Lovers’ Laments

Renaissance sonnets and the art of passionate excess.

Courtship is often funny, and sometimes the people involved know that—even when the stakes are high. Courtship is also a power contest with established boundaries: To be courted is to be cast into a passive role. And as its very name suggests, courtship invokes the assertion (or affectation) of courtly manners: elaborate ways of behaving and loving—or writing—meant to seem fit for royalty.

Poetry—and, for speakers of English, Shakespeare’s poetry in particular—is part of love’s social life, supplying the words in courtship’s tangled but deeply imbedded web of behaviors and feelings. Much of the vocabulary of love still deployed today, whether in passion or in parody, in song lyrics or in movies, comes from poems written in a single decade at the end of the 16th century.

Shakespeare wrote his sonnets as part of a literary vogue, the great sonnet fad of the 1590s. Inspired by Sir Philip Sidney’s sequence “Astrophil and Stella” (itself based on the Italian sonnets of Petrarch and popularized via early, Napster-like piracy), English poets and booksellers of that decade produced hundreds of sonnet sequences. The product in each case was a series of witty, hyperbolic 14-line love poems, addressed to a lady who, in theory, would be flattered and won by the poet’s elaborate, inventive descriptions of her tremendous beauty, her cruel resistance, and the agony she inflicted on the author. She tortures him with her beauty and coldness, he says; and yet his praises, and his clever descriptions of the pain she causes him, will make her immortal.

The idea was seduction by flamboyant eloquence: the male peacock tail of literary suffering. Behind the exquisitely expressed pain of the lover was his flirtatious smile, and the smile complimented his lover’s mind as the exaggerated suffering complimented her looks. The appealing balance of the two helped give life to a body of enduring work. The sonnet fad produced still-admired sequences like Samuel Daniel’s “Delia,” Michael Drayton’s “Idea,” Edmund Spenser’s “Amoretti,” and Thomas Lodge’s “Phyllis”—as well as more or less forgotten efforts such as Barnabe Barnes’ “Parthenope and Parthenophil” and E.C.’s “Emaricdulfe.”

For all the formulaic elements in these works, their authors frequently achieved surprising things in the endless search for ingenious new similes, zany puns, and outrageous metaphors: a language show of seduction staged within narrow limits of form and content.

Jaunty and passionate Michael Drayton (1563-1631), for example, knew how to keep things lively in his sequence “Idea’s Mirror.” Here are a couple of his sonnets:

VI. “How Many Paltry Foolish Painted Things”How many paltry foolish painted things,
That now in coaches trouble every street,
Shall be forgotten, whom no poet sings,
Ere they be well wrapped in their winding-sheet!
Where I to thee eternity shall give,
When nothing else remaineth of these days,
And queens hereafter shall be glad to live
Upon the alms of thy superfluous praise.
Virgins and matrons, reading these my rhymes,
Shall be so much delighted with thy story
That they shall grieve they lived not in these times,
To have seen thee, their sex’s only glory:
***So shalt thou fly above the vulgar throng,
***Still to survive in my immortal song.

Drayton the poet scorns and pities the women whom “no poet sings,” women so commonplace and bothersome that they “trouble every street.” He invites his yearned-for woman, Idea, to feel celebrated by the comedy of this overblown disdain and also by his eloquent attentions—which, he says (with equally comic hyperbole), will place her in eternity such that queens aspire to her leftover praises. “I exaggerate,” Drayton all but tells Idea, “in your honor and to amuse you.”

Exaggeration, a charming and candid over-the-top quality, also drives Drayton’s description of Idea’s power over him:

XXX. “Three Sorts of Serpents Do Resemble Thee”Three sorts of serpents do resemble thee:
That dangerous eye-killing cockatrice,
The enchanting siren, which doth so entice,
The weeping crocodile—these vile pernicious three.
The basilisk his nature takes from thee,
Who for my life in secret wait dost lie,
And to my heart sendst poison from thine eye:
Thus do I feel the pain, the cause, yet cannot see.
Fair-maid no more, but Mer-maid be thy name,
Who with thy sweet alluring harmony
Hast played the thief, and stolen my heart from me,
And like a tyrant makst my grief thy game:
***Thou crocodile, who when thou hast me slain,
***Lamentst my death, with tears of thy disdain.

Literally, this is a denunciation. But in the elegant courtship game, it’s actually a clever compliment to her understanding. He isn’t really slain, and she isn’t really a monster, but those ways of putting it are tokens of urbane playfulness and passion: a sexy teasing. (The woman is notably generic—I believe Idea’s eyes change color in the course of the sequence, presumably as Drayton ended one relationship and began another.)

Samuel Daniel (1562-1620) uses two meanings of volume to court his Delia with Homeric amplitude, with towers and temples constructed within the little room of his sonnet:

Sonnet XLVII: “Read in My Face”Read in my face a volume of despairs,
The wailing Iliads of my tragic woe,
Drawn with my blood and printed with my cares
Wrought by her hand, that I have honor’d so.
Who, whilst I burn, she sings at my soul’s wrack,
Looking aloft from turret of her pride;
There my soul’s tyrant joys her in the sack
Of her own seat, whereof I made her guide.
There do these smokes that from affliction rise,
Serve as an incense to a cruel Dame;
A sacrifice thrice grateful to her eyes,
Because their power serve to exact the same.
***Thus ruins she, to satisfy her will,
***The Temple where her name was honor’d still.

Philip Sidney (1554-86), who started the sonnet vogue without intending to, has a gentler, less violent style in his exquisite sonnet addressed to the moon:

XXXI. “With How Sad Steps”With how sad steps, Oh Moon, thou climb’st the skies,
How silently, and with how wan a face!
What, may it be that even in heavenly place
That busy archer his sharp arrows tries?
Sure, if that long‑with‑love‑acquainted eyes
Can judge of love, thou feels’t a lover’s case;
I read it in thy looks, thy languished grace,
To me that feel the like, thy state decries,
Then even of fellowship, O Moon, tell me
Is constant love deemed there but want of wit?
Are beauties there as proud as here they be?
Do they above love to be loved, and yet
***Those lovers scorn whom that love doth possess?
***Do they call virtue there ungratefulness?

The extreme, blatant artificiality of the lover’s extravagance seems to be part of the pleasure these poems express or seek. How preposterously, amusingly far one can go in speaking to the moon or finding a new metaphor? A highway, for instance:

Sonnet LXXXIV. “Highway, Since You”Highway, since you my chief Parnassus be,
And that my Muse, to some ears not unsweet,
Tempers her words to trampling horses’ feet
More oft than to a chamber melody;
Now, blessed you, bear onward blessed me
To her, where I my heart safe left shall meet;
My Muse and I must you of duty greet
With thanks and wishes, wishing thankfully.
Be you still fair, honoured by public heed,
By no encroachment wronged, nor time forgot,
Nor blamed for blood, nor shamed for sinful deed;
And that you know I envy you no lot
***Of highest wish, I wish you so much bliss:
***Hundreds of years you Stella’s feet may kiss.

It’s high time to introduce a poem by a woman. Lady Mary Wortley Montague (1689-1762) wrote a century after the sonnet vogue. Yet like Sidney, she composed a sonnet to the moon—with an interesting difference of tone, more sympathetic to the “coldness” of the virginal and “serenely sweet” moon:

“A Hymn to the Moon”Thou silver deity of secret night,
***Direct my footsteps through the woodland shade;
Thou conscious witness of unknown delight,
***The Lover’s guardian, and the Muse’s aid!
By thy pale beams I solitary rove,
***To thee my tender grief confide;
Serenely sweet you gild the silent grove,
***My friend, my goddess, and my guide.E’en thee, fair queen, from thy amazing height,
***The charms of young Endymion drew;
Veil’d with the mantle of concealing night;
***With all thy greatness and thy coldness too.

This attractive coldness is defined in a more personal way by Montague’s extraordinary poem “The Lover.” Defining a less artificial, unexaggerated ideal of love, she contrasts it with the “vain affectation of wit”—a phrase that seems to allude directly, and pointedly, to the excesses of the male sonnet tradition—in the closing stanzas:

But when the long hours of public are past,
And we meet with champagne and a chicken at last,
May every fond pleasure that moment endear;
Be banish’d afar both discretion and fear!
Forgetting or scorning the airs of the crowd,
He may cease to be formal, and I to be proud,
Till lost in the joy, we confess that we live,
And he may be rude, and yet I may forgive.And that my delight may be solidly fix’d,
Let the friend and the lover be handsomely mix’d;
In whose tender bosom my soul may confide,
Whose kindness can soothe me, whose counsel can guide.
From such a dear lover as I here describe,
No danger should fright me, no millions should bribe;
But till this astonishing creature I know,
As I long have liv’d chaste, I will keep myself so.I never will share with the wanton coquette,
Or be caught by a vain affectation of wit.
The toasters and songsters may try all their art,
But never shall enter the pass of my heart.
I loathe the lewd rake, the dress’d fopling despise:
Before such pursuers the nice virgin flies;
And as Ovid has sweetly in parable told,
We harden like trees, and like rivers grow cold.

After reading a lot of sonnets of the period (even great ones), there is a refreshing appeal to this loathing of the “lewd rake.” Montague’s vision of mutual kindness over “champagne and chicken” is charming partly because it is realistic.

Another woman poet—Queen Elizabeth I, though some scholars doubt her authorship—lived during the sonnet vogue. She seems to speak from the viewpoint of a woman weary of being wooed as in the sonnets of male lovers—but then later in life regrets the loss of those amorous complainers and their inventions. Cupid punishes her with age:

When I was fair and young then favour graced me.
Of many was I sought their mistress for to be.
But I did scorn them all, and answered them therefore:
Go, go, go, seek some otherwhere,
Importune me no more.How many weeping eyes I made to pine in woe,
How many sighing hearts I have no skill to show,
Yet I the prouder grew, and answered them therefore:
Go, go, go, seek some otherwhere,
Importune me no more.Then spake fair Venus’ son, that proud victorious boy,
And said, you dainty dame, since that you be so coy,
I will so pluck your plumes that you shall say no more:
Go, go, go, seek some otherwhere,
Importune me no more.When he had spake these words such change grew in my breast
That neither night nor day I could take any rest.
Then, lo! I did repent, that I had said before
Go, go, go, seek some otherwhere,
Importune me no more.

The sonnet fad proliferated and spread like kudzu, leading Sir John Davies (1569‑1626) to compose a sequence of parodies he called “Gulling Sonnets”—mocking the elaborate metaphors and exaggerated suffering, the stylized cruel lady and importunate writer. Davies’ parodies are amusing, but it is not always easy to tell them from the actual sonnets that are their target. After all, the sonneteer, smirking as he says he is dying, conventionally incorporates an element of parody into his poems.

In honor of that playful element of the sonnet vogue, I will close with a game. Some of the unidentified poems below are from Davies’ “Gulling Sonnets.” Others are actual, nongulling examples of the form, taken from contemporaneous sequences by great and well-known poets. As you read along, see whether you can pick out who wrote what. (Answers are here.)


O grammar rules, O now your virtue show;
So children still read you with aweful eyes,
As my young dove may, in your precepts wise,
Her grant to me by my own virtue know;
For late, with heart most high, with eyes most low,
I craved the thing which ever she denies;
She, lightning Love displaying Venus’s skies,
Lest once should not be heard, twice said, No, No!
Sing then, my muse, now Io Paean sing;
Heav’ns envy not at my high triumphing,
But grammar’s force with sweet success confirm;
For grammar says—Oh this, dear Stella weigh—
For grammar says—to grammar who says nay?
That in one speech two negatives affirm.


The sacred muse that first made love divine
Hath made him naked and without attire;
But I will clothe him with this pen of mine,
That all the world his fashion shall admire:
His hat of hope, his band of beauty fine,
His cloak of craft, his doublet of desire,
Greed, for a girdle, shall about him twine,
His points of pride, his codpiece of conceit,
His stockings of stern strife, his shirt of shame,
His garters of vain‑glory gay and slight,
His pantofles of passion I will frame;
***Pumps of presumption shall adorn his feet,
***And socks of sullenness exceeding sweet.


The hardness of her heart and truth of mine
When the all‑seeing eyes of heaven did see,
They straight concluded that by power divine
To other forms our hearts should turned be.
Then hers, as hard as flint, a flint became,
And mine, as true as steel, to steel was turned;
And then between our hearts sprang forth the flame
Of kindest love, which unextinguished burned.
And long the sacred lamp of mutual love
Incessantly did burn in glory bright,
Until my folly did her fury move
To recompense my service with despite;
***And to put out with snuffers of her pride
***The lamp of love which else had never died.


My case is this, I love Zepheria bright,
Of her I hold my heart by fealty:
Which I discharge to her perpetually,
Yet she thereof will never me acquite.
For now supposing I withhold her right
She hath distrained my heart to satisfy
The duty which I never did deny
And far away impounds it with despite:
I labour justly therefore to repleve
My heart which she unjustly doth impound
But quick conceit which now is love’s high Shreve
Returns it as eloigned, not to be found:
***Then which the law affords I only crave
***Her heart for mine in withernam to have.


No longer mourn for me when I am dead
Than you shall hear the surly sullen bell
Give warning to the world that I am fled
From this vile world with vilest worms to dwell.
Nay, if you read this line, remember not
The hand that writ it; for I love you so
That I in your sweet thoughts would be forgot,
If thinking on me then should make you woe.
O if, I say, you look upon this verse
When I, perhaps, compounded am with clay,
Do not so much as my poor name rehearse,
But let your love even with my life decay,
***Lest the wise world should look into your moan,
***And mock you with me after I am gone.


The lover under burthen of his mistress’ love
Which like to Aetna did his heart oppress,
Did give such piteous groans that he did move
The heav’ns at length to pity his distress.
But for the Fates, in their high court above,
Forbade to make the grievous burden less,
The gracious powers did all conspire to prove
If miracle this mischief might redress.
Therefore, regarding that the load was such
As no man might with one man’s might sustain,
And that mild patience imported much
To him that should endure an endless pain,
***By their decree he soon transformed was
***Into a patient burden‑bearing ass.