Laura, I love you.
The sudden intrusion of one's own or another's personal sentiment into the experience of reading a sonnet is a common occurrence, a kind of cathexis or concentration of emotional energy produced by the poem's ability to focus our attention on the problem of desire. The custom of exchanging poems with lovers spread with increasing speed from the Tudor court into the wider cultural milieu of the city, as well as into the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge. The poets' deft expression of their own struggle to express their loves for their beloveds became a shared event in which the reader and the reader's love become invested, thereby sharing over centuries that sympathetic relationship. This, surely as much as the sonnets' beautiful form and rich language, accounts for their enduring popularity when other genres of the era have become increasingly relegated to schoolrooms and poets' libraries.
The poets of the sonnet tradition, themselves, start the process by allowing their own intense emotional attachment to be revealed in the act of writing. Often the beloved's name is concealed or coded (see Wyatt), in a tradition that follows the familiar track from Classical Greece, to Rome, to later Italian and French writers, and thence to England's poets. A reasonable beginning might be in Greek lyrics like Sappho's to Atthis (#36) who may have been a lover or a friend, lyrics which were imitated by Catullus in poems addressed to "Lesbia" (a naming homage to Sappho of Lesbos), a woman usually identified as Clodia Metelli, wife of a wealthy Roman senator.
Dante wove the tale of his love for "Beatrice," probably Beatrice Portinari, into the Divina Comedia where he set a new standard for the use of the female "muse" by the male poet. It was not enough that she inspire verse, but she plays the dramatic role of guide to the character "Dante" as he ascends to witness God in the Paradiso, the Comedia's third section. This transformation of the mortal beloved into a vehicle for the spiritual redemption of the poet might be productively compared with Pietro Bembo's "staircase of love" motif in Hoby's translation of Castiglioni.
The next poet to contribute significantly to this poetic convention probably was Petrarch (Francesco Petrarca). His "Rime" were organized by the poet into groups based upon whether they were written before or after the death of their inspiration, a woman he calls "Laura." Scholars have suggested that she may have been a woman from Provence, Laura de Noves, who later married Hugues de Sade, and that Petrarch met her two years after their marriage. He records the day of the meeting (April 6, 1327) in the flyleaf of his copy of Virgil, where he was in the habit of writing notes recording the most important events of his life. (The MS survives and has been extensively studied.) Petrarch's sonnets make extensive use of punning references to Laura, a strategy considerably encouraged by the fact that, in Italian, her name sounds like "the breeze" (l'aura), "laurel" (lauro), and "the golden" (l'aureo). For instance, consider the first quatrain of the octave beginning Rima 246:
L'aura, che 'l verde lauro e l'aureo crine The breeze which both laurel green and golden hair
Soavemente sospirando move, So sweetly breathing stirs before our view
Fa con sue viste leggiadrette e nove Makes, with these visions delightful and new,
L'anime da' lor corpi pellegrine. The souls from bodies pilgrims forth to fare.
What does this suggest about the lyric poet's psychological relationship between the desired beloved and the poems he or she inspires? Consider this in the context of Shakespeare's use of both procreation and poetic creation as the means by which "devouring Time" may be defeated and the beloved's beauty preserved. Paradoxically, though, we should beware reading Shakespeare's and any of the other later Renaissance sonneteers' works as pure biography, poetically expressed. Once the form had outlasted the generation which brought it in vogue (i.e., Wyatt's and Surrey's, c. 1520-50), many young poets wrote sonnets more playfully, or to prove their poetic gifts to patrons and to the reading public, at large. To read more about this later, less personal, art-for-art's-sake type of sonnet, click here.