Sunday, July 31, 2011

Enjoyed this article over at PoFo. Who knew Elizabethan sonnets could be so fun, and modern?

An Elizabethan plays a Modernist language game

Sir Philip Sidney is a key figure of the Elizabethan era, the fountainhead of the modern poetic tradition. He was born in 1554 in Kent, England, around the same time that the first sonnets in English (by Sir Thomas Wyatt) were posthumously published. Sidney was the contemporary of Walter Raleigh, Edmund Spenser, Fulke Greville, and William Shakespeare, among others: poets who occupied the vanguard of Tudor society as courtiers, soldiers, diplomats, and explorers. Poetry was almost inextricable from song—most gentlemen-poets could play a passable lute, much the way learning guitar is a rite of passage today—and the language itself was still young: unstandardized, mongrelized, and versatile. It lent itself readily to creative uses, and the challenge was met by poets who lived in a sparkling societal milieu where games—tournaments, sports, theater, dance—flourished.

That is to say, the Renaissance poets played games with language. They did so from the baseline of the Petrarchan sonnet, and Sir Philip Sidney stands out because he both played and commented on the playing—imitated Petrarch and criticized Petrarch—while mastering the form. His prose treatise, A Defence of Poesy, still influences what we perceive as the finest poetry, that which Wallace Stevens called the supreme fiction. This alone justifies Sidney’s claim as the first major poet-critic in English; but what makes him particularly modern—or perhaps what makes us particularly Sidneyan—is that his landmark sonnet sequence, Astrophil and Stella, incorporates the conflict between the poet and the critic, the stylist and the chastiser of style, in the sequence itself. Detractors of the self-reflexive tendencies of contemporary poetry (epitomized by, say, John Ashbery) call it postmodernist, or deconstructive, and it has become common to deplore the artifice and playfulness of a poetry born from the premise that language is "slippery"—as likely to elude our meanings as give meaning to experience. But Sidney was one of our predecessors, and this is nowhere more evident than in Sonnet 63 of Astrophil and Stella.

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