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The Protestant Reformation and the English Amatory Sonnet Sequence: Seeking Salvation in Love Poetry

  • Author(s): Shufran, Lauren
  • Advisor(s): Keilen, Sean
  • et al.

When he described poetry as that which should “delight to move men to take goodnesse in hand,” Philip Sidney was articulating the widely held Renaissance belief that poetry’s principal function is edification. Scholars have tended to observe a tension between Sidney’s description and the English sonnet sequence, as though didacticism and love poetry are fundamentally in opposition. But Petrarch’s Canzoniere–from which these sequences derive–is a conversion narrative; and the perceived opposition between amatory poetry and didacticism dissolves when we read English Petrarchism as a conversion genre. This dissertation begins with the suspicion that the theological infrastructure of these sequences is underplayed in the criticism. It is interested in what happens when we encounter these collections awake to the historical fact that Petrarchism and the Protestant Reformation came to England at the same time.

A.E.B. Coldiron has described Sidney’s historical moment as one marked by both the “problem of how to establish a productive relation with the literary past” and “the problem of making poets, not versifiers in England.” English Petrarchans, I argue, were compelled to write poems in this vein to assert the legitimacy of English lyric from within a genealogy that enthusiastically embraced the literary accomplishments of the Italian poet. But the poets’ employment of Protestant tropes in these collections asserts an explicitly English lyric authorship: at once legitimized by its embeddedness in a literary tradition and morally eclipsing that tradition through recourse to right (Protestant) religion.

When the Canzoniere arrived in England, its lover was ripe for comparison with the “spirit-versus-flesh” Paul. Taking a cue from this resemblance, English poets turned to Paul’s Epistles not only to recast Petrarch’s moral instruction (Paul, too, was a convert), but also to legitimize carnal love as a serious–and ineluctable–topic. Amatory poetry proved remarkably amenable to accommodating reformed, Pauline teachings on human will (and thus works, grace, and predestination). Sonnet sequences by Edmund Spenser, Thomas Watson, Sidney, Fulke Greville, Mary Wroth, and Shakespeare testify to an extensive effort among English love poets to offer a Protestant English literary exemplum to rival Petrarch’s Catholic one.

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