The "Maker's Mark": Discovering Poets' Individual Styles
Spenser's position in the sonnet tradition gives us a golden opportunity to look at the development of the whole genre in English as far as it has progressed by 1595, when he published Amoretti. Sidney's Astrophil and Stella had been published in 1591 (six years after the poet's death), and Spenser was among the first of the "new wave" of poets writing with Sidney as their exemplar rather than looking back most immediately to Tottel's edition of Wyatt and Surrey, or to their Italian master, Petrarch. How do poets in a tradition make a place for their own voices and concerns while still making literature in a popular form? Learning to detect this process is like decoding the patterns of brush strokes on a painting, or the chisel marks on a great sculpture or monument, from which we can deduce the artistic "fore-conceit" or "idea" which Sir Philip Sidney says is the true way to know a poet from a mere rhymer (937). Between Wyatt's time and Spenser's, the sonnet has changed from a single poem written for an in-group, court manuscript circulation game, to a part of a poet's "works," a sequence or cycle of poems issued to the public in a genuine mass-market, print-based cultural event.
Poets whose works survive from the medieval and early modern era produce literature within clearly defined genres, almost always using the forms (meter, rhyme, stanza structure) which they inherited from their predecessor poets, from whom they learned the art. Individual expression is achieved by varying some parts of the genre or form while leaving the rest intact. Other important stylistic differences arise because of their way their individual personalities and immediate social surroundings shape their interests in what they'll write about, including the content of their figurative language (e.g., what they allegorize or what the metaphors and similes refer to). Another important source of individualization comes from the poet's choice of poetic masters and awareness of their ghostly presence in his/her own work. Finally, the changing cultural situation in England from 1500 to 1600 allows us to observe a new mechanism of literary production at work--manuscript circulation of nobles' poetry among a coterie audience is imitated by the later print circulation of poems by the children of guildsmen and bourgeois merchants, lawyers, bankers, etc. That last development will be enormously important to the rise of public dramatic performances of works by those same children of what we come to call the "middle class" (Marlowe, Shakespeare, Jonson).
Some Examples of Individual Variation in Style:
Content--Petrarch starts with poems about "courtly love" in the medieval style, a lover yearns for an unattainable beloved who is married, loves another, too young, or dead, and the poems trace the poet's struggle between reverence for beauty and desire to possess it. The love never ends in marriage because it never was intended to do so--marriages are made for practical economic and political reasons, but love happens when the emotions overthrow one's reason and contradicts those reasons.
Wyatt and Surrey--maintain Petrarch's emphasis on love as an irrational attachment for an elusive non-marriageable female but shift some poems' reference to the Beloved toward the desire for political power and fear of betrayal.
Sidney--maintains Petrarch's, Wyatt's and Surrey's emphasis on love as an irrational attachment for an elusive non-marriageable female but shifts some poems' focus on Beloved to the desire for originality in composition, a place in the pantheon of poets, philosophical knowledge, and peace of mind, despite the turmoil of spirit caused by erotic desire.
Spenser--shifts gradually the poems' focus on the Beloved to the desire for transcendent spiritual love of a real woman he intends to marry, and the desire for union with the Divine. Nevertheless, Spenser returns to all the previous poets motifs and composes the poems in a cycle imitative of Sidney's, even to an ambiguous, possibly unhappy final poem.
Form--Petrarch established the octave-sestet stanza division and the use of exotic, paradoxical metaphors ("Petrarchan conceits") to describe the strong emotional states and extremes of aesthetic sensation which were the poem's subjects.
Wyatt continues to use Petrarchan conceits, but creates a new vocabulary of comparisons to realistic experiences found in the English court and countryside, and he starts to break the sestet into a quatrain and a couplet, sometimes inserting the couplet between octave and quatrain ("Whoso List to Hunt").
Surrey follows Wyatt's style more than Petrarch's, but he splits the octave into two quatrains and relocates the couplet at the end to add emphasis to the resolution or "closure" of the situation/complication produced in the three quatrains ("Alas! so all things..."). He continues to use Petrarchan conceits but also introduces English cultural comparisons ("The Soote Season"). He also experiments with blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter) to translate Virgil, indicating an awareness of the great Roman poet as a master (see below).
Sidney begins folding couplets into his quatrains by chaining or "concatenation" of the last rhyme to the first rhyme of the next (abbaabba in #2). He varies this with other rhyme and stanza forms, and his comparisons often involve classical references. Allegorized virtues and vices appear, perhaps drawing on the English morality plays like Everyman, but also looking back to classical tradition in Roman and late Greek literature.
Spenser writes entirely in concatenated stanzas, and uses both Petrarchan and classical metaphors, as well as comparisons to ordinary English objects and customs.
Awareness of Poetic Masters--Petrarch writes in the wake of Dante and the troubadour poets of Provence, incorporating their view of love as both spiritual and physically affecting the judgment of the lover, forcing poetic composition as a "symptom" of love.
Wyatt writes in imitation of Petrarch, slowly moving out of his shadow by "Englishing" his metaphors and then adapting the sonneteer's stance to address desires that don't involve eros.
Surrey follows both Petrarch and Wyatt for the sonnet, but his translation of Virgil creates an entirely new verse form, the "strange meter" as his publisher (Tottel) called it, to represent the Roman poet's hexametric lines in the Aeneid. Surrey did not attempt an English epic (that task awaited Milton) but his blank verse became the vehicle for Marlowe, Shakespeare, Jonson, and the rest of the Elizabethan tragic dramatists.
Sidney revolts against Petrarchan conceits (while using them) by denying their authenticity in displays of "anti-Petrarchanism," a clear sign of anxiety about his poetic authenticity. Many of his poems debate the issue. He even turns on his classical learning by disclaiming it, ironically of course ("anti-classicism"). His "Defense of Poesy" will establish in prose his deep awareness of a debt to classical Greek and Roman poets. (See Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence.)
Spenser takes both Sidney and Virgil as masters, Sidney for lyric poetry (i.e., the sonnet cycle) and Virgil for his career, writing pastoral eclogues or philosophical speculations, as well as a great allegorical epic, Faerie Queene, which is his most ambitious attempt to attach himself to the poetic tradition in the Virgilian mode.