrases and sentiments of Daniel, Drayton, Barnes, and Watson, who imported them direct from France and Italy.  In two or three instances Shakespeare showed his reader that he was engaged in a mere literary exercise by offering him alternative renderings of the same conventional conceit.  In Sonnets xlvi. and xlvii. he paraphrases twice over—appropriating many of Watson’s words—the unexhilarating notion that the eye and heart are in perpetual dispute as to which has the greater influence on lovers. In the concluding sonnets, cliii. and cliv., he gives alternative versions of an apologue illustrating the potency of love which first figured in the Greek anthology, had been translated into Latin, and subsequently won the notice of English, French, and Italian sonnetteers.

Shakespeare’s claims of immortality for his sonnets a borrowed conceit.

In the numerous sonnets in which Shakespeare boasted that his verse was so certain of immortality that it was capable of immortalising the person to whom it was addressed, he gave voice to no conviction that was peculiar to his mental constitution, to no involuntary exaltation of spirit, or spontaneous ebullition of feeling.  He was merely proving that he could at will, and with superior effect, handle a theme that Ronsard and Desportes, emulating Pindar, Horace, Ovid, and other classical poets, had lately made a commonplace of the poetry of Europe. Sir Philip Sidney, in his ‘Apologie for Poetrie’ (1595) wrote that it was the common habit of poets to tell you that they will make you immortal by their verses. ‘Men of great calling,’ Nash wrote in his ‘Pierce Pennilesse,’ 1593, ‘take it of merit to have their names eternised by poets.’  In the hands of Elizabethan sonnetteers the ‘eternising’ faculty of their verse became a staple and indeed an inevitable topic.  Spenser wrote in his ‘Amoretti’ (1595, Sonnet lxxv.)

My verse your virtues rare shall eternize,
And in the heavens write your glorious name.

Drayton and Daniel developed the conceit with unblushing iteration.  Drayton, who spoke of his efforts as ‘my immortal song’ (Idea, vi. 14) and ‘my world-out-wearing rhymes’ (xliv. 7), embodied the vaunt in such lines as:

While thus my pen strives to eternize thee (Idea xliv. 1).
Ensuing ages yet my rhymes shall cherish (ib. xliv. 11).
My name shall mount unto eternity (ib. xliv. 14).
All that I seek is to eternize thee (ib. xlvii. 54).

Daniel was no less explicit

This [sc. verse] may remain thy lasting monument (Delia, xxxvii. 9).
Thou mayst in after ages live esteemed,
Unburied in these lines (ib. xxxix. 9-10).
These [sc. my verses] are the arks, the trophies I erect
That fortify thy name against old age;
And these [sc. verses] thy sacred virtues must protect
Against the dark and time’s consuming rage (ib. l. 9-12).

Conceits in sonnets addressed to a woman.

Shakespeare, in his references to his ‘eternal lines’ (xviii. 12) and in the assurances that he gives the subject of his addresses that the sonnets are, in Daniel’s exact phrase, his ‘monument’ (lxxxi. 9, cvii. 13), was merely accommodating himself to the prevailing taste.  Characteristically in Sonnet lv. he invested the topic with a splendour that was not approached by any other poet:

Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme;
But you shall shine more bright in these contents
Than unswept stone besmear’d with sluttish time.
When wasteful war shall statues overturn,
And broils root out the work of masonry,
Nor Mars his sword nor war’s quick fire shall burn
The living record of your memory.
‘Gainst death and all-oblivious enmity
Shall you pace forth; your praise shall still find room
Even in the eyes of all posterity
That wear this world out to the ending doom.
  So, till the judgement that yourself arise,
  You live in this, and dwell in lovers’ eyes.

The imitative element is no less conspicuous in the sonnets that Shakespeare distinctively addresses to a woman.  In two of the latter (cxxxv.-vi.), where he quibbles over the fact of the identity of his own name of Will with a lady’s ‘will’ (the synonym in Elizabethan English of both ‘lust’ and ‘obstinacy’), he derisively challenges comparison with wire-drawn conceits of rival sonnetteers, especially of Barnabe Barnes, who had enlarged on his disdainful mistress’s ‘wills,’ and had turned the word ‘grace’ to the same punning account as Shakespeare turned the word ‘will.’ Similarly in Sonnet cxxx. beginning

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red . . .
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head,

he satirises the conventional lists of precious stones, metals, and flowers, to which the sonnetteers likened their mistresses’ features.

The praise of ‘blackness.’

In two sonnets (cxxvii. and cxxxii.) Shakespeare amiably notices the black complexion, hair, and eyes of his mistress, and expresses a preference for features of that hue over those of the fair hue which was, he tells us, more often associated in poetry with beauty.  He commends the ‘dark lady’ for refusing to practise those arts by which other women of the day gave their hair and faces colours denied them by Nature.  Here Shakespeare repeats almost verbatim his own lines in ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’(IV. iii. 241-7), where the heroine Rosaline is described as ‘black as ebony,’ with ‘brows decked in black,’ and in ‘mourning’ for her fashionable sisters’ indulgence in the disguising arts of the toilet.  ‘No face is fair that is not full so black,’ exclaims Rosaline’s lover.  But neither in the sonnets nor in the play can Shakespeare’s praise of ‘blackness’ claim the merit of being his own invention.  Sir Philip Sidney, in sonnet vii. of his ‘Astrophel and Stella,’ had anticipated it.  The ‘beams’ of the eyes of Sidney’s mistress were ‘wrapt in colour black’ and wore ‘this mourning weed,’ so

That whereas black seems beauty’s contrary,
She even in black doth make all beauties flow.

To his praise of ‘blackness’ in ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’ Shakespeare appends a playful but caustic comment on the paradox that he detects in the conceit. Similarly, the sonnets, in which a dark complexion is pronounced to be a mark of beauty, are followed by others in which the poet argues in self-confutation that blackness of feature is hideous in a woman, and invariably indicates moral turpitude or blackness of heart.  Twice, in much the same language as had already served a like purpose in the play, does he mock his ‘dark lady’ with this uncomplimentary interpretation of dark-coloured hair and eyes.

The sonnets of vituperation.

The two sonnets, in which this view of ‘blackness’ is developed, form part of a series of twelve, which belongs to a special category of sonnetteering effort.  In them Shakespeare abandons the sugared sentiment which characterises most of his hundred and forty-two remaining sonnets.  He grows vituperative and pours a volley of passionate abuse upon a woman whom he represents as disdaining his advances.  The genuine anguish of a rejected lover often expresses itself in curses both loud and deep, but the mood of blinding wrath which the rejection of a lovesuit may rouse in a passionate nature does not seem from the internal evidence to be reflected genuinely in Shakespeare’s sonnets of vituperation.  It was inherent in Shakespeare’s genius that he should import more dramatic intensity than any other poet into sonnets of a vituperative type; but there is also in his vituperative sonnets a declamatory parade of figurative extravagance which suggests that the emotion is feigned and that the poet is striking an attitude.  He cannot have been in earnest in seeking to conciliate his disdainful mistress—a result at which the vituperative sonnets purport to aim—when he tells her that she is ‘black as hell, as dark as night,’ and with ‘so foul a face’ is ‘the bay where all men ride.’

Gabriel Harvey’s ‘Amorous Odious Sonnet.’

But external evidence is more conclusive as to the artificial construction of the vituperative sonnets.  Again a comparison of this series with the efforts of the modish sonnetteers assigns to it its true character.  Every sonnetteer of the sixteenth century, at some point in his career, devoted his energies to vituperation of a cruel siren.  Ronsard in his sonnets celebrated in language quite as furious as Shakespeare’s a ‘fierce tigress,’ a ‘murderess,’ a ‘Medusa.’  Barnabe Barnes affected to contend in his sonnets with a female ‘tyrant,’ a ‘Medusa,’ a ‘rock.’  ‘Women’ (Barnes laments) ‘are by nature proud as devils.’  The monotonous and artificial regularity with which the sonnetteers sounded the vituperative stop, whenever they had exhausted their notes of adulation, excited ridicule in both England and France.  In Shakespeare’s early life the convention was wittily parodied by Gabriel Harvey in ‘An Amorous Odious sonnet intituled The Student’s Loove or Hatrid, or both or neither, or what shall please the looving or hating reader, either in sport or earnest, to make of such contrary passions as are here discoursed.’ After extolling the beauty and virtue of his mistress above that of Aretino’s Angelica, Petrarch’s Laura, Catullus’s Lesbia, and eight other far-famed objects of poetic adoration, Harvey suddenly denounces her in burlesque rhyme as ‘a serpent in brood,’ ‘a poisonous toad,’ ‘a heart of marble,’ and ‘a stony mind as passionless as a block.’  Finally he tells her,

If ever there were she-devils incarnate,
They are altogether in thee incorporate.

Jodelle’s ‘Contr’ Amours.’

In France Etienne Jodelle, a professional sonnetteer although he is best known as a dramatist, made late in the second half of the sixteenth century an independent endeavour of like kind to stifle by means of parody the vogue of the vituperative sonnet.  Jodelle designed a collection of three hundred sonnets which he inscribed to ‘hate of a woman,’ and he appropriately entitled them ‘Contr’ Amours’ in distinction from ‘Amours,’ the term applied to sonnets in the honeyed vein.  Only seven of Jodelle’s ‘Contr’ Amours’ are extant, but there is sufficient identity of tone between them and Shakespeare’s vituperative efforts almost to discover in Shakespeare’s invectives a spark of Jodelle’s satiric fire. The dark lady of Shakespeare’s ‘sonnets’ may therefore be relegated to the ranks of the creatures of his fancy.  It is quite possible that he may have met in real life a dark-complexioned siren, and it is possible that he may have fared ill at her disdainful hands.  But no such incident is needed to account for the presence of ‘the dark lady’ in the sonnets.  It was the exacting conventions of the sonnetteering contagion, and not his personal experiences or emotions, that impelled Shakespeare to give ‘the dark lady’ of his sonnets a poetic being. She has been compared, not very justly, with Shakespeare’s splendid creation of Cleopatra in his play of ‘Antony and Cleopatra.’  From one point of view the same criticism may be passed on both.  There is no greater and no less ground for seeking in Shakespeare’s personal environment the original of ‘the dark lady’ of his sonnets than for seeking there the original of his Queen of Egypt.

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