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Shakespeare's Sonnets

by William Shakespeare

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Between Michelangelo and Petrarch: Shakespeare's Sonnets of Art

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John Kerrigan, St John's College, Cambridge

The year 1494 found Michelangelo in Bologna: young, brash, and full of promise. Behind him lay his first major work, the Madonna of the Steps, a low relief carved with all the delicate solidity of Donatello, though left—like so many of Michelangelo's most emotional compositions—unfinished. Before him lay Rome, and a whole series of sculptural triumphs: the Bacchus, the Pietà, the bronze and marble Davids of 1501-2, and the first designs for the Julius tomb. But, for twelve months or so, the young artist stayed in Bologna, at the house of Gianfrancesco Aldrovandi, carving very little, yet drawing, writing and reading. Michelangelo had already encountered—in the circle of Lorenzo de' Medici—Ficino, Poliziano and Pico della Mirandola; and he must have absorbed, during those years in Florence, the neoplatonic doctrines which were to influence him for the rest of his life. Now, in Bologna, he steeped himself in the poets. 'Every evening', writes a contemporary biographer, Aldrovandi made Michelangelo 'read from Dante or from Petrarch and now and then from Boccaccio, until he fell asleep."1 Just how important Petrarch became can be judged from a sketch made for the two statues of David. Down the margin of the page, beside the strong right arm of the marble giant, the artist has written: 'Davicte cholla fromba/e io chollarco/Michelagniolo//Rocte lalta cholonna el ver … '2—at which point the text breaks off. 'David with the sling, and I with the bow; Michelangelo. The high column is broken, and the … ' This jotting has puzzled art historians for many years, and its secrets are not quickly unlocked. If, however, we follow the clues offered by that last line, with its arresting quotation from the Canzoniere, we can make some progress towards understanding what it meant to write artful sonnets, in English as well as Italian, after Petrarch.

David could represent many things in 1502—not least, in Republican Florence, opposition to the Medici family, the political Goliath of Tuscany. But his standard significance, sanctioned by centuries of Biblical exegesis, was 'fortitude'. No doubt it was this tradition which led Michelangelo to model his marble David on the Fortitude which Nicola Pisano had carved into a column in the Pisan Baptistry. As images of stubborn strength, the pillar and David would persist. Leonardo, in 1504, doodles a sketch of Michelangelo's statue among pilastered buildings in his notebook. In Apianus and Amantius' Inscriptiones Sacrosanctae Vetustatis (1534) the broken column is classicized as a vulnerable emblem of immortality.3 Puttenham, 'in Italie conuersant with a certaine gentleman', helped disseminate the motif in England, observing, in his Arte of English Poesie, that 'By this figure is signified stay, support, rest, state and magnificence'.4 Michelangelo's mind will have passed from David to Petrarch's 'broken column', then, because he associated both with 'fortitude'. A second link is provided by artistic ambition. Canzoniere 269 is a love-lament. It bewails the sudden deaths of Petrarch's patron, Giovanni Colonna, and of Laura. 'Rotta è l'alta colonna e '1 verde lauro' the line reads in full: 'the high column is broken, and the green laurel.'5 While Giovanni is identified with 'una colonna' broken short, the laurels of creative success (such as were granted Petrarch by Robert of Naples in 1341)6 are put in question. Preparing to carve his first important Florentine statue, and (as often when sketching major work) full of self-doubt, Michelangelo quoted Petrarch to record his fears of blasted fame. There is a third connection, the most subtle but far-reaching. 'Davicte cholla fromba/e io chollarco': the weapon which Michelangelo means to wield against Goliath is primarily a running-drill, the 'bow' used to turn the shaft which engraves fine details on sculpture. But it associates, inevitably, with the 'bow' used by the god of love. In Michelangelo's verse, bows repeatedly tend to the erotic, and his best-known drawing, the Saettatori, shows archers—figured as their own bows-and-arrows—making passionately towards a seductive-looking Herm. From the 'fromba' to the 'arco' then; David's 'sling' suggests Michelangelo's 'bow'. Then, from the 'bow' as running-drill to Cupid's 'bow', and so to Petrarch's love-lament. Yet there is more to the glissade. For the bow of eros, in Petrarch as in Michelangelo, effectively is a running-drill, a tool for shaping images.

At almost every level of composition, the love poetry of the Canzoniere shows a calculated asymmetry. As the reader grasps one structure, it dissolves into another, producing irregularities that rather intimate the shifting formulations of life than Dantesque movement towards 'l'amor che move il sole e l'altre stelle' (Paradiso xxxiii. 145). Instead of dividing centrally at a major canzone like the Vita Nuova, the Rime sparse break unevenly between two hundred and sixty three poems supposedly written during Laura's lifetime, and a hundred and three composed 'In Morte'. Such a disproportion recalls the shape of individual sonnets, where settled octave rhyme schemes give way to a range of possible sestets. The effects of love are adumbrated: a promise of order is apparently grasped, but frustrated by what ensues. Syntax and figuring show a similar drift towards irresolution. Consider 132, at the mid-point of 'In Vita' (and the first of Petrarch's sonnets to be translated into English). 'S'amor non è, che dunque è quel ch' io sento?/ma s'egli è amor, per Dio, che cosa e quale … ?' The poet asks whether it is love he feels, and, if so, what that 'viva morte' and 'dilettoso male' might be. At the end of the sonnet, trembling and burning in oxymoronic suspense, he is not much the wiser: 'e tremo a mezza state, ardendo il verno.' Though it owes much to the dolce stil nuovo of Dante and his contemporaries, the sonnet's idiom has an innovative insecurity which comes from the dispersal of the subject in a dialectic of turbulent emotion. Speculating and suffering, it can reach no end in itself. 'Se', Petrarch begins; and parallel 'if' clauses—so common in the Canzoniere and its progeny (including the verse of Michelangelo)—take up the entire octave, and spill over (a dramatic effect) into the sestet. Questions recur too, suspending the self in uncertainties, shying from declaration. Petrarch does not resolvingly figure love as a 'lord of terrible aspect', like Dante in the Vita Nuova, nor as a winged putto stirring hot coals in the lover's breast. One has only to read a few lines of Chaucer's version of the Canticus—'If no love is, O God, what fele I so?/And if love is, what thing and which is he?/If love be good, from whennes cometh my woo?'7—to see that, with that apostrophe and those strong cadences, one cannot talk of a Petrarchan tone in fourteenth-century English. Not until Wyatt does vernacular verse begin to match the subtle music of a passion which, as it begins, ends (and so has no end) in the io.

Poem 132 is no more than typical in its parallelism, its painful stalling at 'If? … If? … If?' Anaphora is characteristic, together with lists which offer little for the mind to catch at, though much to traverse:

Benedetto sia '1 giorno e '1 mese et l'anno
e la stagione e '1 tempo et l'ora e 'I punto
e '1 bel paese e '1 loco ov'io fui giunto
da' duo begli occhi che legato m'ànno …

Canzoniere 61 should be dull, it so firmly follows one syntactical structure, yet it has become an anthology piece. Language is here refined towards pure extension, continuously penultimate. 'Sentioque inexpletum quiddam in precordiis meis semper' Petrarch admitted in the prose Secretum:8 'in my heart I always feel something unfulfilled'. These sonnets do not close, like Shakespeare's, with pointed logic or a deft reversal. Indeed, they rarely deploy the couplet. Petrarch writes memorable last lines, but their greatness lies in what they absorb, not what they foreclose. Labouring in the Trionfi to build coherent iconographical worlds of Love, Chastity, Death, Eternity, the poet of the Canzoniere incites extremes to meet. Consecutive lyrics, such as the more religious Good Friday poem ('Padre del ciel … ') which follows 61, are thus yoked by antithesis, like the 'living death' and 'delightful harm' of 'S'amor non è'. 'Of all the pleasing things I ever read or heard,' Petrarch wrote in De remediis utriusque fortune, 'almost nothing impressed itself more deeply … than Heraclitus's dictum: all things are ruled by strife.'9 Swayed towards paradox, he produced a style which can be misunderstood if read through that of such mannered and mechanical followers as Serafino and Il Tebaldeo. Traces of this misconception mar even the best recent translation, by Robert M. Durling, as when he renders that final line of 132 ('e tremo a mezza state, ardendo il verno'), 'and I shiver in midsummer, burn in winter.'10 Petrarch prefers the imbalance of a fraught gerund, 'ardendo' (all matter for Heraclitus, we recall, was such a kind of 'burning'), and the reader is left with protraction. Significantly, 'verno'—which might have shut the sonnet by opposing 'state'—fails to do so because, though a standard poeticism for 'inverno' ('winter'), it also means 'vernal, springlike', so that the 'winter' which concludes the sestet advances insidiously into spring, while the poet burns.

The problem of closure has an erotic aspect: sonnets cannot resolve because Laura remains unattainable. When Michelangelo's contemporary, Pietro Aretino, wrote his Sonetti lussuriosi, twenty-nine pornographic poems designed to accompany drawings by Giulio Romano, he found the inconclusive Petrarchan form inadequate for his purpose. For him, copulation called for the couplet, so he added to his fourteen-line lyrics heavily-rhymed codas.11 Yet Byron's question, 'Think you, if Laura had been Petrarch's wife,/He would have written sonnets all his life?',12 seems clumsy. More suggestive is John Berryman's

Seventy springs he read, and wrote, and read …
Also there was Laura and three-seventeen
Sonnets to something like her … twenty one
  years …
He never touched her.13

A famous canzone, translated by Spenser among others, describes Laura as: a doe with a human face, a ship with silken tackle, a laurel tree full of birdsong, a clear fountain, a phoenix with purple wings, and, finally, a lady clad in a garment seemingly of gold and snow.14 In all these visions, including the last, we see 'something like' Laura. It is the imagined St Augustine of the Secretum who tells us that the woman herself died young and plain, worn-out with child-bearing. The poetic io seems ignorant of this Laura, in thrall to an elusive image. That is why Byron's gibe is inappropriate. Laura is everything to long for, yet (and therefore) never to be attained. While not possessed, she is in the poet's possession. Always inseparable from him, she seems closest when he is most alone. Hence the many poems which involve Petrarch in lonely wandering. 'I' l' ò più volte (or chi fia che m' il creda?)', he writes in 129,

ne 1' acqua chiara e sopra l'erba verde
veduto viva, e nel troncon d' un faggio,
e 'n bianca nube, sÌ fatta che Leda
avria ben detto che sua figlia perde
come stella che '1 sol copre col raggio;
  e quanto in più selvaggio
loco mi trovo e 'n più deserto lido,
tanto più bella il mio pensier 1' adombra.

Petrarch sees Laura in clear water, on the green grass, in the trunk of a beech tree, limned by cloud. And do we not find in that last phrase—where thought 'shadows forth' the object of desire—the poet revered by Michelangelo, the Petrarch who elsewhere called Laura 'an idol sculpted in living laurel'? For this is a canzone in which Laura's visage is drawn in stone: 'Ove porge ombra un pino alto od un colle,/talor m' arresto, e pur nel primo sasso/disegno co la mente il suo bel viso.' The bow of love becomes a creator's running drill, shaping the lineaments of desire. 'Davicte cholla fromba/e io chollarco/Michelagniolo'.

The idea that lovers and artists shape the world alike runs deep in post-Petrarchan writing:

  S'egli è che 'n dura pietra alcun somigli
talor l'immagin d'ogni altri a se stesso,
squalido e smorto spesso
il fo, com'i' son fatto da costei.
E par ch'esempro pigli
ognor da me, ch'i' penso di far lei.15

The delicate opening conceit of Michelangelo's madrigal, probably written for Vittoria Colonna—that very Petrarchan name—acquires gravity as the io becomes end and beginning. Burkhardtian views of 'the Renaissance', emphasising Petrarchan inwardness, neglect this dialectic, but it was arguably the Canzoniere's greatest bequest. 'Ogni pintore dipinge se medesimo', as Cosimo de' Medici said: 'every painter paints himself'16 Such views had become commonplace by the time Michelangelo sculpted David. Behind them lies Plato's Timaeus, the medieval tradition of Deus artifex, and, more largely, the Christian belief that God, loving man, made him in His own image. Artist and lover conceive similarly divine images, but their powers are woefully circumscribed by the limitations of mortal hands. This lends undercurrents of despair, of grim absurdity, to Michelangelo's most heroic achievements—as the ribald, tailed sonnet 'Io gia facto un gozo in questo stento' suggests. At work in the Sistine Chapel, the artist imagines (and sketches) himself117 as a 'bow', 'comarcho soriano', not bent by the mind but cramped in body at the top of his scaffolding.

Such frustration can be more sublimely expressed:

  Non ha l'ottimo artista alcun concetto
c'un marmo solo in sè non circoscriva
col suo superchio, e solo a quello arriva
la man che ubbidisce all'intelletto … .

Michelangelo discerns an ideal image in the stone he addresses; but he cannot, like God, simply will a thing into effect, and his skill works against him, 'l'arte' ruining what is conceived:

  Amor dunque non ha, nè tua beltate
o durezza o fortuna o gran disdegno
del mio mal colpa, o mio destino o sorte;
  se dentro del tuo cor morte e pietate
porti in un tempo, e che 'l mio basso ingegno
non sappia, ardendo, trarne altro che morte.

One begins to see why so many of the artist's works were torn or smashed in anger as he saw his execution blurring and distorting the concetto. It also becomes clear why his most challenging works were often left unfinished. 'His imagination was so powerful and perfect', writes Michelangelo's disciple Vasari, 'he often discarded work in which his hands found it impossible to express his tremendous and awesome ideas; indeed, he has often destroyed his work.'18 From that early Madonna of the Steps, the line runs through the Taddei Tondo, the Florentine St Matthew, the Dying, Rebellious, Young and Bearded Slaves to the late Rondanini Pietà. Numbers of his most powerful poems are fragments—like the harrowing sestet 'In me la morte, in te la vita mia'—and his most complete poems are unpolished. Even the sublime marble David is unresolved, for the sculptor has left, on the crown of the giant's head (where only he and God could see it), a small area of unworked marble. It is as though Michelangelo felt that rough Italian and unworked stone kept his works tied to the ideal image in his soul, a harsh idiom and raw marble preserving the conception from ruin. This would explain why Michelangelo tended to finish only those works he cared about least, and why the homosexual artist found it more difficult to complete statues of men than statues of women.

Such considerations may seem distant from Petrarch. But continuities of form, figuring and syntactical structure between the poets are secured by a shared, frustrated desire for transcendence through love's imaging. Contradiction might be no more than a verbal tic in Bembo and his contemporaries, but the 'burning ice' and 'living death' of Michelangelo's songs and sonnets have a Petrarchan concentration. Much of his work can seem constituted by antithesis, from the tense cross-hatching used to sketch his nudes to such larger oppositions as those on the Medici tomb between Dawn and Dusk, Day and Night, and the Active and Contemplative Lives. Why was he so upset when Benedetto Varchi insisted that painting and sculpture were one, not contrary arts? And why was he obsessed by the oval (that circle with opposed extremities), anticipating Baroque design by admitting it into his architecture, while inventing, it is said, a compass for drawing the ellipse? Nowhere is this commitment more evident than in the male nudes he created in such abundance. Almost invariably these display contrapposto: an antithetical disposition of the limbs. Recall the Florentine Victory, the Creation of the Sun and Moon in the Sistine Chapel, the Saettatori, or (for that matter) the marble David. It might seem far-fetched to insist on a link, but throughout this period—as the poem/pillar/statue configurations of Puttenham, Herrick and others suggest—sculpture, painting and poetry were nearly-related modes. Language itself shows this: 'contrapposto' is an Italian version of Latin 'contrapositum', used by rhetoricians to render the Greek 'antithesis'. Michelangelo found in the Petrarchan sonnet what he admired in the classically posed male nude: a divided, exacting form which could express his sublime but thwarted aesthetic.

There is a celebrated passage on literary imitation and painting in the Moral Epistles of Seneca the Younger: 'Etiam si cuius in te comparebit similitudo, quem admiratio tibi altius fixerit, similem esse te volo quomodo filium, non quomodo imaginem; imago res mortua est.'19 For Seneca, the proper measure of resemblance in imitatio is that which holds between father and son, not between a picture and what it reproduces. He writes of the dead completeness of art-objects in a spirit almost as extreme as that of the despondent Michelangelo: 'non sappia, ardendo, trarne altro che morte.' The virtue of good imitation (Seneca goes on to say) is that it so deeply impresses what it borrows with its own form that deciding which of two texts copied the other becomes impossible. The practice, as well as theory, of good imitation is exemplified by a letter of Petrarch's to Boccaccio:

curandum imitatori ut quod scribit simile non idem sit, eamque similitudinem talem esse oportere, non qualis est imaginis ad eum cuius imago est, que quo similior eo maior laus artificis, sed qualis filii ad patrem. In quibus cum magna sepe diversitas sit membrorum, umbra quedam et quem pictores nostri aerem vocant, qui in vultu inque oculis maxime cernitur, similitudinem illam facit.20

This follows the Moral Essays in cautioning against the idea that literary imitation should be as precisely reproductive as portraiture, but Petrarch's account of painting is less hostile. Indeed, he pointedly adopts the language of painters to describe that divergence from source which imitation should display. The visage of the secondary text ought to be shadowed with the 'air' of the father. Since recent work on Renaissance literary theory has found that imitatio was not clearly distinguished from translatio, paraphrasis and allusio,21 we can demonstrate what Petrarch was warning against by quoting Wyatt:

Caesar, when that the traitor of Egypt
With th'honourable head did him present,
Covering his gladness, did represent
Plaint with his tears outward, as it is writ … .22

Matching as closely as possible the rhythms and sound-patterns of Canzoniere 102 (though failing to rhyme lines 1 and 4), Wyatt shows how inert initial trochées and feminine chiming, based on Petrarch's hendecasyllabics, can become. Some wrought arcs of phrasing, such as that which ends this sonnet's octave—'His cruel despite for to disgorge and quit'—are feats of vocal imitation ('per isfogare il suo acerbo despitto'), yet Petrarch's 'air' is repeatedly lost in ellipsis, bluntness and redundancy.

Where Wyatt diverges from source, moreover, at the end of his sonnet, it is to react against Petrarch's open plangency by speaking of 'sport and play.' In the turbulent court of Henry VIII, where imprisonment and execution were a continual threat and patronage made the difference between high office and ruin, Wyatt is drawn to those facets of the Canzoniere which are interested in secrecy. This strain in the Rime sparse encouraged him to cultivate a cloaked, resistant idiom firmly braced within the rhythms of Tudor English. But the resulting interplay of accent and emotion is very different in imaginative texture from even those parts of the Canzoniere which present public experience as private loss:

The pillar perished is whereto I leant,
The strongest stay of mine unquiet mind;
The like of it no man again can find—
From east to west still seeking though he went—
To mine unhap, for hap away hath rent
Of all my joy the very bark and rind …

This is the sonnet quoted by Michelangelo in 1502. Yet, in Wyatt's version, pathos and insecurity are compensated by metrical assurance. 'I leant' counterpoints and partly offsets the seeking of 'went', and 'mind' at the same pitch 'finds' itself. Wyatt's syntax goes some way towards reconstructing Petrarchan complexity, but not in his terms. English, as Ji ì Levý has shown,23 has a phonetic logic which leads to sonnet closure. The Italian hendecasyllabic, ending on an upturn, expresses Petrarch's penultimacy. An iambic pentameter is weighted differently, and this generates for English Petrarchans a difficulty to harness, though sometimes effective, tension between stated weakness and voiced strength.

What is the 'air' of Wyatt? Drawn by Holbein, his face flickers with unease, mouth tensed, eyes evasive and on guard. Surrey, by contrast, projects through the same artist's portraiture a clearer, less defensive image, vulnerable but self-contained, topped out smartly with a plumed hat. As in the case of Wyatt, Holbein might have been drawing the verse:

Set me wheras the sonne dothe perche the grene,
Or whear his beames may not dissolve the ise;
In temprai heat wheare he is felt and sene;
With prowde people, in presence sad and wyse;
Set me in base, or yet in highe degree,
In the long night, or in the shortyst day …24

Avoiding the jolts of Wyatt, Surrey is partly successful in imitating the smooth-filed eloquence of Canzoniere 145. His performance is less concerned with the relations between self and public life than with ease of manner. Yet, by line 4, Surrey has so tired of Petrarch's oppositions that he ignores the drift of the sun's car from East to West and substitutes 'With prowde people … '. As an assertion of aristocratic hauteur, imperatively desiring to suffer in the best company, this is awkwardly at odds with the paradox which reverts to Petrarch: 'Set me in base, or yet in highe degree'. It is not, however, so inept as the antithesis of line 6: 'In the long night, or in the shortyst day'. Petrarch here creates a double opposition, between day and night, long and short: 'ponmi à la notte, al dì lungo ed al breve'. Surrey responds with a merely ostensible balance, because a 'long night' and 'the shortyst day' go together (in December). These antitheses are not thought—never mind felt—through. The music of Petrarch is emulated, but little of his substance remains. Only in the couplet, when, in the manner of Wyatt, Surrey rejects the anguished penultimacy of his original ('continuando il mio sospir trilustre') for the sake of an almost defiant containment—'Yours will I be, and with that onely thought/Comfort my self when that my hape is nowght'—does imitatio flicker with an access of emulative creativity.25

It might seem eccentric to approach Shakespeare from this angle, to place his artful sonnets between the statues, pictures and poems of Michelangelo and the Petrarch of these learned Henricians. If it does, that is because scholarship continues to lay false emphases. Though few would now explicitly subscribe to the eighteenth-century notion of the Bard as fancy's child, warbling native woodnotes and needing not the spectacles of books, there is a persistent reluctance to acknowledge his affiliation with the self-conscious literary humanism of Petrarch, Erasmus, Buchanan, Montaigne. There are several reasons for this, but all are reinforced by the use made of Shakespeare in a Western educational system which, to preserve his valuable centrality, cannot afford to stress his erudition and historical distance. It is true that, thanks to such scholars as T. W. Baldwin, G. K. Hunter, Emrys Jones and Joel Airman, readers have been alerted to the way in which early Shakespearean drama and, to a lesser extent, the mature plays are enriched by their relations to humanistic theatre and historiography. It has also become customary to stress the grammar-school Ovidianism of Venus and Adonis and Lucrece. But the Sonnets seem to have been rescued from Victorian, autobiographical reading only to find themselves (for the most part) subject to the self-referential obsessions and dispersals of formalism and deconstruction. When read as Shakespeare's diary, or with the assumption that lyric poems constitute their own fields of reference, these texts cannot communicate their 'imitative' complexity. More recent, new historicist attempts to relate them to 'the discourse of patronage' (was there only one?), and other modes of cultural circulation,26 might be preferable to speculative effusions about the love-life of the Earl of Southampton, but, working Shakespeare into the sociopolitical dynamics of early modern England, they do little to clarify his place within traditions of learned writing.

That the Sonnets are exercises in imitatio is often, though, strikingly apparent. Numbers 153-4, for instance, can scarcely be understood without reference to a European-wide anacreontic cult spawned by the Greek Anthology. These poems are as evidently erudite and emulative as anything by Wyatt or Surrey. Yet, although their intertextual allegiance has been reconstructed by James Hutton,27 they remain out of focus for most readers because so much that is 'imitative' elsewhere in the sequence—especially of Sidney and Daniel—is overlooked or patronised, as though literary 'debts' implied artistic immaturity, or were residual impurities which should have been purged by the heat of composition. It is a striking feature of the Sonnets, however, that they make elegant, explicit and highly purposeful use of Erasmus. They allude, more or less at the outset (both in the 1609 ordering and, it would seem,28 chronologically), to a letter in De conscribendis epistolis which expounds that model of father-son resemblance which Seneca and Petrarch have taught us to read as an image of successful imitatio.29 Even if the sonnets on breeding were actually written to persuade a beautiful, negligent nobleman to produce an heir, the textual situation is one which not only makes an old wooing theme new (the lovely youth as Laura) but renders uniquely integral the theme of imitation. Sidney punctuates Astrophil and Stella with poems about feebly imitative poetry, mocking the Petrarchism of the Pléiade and, to a lesser extent, his Tudor predecessors.30 Shakespeare can be less explicit because, in a continuous shadowed conceit, the proliferation of imitative texts is figured as conceiving children.

This helps explain the relative coolness of his urgings to breed. In Sonnets 1 to 15 we always sense a better argument—let poetry reproduce you—waiting in the wings. The poet's promise to 'engraft' the youth,31 first raised in the couplet of 15, becomes a compound undertaking to defeat 'decay', to produce childlike poems and to generate further sonnets by thinking about the means and morality of such production. Moreover, as a 'graphic' act (the ambiguity is there in 'engraft'), writing has a painterly aspect. Not least because of the manuscript circumstances of early circulation,32 imitative script moves the pen into a form of portraiture:

Now stand you on the top of happy hours,
And many maiden gardens, yet unset,
With virtuous wish would bear your living
Much liker than your painted counterfeit:
So should the lines of life that life repair
Which this time's pencil, or my pupil pen,
Neither in inward worth nor outward fair
Can make you live yourself in eyes of men.
  To give away yourself keeps yourself still,
  And you must live drawn by your own sweet

When Shakespeare writes this in Sonnet 16, he demonstrates his imitative resourcefulness by avoiding dead reproduction. Whatever Seneca or Petrarch might assume, painters are rarely (he reminds us) good at likenesses. As cleverly, he develops the idea that script resembles portraiture to suggest that breeding children involves an impulse to draw the countenance of a child. The young man should become both the painter and that father whose 'air' is imitated in a son's visage. When the noble youth demurs, Shakespeare advances verse as a means of survival first parallel to, then a substitute for, drawing stemmata. By 'copy[ing] what … is writ' in the friend, the poet can create his simulacra, poetic children. Gradually, through sonnets later than the triumphant 19 and literary-critical (almost Sidneian) 20, the mimetic action of writing gives way to an inner generation of the other which makes the poet father the youth—that object of address and devotion who finally becomes 'my lovely boy' (126). The ironies as well as hopes implicit in this development resemble those discovered by earlier artists wielding a running-drill. 'It is probably in the nature of any profound erotic desire', Yasunari Takahashi shrewdly remarks, in a discussion of Izutsu, 'that it annihilates the rational demarcation of subject/object, active/passive, and self/ other'.33 Where Petrarch becomes a laurel in Canzone 23, or is turned to 'pietra morta' after drawing Laura's face in the 'pietra viva' of 129, and where Michelangelo finds himself cold and pale like the statue that he is carving, Shakespeare writes, ''Tis thee (myself) that for myself I praise,/Painting my age with beauty of thy days' (62).

The idea that Shakespeare goes on about 'painting' because he puritanically detested cosmetics—a notion still found in the commentaries—requires heavy qualification. For him, the polarity is not between vile daubing and virtuous nakedness because the opposite of being falsely coloured is being (what Sonnet 20 calls) 'with Nature's own hand painted.' It is because the excuse is routine, not because it is necessarily false, that Sonnet 101 is apologetic about its apology, '"Truth needs no color with his color fix'd,/Beauty no pencil, beauty's truth to lay … ".' When Olivia pulls aside her veil (like the 'curtain' over a 'picture') to reveal her beauty to Cesario, and insists against his/her insinuation that her colours are 'in grain' (Twelfth Night I. v. 230ff), the artifice lends the scene brittle intensity but does not reduce her value. "Tis beauty truly blent,' Cesario murmurs (in a sudden escape from prose), 'whose red and white/Nature's own sweet and cunning hand laid on.' Leo Salingar is right to warn us, in 'Shakespeare and the Italian Concept of "Art",'34 that for this dramatist 'art' often carried deceitful connotations; but the greater danger lies in our neglecting the sophistication of passages which use 'art' artfully:

Mine eye hath play'd the painter and hath stell'd
Thy beauty's form in table of my heart;
My body is the frame wherein 'tis held,
And perspective it is best painter's art.
For through the painter must you see his skill,
To find where your true image pictur'd lies,
Which in my bosom's shop is hanging still,
That hath his windows glazed with thine eyes.
Now see what good turns eyes for eyes have
Mine eyes have drawn thy shape, and thine for
Are windows to my breast, wherethrough the sun
Delights to peep, to gaze therein on thee.
  Yet eyes this cunning want to grace their art,
  They draw but what they see, know not the

The epistemological puzzling of Sonnet 24 can put off even readers accustomed to John Ashbery and A. R. Ammons. As an attempt to grapple with the self-othering paradoxes of Petrarchan tradition, however, it is formidably accomplished. Though it lacks the fluid, associative figuring of the Canzoniere, its clever play on 'eyes'—those crystal windows which open into 'I'—is more than routinely conceited. For this 'eye' has the strength to sketch and apparently engrave (line 1 of the quarto reads 'steeld'), to depict images in hard matter, like Michelangelo's 'arco'. 'Form', 'image' and 'art' might not have the neoplatonic reach and resonance of cognate terms in the sculptor's sonnets, but they do begin to show how the poet can become the youth's sweetly-skilled drawer. His bosom is an artful cabinet, anticipating Paulina's gallery in The Winter's Tale.

Various later sonnets are rooted in Sonnet 24. The pair on eye/heart disputation, 46 and 47, for instance, make adroit, if slightly chilly, use of the breast-as-closet with 'love's picture' topic. As significant as this continuity, however, is the proximity of all three poems to sonnets about dreaming. Of these, 43 is the most searchingly paradoxical, but the earlier couple, 27-8, have a key role in developing the poet's authority as other-reproducer. If lonely wanderings bring out the visionary in Petrarch, the author of The Taming of the Shrew and The Tempest deepens the subjectivity of his 'I' by 'Looking on darkness' and finding, in that 'eye"s scope, a world of 'imaginary sight' (27). The power of optic beams to configure and effectively realise a loved object fascinated Shakespeare, but in the Sonnets he elaborates what might have remained within the sphere of commonplace by fusing this capacity into the 'I"s reproductive scheme. The poet begins to suggest that his 'eye/I' is inherently 'conceptual', painting ahead of perception what the mind desires to see. To that extent Shakespeare's position recalls Michelangelo's

if one considers all that is done in this life, one will find that every man unconsciously is engaged in painting this world, both in creating and producing new forms and figures, in dressing variously, in building and filling in spaces with buildings and houses, in cultivating the fields and ploughing the land into sketches and pictures … 35

Yet the bravura sweep of this points up the troubled, counter-energies of those sonnets concerned with the astigmatism of love-sick 'eyes'. Some of the bleakest poems to the dark lady, such as 137 ('Thou blind fool, Love') and 148 ('O me! what eyes hath Love put in my head'), deal with moral blindness and erotically-warped sight. The related baroque iconography which opens A Lover's Complaint, and the 'fickle maid's extravagant blazoning of the young man's beauty, show similar anxieties being explored.36

It is in Sonnets 113-14, however, that Shakespeare modulates the paradoxes of Petrarchan seeing towards that distinctive late-play phenomenology which makes an island both barren and (to other eyes) fertile, which turns a statue (when looked at differently) into a woman, and which, with disconcerting frequency, renders the world plastic to the senses. Number 113 might begin with a commonplace ('Since I left you, mine eye is in my mind'), but its psychological blurs and strong rhymes—'Seems seeing, but effectually is out'—quickly suggest the mental confusions and physical violence of Jacobean theatre ('Out, vild jelly!').37 When the poet says that regardless of what is looked at (rude or gentle, crow or dove) the eye 'shapes them' to the young man's 'feature', his thought is still in touch with Petrarchan plangency. But its pathos conceals a danger which the last line of 113 concedes—'My most true mind thus maketh mine [read m'eyne] untrue'—and which 114 develops:

Or whether doth my mind being crown'd with
Drink up the monarch's plague, this flattery?
Or whether shall I say mine eye saith true,
And that your love taught it this alcumy,
To make of monsters and things indigest
Such cherubins as your sweet self resemble,
Creating every bad a perfect best
As fast as objects to his beams assemble?

These mustering 'beams' would be happier in operation did not 'plague' and 'flattery' suggest that the transformation of bad to good involves something like deception. The 'cherubins' recall 'Angelo', as well as the treacherous youth of A Lover's Complaint (316-19). Even in this form, the passionate sight which dreamingly sees in 27-8 and 43 has acquired an instability which alarms. It is virtually the sight of Leontes, putting Hermione's life at the 'level' (an eyesight word)38 of his 'dreams':

O, 'tis the first, 'tis flatt'ry in my seeing,
And my great mind most kingly drinks it up;
Mine eye well knows what with his gust is
And to his palate doth prepare the cup.
  If it be poison'd, 'tis the lesser sin
  That mine eye loves it and doth first begin.

The sestet of 114 gives us the poet as King of Sicilia, the monarch who drinks and sees the spider, astigmatically discerning what the poisoned mind's eye desires. Against Leontes' sight, in this dispensation, naked truth does not stand; there can only be (in Kent's words) better seeing. The theatrum mundi is painted every way, like the vivid timberwork of the Globe. It is the artistry of a Paulina, a new perspective, 'best painter's art', which provides the antidote to poison.

Significantly, Paulina gives the cast of The Winter's Tale a guided tour of her gallery before introducing them to the stone Hermione. They are acclimatised to wonder. Whatever Shakespeare's reason for exchanging Sicily and Bohemia in his sources, making Leontes rule where Robert Greene's Pandosto had not, one effect is to associate the gallery with an island off the Italian coast and so with the High Renaissance of Bembo and Michelangelo. 'Julio Romano', supposed sculptor of the statue (as well as notorious illustrator of Aretino's sonnets), is 'that rare Italian master … who, had he himself eternity and could put breath into his work, would beguile Nature of her custom' (V. ii. 97-9). Interestingly, this artist is said to have 'perform'd' his 'piece' (96). There is more than a hint in the scene's unfolding that Shakespeare, arch-exploiter of theatrical metaphor, means to use stage space to configure the psychological paradoxes of Italian art, much as he had, in Hamlet, employed it as a locus of memory. Certainly the queen's descending re-runs old sonnet im-ages, reaching back to Dante's Rime petrose, his stony rhymes. Hermione is a variation on the topos of the flinthearted mistress, aloof for sixteen years, deciding to accept love. She is Pygmalion's maiden—the subject of Petrarch's poem on Martini's portrait of Laura—brought to life out of marble by Venus. And she is also, obviously but most subtly, an actress or boy-actor, pretending to be pretending to be a statue. What happens when the marble warms is that one frame of reference (which allows for the actress's inadequacy as a statue) shifts into another (the inadequacy read, instead, as what now appears). The statue does not change, but is regarded as mortal. When the audience conceives her differently, she becomes what Michelangelo called a 'living sculpture'.39 She is indeed, as Paulina warns, freshly painted, yet painted with Nature's own hand. Moreover, the characters grouped round the pedestal are touched by that astonishment which has a Gentleman report of the kings' reunion: 'Who was most marble there chang'd color' (V. ii. 89-90). Perdita stands 'like stone' before her mother; Leontes ('does not the stone rebuke me/For being more stone than it?') is 'numb' as Hermione awakens (V. iii. 37-42, 102). The desire of those round the plinth to find loved life in stone, to trace in marble the lineaments of a desired object, fixes them in that pale numbness plotted by Petrarch, and turned by Michelangelo's running-drill.


1 Ascanio Condivi, 'Life of Michelangelo Buonarroti', in George Bull and Peter Porter, trs., Michelangelo: Life, Letters, and Poetry (Oxford, 1987), pp. 1-73, at p. 18.

2 See, e.g., Howard Hibbard, Michelangelo, rev. edn (Harmondsworth, 1978), pp. 53-4.

3 Reproduced in Elizabeth Cook, Seeing Through Words: The Scope of Late Renaissance Poetry (New Haven, 1986), p. 27.

4 Eds. Gladys Willcock and Alice Walker (Cambridge, 1936), pp. 91, 97.

5 All verse quotations from Emilio Bigi, ed., Opere di Francesco Petrarca, 2nd edn (Milan, 1964).

6 On this strain see Robert M. Durling, 'Petrarch's "Giovene donna sotto un verde lauro",' Modem Language Notes 86 (1971), 1-20 and John Freccero, 'The Fig Tree and the Laurel', Diacritics 5 (1975), 34-40.

7Troilus and Criseyde, I. 400-2, in Larry D. Benson, gen. ed., The Riverside Chaucer, 3rd edn (Boston, 1987).

8 Bigi, ed., Opere, p. 580.

9 Preface to Bk II, quoted and tr. Nicholas Mann, Petrarch (Oxford, 1984), p. 82.

10 Robert M. Durling, tr. and ed., Petrarch's Lyric Poems: The 'Rime sparse' and Other Lyrics (Cambridge, Mass., 1976).

11 For illustrated examples see, e.g., Lynne Lawner's parallel-text / Modi. The Sixteen Pleasures (London, 1988).

12Don Juan III. 63-4, in Lord Byron, The Complete Poetical Works, Vol. V, ed. Jerome J. McGann (Oxford, 1986).

13Collected Poems 1937-1971, ed. Charles Thornbury (London, 1989), p. 108.

14Canzoniere 323; 'Epigrams' in A Theatre for Worldlings (1569).

15 Poem 242 in the Rime, ed. Ettore Barelli (Milan, 1975); all verse quotations from this edn.

16 See, e.g., David Summers, Michelangelo and the Language of Art (Princeton, 1981), p. 233.

17 Poem and caricature are reproduced in Barelli, ed., Rime, p. 38.

18 George Bush, sel. and tr., The Lives of the Artists, rev. edn (Harmondsworth, 1971), pp. 418-19, cf. p. 404.

19Ad Lucilium epistulae morales, ed. and tr. Richard Gummere, 3 vols (London, 1917-25), II, 280 [Ep. LXXXIV. 9]: 'Even if there shall appear in you a likeness to him who, by reason of your admiration, has left a deep impress upon you, I would have you resemble him as a child resembles his father, and not as a picture resembles its original; for a picture is a lifeless thing.'

20Le Familiari, ed. Vittorio Rossi and Umberto Bosco, 4 vols (Florence, 1933-42), IV, 206 [XXIII, 19]. In Morris Bishop's selection, Letters from Petrarch (Bloomington, 1966), the following tr. is offered: 'A proper imitator should take care that what he writes resembles the original without reproducing it. The resemblance should not be that of a portrait to the sitter—in that case the closer the likeness the better—but it should be the resemblance of a son to his father. Therein is often a great divergence in particular features, but there is a certain suggestion, what our painters call an "air," most noticeable in the face and eyes, which makes the resemblance' (pp. 198-9).

21 E.g., Thomas M. Greene, The Light in Troy: Imitation and Discovery in Renaissance Poetry (New Haven, 1982), pp. 51-2. For overviews, cf. G.W. Pigman III, 'Versions of Imitation in the Renaissance'. Renaissance Quarterly 33 (1980), 1-32, Richard S. Peterson, Imitation and Praise in the Poems of Ben Jonson (New Haven, 1981), Ch. 1, David Quint, Origin and Originality in Renaissance Literature: Versions of the Source (New Haven, 1983).

22 Quotations from R.A. Rebholz, ed., Sir Thomas Wyatt: The Complete Poems (Harmondsworth, 1978).

23 'The Development of Rhyme-Scheme and of Syntactic Pattern in the English Renaissance Sonnet', Philologica (Acta Universitatis Palackianae Olumucensis) 4 (1961), 167-85.

24 Quoting Emrys Jones, ed., Poems (Oxford, 1964).

25 On aemulatio see, e.g., Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria, X. 2. 9-10.

26 E.g. John Barrell, 'Editing Out: The Discourse of Patronage and Shakespeare's Twenty-Ninth Sonnet', in his Poetry, Language and Politics (Manchester, 1988), pp. 18-45, Patricia Fumerton, ' "Secret Arts": Elizabethan Miniatures and Sonnets', Representations 15 (1986), pp. 57-97, rpt. in Stephen Greenblatt, ed., Representing the English Renaissance (Berkeley, 1988). pp. 93-133.

27 'Analogues of Shakespeare's Sonnets 153-4: Contributions to the History of a Theme', Modern Philology 38 (1941), pp. 385-403, rpt. in his Essays on Renaissance Poetry, ed. Rita Guerlac (Ithaca, NY, 1980), pp. 149-68.

28 On dating see A. Kent Hieatt, Charles W. Hieatt and Anne Lake Prescott, 'When Did Shakespeare Write Sonnets 1609?', Studies in Philology 88 (1991), pp. 69-109, and, for the manuscript version of Sonnet 2, Mary Hobbs, 'Shakespeare's Sonnet II—"A Sugred Sonnet"?', Notes and Queries 224 (1979), pp. 112-13, Gary Taylor, 'Some Manuscripts of Shakespeare's Sonnets', Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 68 (1985-6), pp. 210-46.

29 See T.W. Baldwin, On the Literary Genetics ofShakspere's Poems and Sonnets (Urbana, 1950), p. 183, notably for the mediating role of Thomas Wilson's Arte of Rhetorique (1553, rev. 1560). For Erasmus' use of fatherson resemblance to characterize imitatio, emulating Seneca and Petrarch, see, e.g., Pigman, 'Versions of Imitation', p. 9.

30 E.g., 3, 6, 15.

31 Quotations from G. Blakemore Evans et al., eds., The Riverside Shakespeare (Boston, 1974).

32 Cf. John Kerrigan, ed., Shakespeare's Sonnets and 'A Lover's Complaint' (Harmondsworth, 1986), pp. 10, 441 ff.

33 'How to Present a Japanese Ghost', Temenos 11 (1990), p. 10.

34Renaissance Drama Newsletter, Supplement 3 (Warwick, 1984), rpt. in Salingar's Dramatic Form in Shakespeare and the Jacobeans (Cambridge, 1986), pp. 1-18.

35 Quoted from Four Dialogues on Painting, tr. A.F.G. Bell (London, 1928) in Leonard Barkan's stimulating essay, ' "Living Sculptures": Ovid, Michelangelo, and The Winter's Tale', ELH 48 (1981), p. 654.

36 See John Kerrigan, ed., Motives of Woe: Shakespeare and 'Female Complaint'. A Critical Anthology (Oxford, 1991), esp. pp. 34-7, 41-3.

37King Lear III. vii. 83.

38 E.g., A Lover's Complaint 22.

39 Cf. Barkan, '"Living Sculptures"', p. 653.

Source: "Between Michelangelo and Petrarch: Shakespeare's Sonnets of Art," in Shakespeare Reread: The Texts in New Contexts, edited by Russ McDonald, Cornell, 1994, pp. 142-63.

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Sonnets (Vol. 75)


Introduction to The Sonnets