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Rémi Vuillemin, Le Recueil pétrarchiste à l’ère du maniérisme: Poétique des sonnets de Michael Drayton 1594-1619
by Guillaume Coatalen

Vuillemin, Rémi. Le Recueil pétrarquiste à l’ère du maniérisme: Poétique des sonnets de Michael Drayton 1594-1619. Paris: Champion, 2014. 664 pp. ISBN: 978-2745326621. $270.60 paper.

Michael Drayton was one of the most popular poets of his age, and he is well known for his connections with Ben Jonson and other poets, yet little criticism has been produced on him since 1980. Rémi Vuillemin’s timely and stimulating contribution (in French) seeks to encourage further research on a neglected but significant figure. It is the first in-depth monograph on Drayton’s sonnets, an ambitious work originally submitted as a doctoral thesis in 2011 before its publication in 2014. French theses generally tend to be wider in scope than those written in the United Kingdom or the United States, partly because both supervisors and students in the arts find it difficult to adapt to the fairly new three-year format. Second, in the case of foreign literature, the author often needs to justify why he chose to research a comparatively minor writer.

Apart from the topic stated in the title, which translates as The Petrarchan Collection in the Era of Mannerism: The Poetics of Michael Drayton’s Sonnets, the volume might be used as a general introduction not just to Drayton’s but to Elizabethan sonnets as well since it covers a vast territory, including metre. The author explains this is necessary to achieve his aim, which is a mannerist interpretation of Drayton’s sonnets, but the first part could have been condensed. The study itself is 536 pages long and followed by a helpful appendix containing the sonnets—with significant textual variants and the place of each sonnet depending on the edition— in Ideas Mirrour (1594) and Idea (1599, 1600, 1602, 1605, 1619), a lengthy bibliography (601-647) and index.

The first part presents Drayton criticism and the sonnets’ reception, the second the sonnets in the context of Renaissance love poetry, and the third the structures of Drayton’s poetics, while the fourth considers Drayton and mannerism. Each part contains several dense chapters. For instance Part 2, chapter 2 is devoted to Neo-Platonism in Ideas Mirrour, a topic in itself worthy of a doctoral thesis. The overall project is slightly misleading since only the fourth part, about 130 pages long, focuses directly on mannerism. Understandably, given its title, it concludes the book. Yet since it assesses European influences on Drayton’s sonnets, it might have been better placed at the beginning.

There is a second structural flaw. The line is too fine to draw between the second part (on the tradition of love poetry in the Renaissance), and the fourth (on wit and mannerism in Drayton’s sonnets) since both are inseparable. Love poetry was the genre par excellence of wit, since wooing depended on poetic skills. All in all, though, the four parts are certainly coherent, aside from Part 3. There the chapter on Drayton’s metre is immediately followed by one on the sonnets’ internal logic, apparently for no other reason than scale, since it is difficult to trace a clear thread between them. This is by no means a serious shortcoming since there is much to praise in every chapter.

In the introduction, Vuillemin notes that mannerism is rarely used in English literary criticism. The concept is borrowed from the history of art and was first applied to the Italian cinquecento, and more particularly to the first quarter of the sixteenth century. Baroque, a related term in French criticism, has not fared any better in English studies but has been applied to both Protestant and Catholic French writers, from d’Aubigné to Cyrano de Bergerac, since Jean Rousset’s seminal La Littérature de l’âge baroque en France. Circé et le Paon.[1]

Vuillemin’s approach is sensibly comprehensive, blending formalism with multiple strands of the historical context—literary, aesthetic, historical, social and bibliographical (111). While the author quotes Elizabethan critics like Puttenham and Peacham, he omits plays like Love’s Labour’s Lost which feature sonnets. His method owes much to close reading and this is certainly not meant negatively, since he grapples rewardingly with the intricacies of Drayton’s verse. The influence of the French critics Cécile Alduy and Daniel Maira, who have worked extensively on sixteenth-century French sonnet sequences, is proclaimed, alongside the work of Anglophone scholars like Arthur F. Marotti and Thomas P. Roche, Jr. Borrowing from the theoretical and practical results of French criticism on French literature is typical of a majority of research produced in France on foreign literature and the author is well aware of the limitations of the approach. While there are numerous connections between French and English sonnets, Petrarch’s English domestication occurred mainly through French translations and adaptations, and in a radically distinct religious context.

The first part presents Drayton’s contemporary and later reception. In his lifetime, he was hailed as the English Ovid and to Caroline poets he came to embody the golden age of Elizabethan verse. Andrew Hadfield showed in a seminal article, that unlike other aristocratic sonneteers whose verse circulated in manuscript, Drayton was vastly successful in print.[2] Due to a number of political gaffes he sometimes failed to secure patronage. Few seventeenth century manuscripts survive with copies of Drayton’s sonnets but they would have deserved at least a footnote and might have added fascinating material to the first part.

It is impossible to do justice to all the subtle readings of Drayton’s sonnets, but there are several areas in which Vuillemin is particularly convincing. In the second part, he re-examines afresh and confutes many widely accepted ideas in Drayton criticism, among them the poet’s Neo-Platonism, which is counterbalanced by strong Christian undercurrents, or Drayton’s use of the hyperbole, which proves to be a highly ambiguous figure. Throughout the book he demonstrates there was no clear progression—let alone progress—between the first edition of Idea (1599) and the last one (1619). In fact, he shows how distinct each edition is. What is often considered awkward or amateurish in Drayton’s technique is interpreted as deliberate, notably his rough verse and satirical lines, which anticipate the work of John Donne.

In the third part, Vuillemin makes fine points on the part played by ekphrasis in the reader’s understanding of the sonnets, or the circulation of printed copies of sonnets alongside manuscript ones. The most technical chapter is undoubtedly the one on Drayton’s metre, in the same part, and though it offers valuable insights, it fails to take into account both manuscript practice and the intervention of printers. He could have been more cautious in his treatment of punctuation. Some of his scansions are necessarily debatable but, as he notes himself, this is a notoriously complex subject, which far exceeds the bounds of a single chapter. Grappling with the intricacies of the sonnets allows the author to show the collections are based on no clear narrative progression. And by looking into the logic at work within each sonnet he finds they are based perhaps more on accumulatio than on logic stricto sensu.

The fourth part is the most adventurous, one whose conclusions scholars will find most difficult to accept fully. What initially appears to be a simple effort to label Drayton’s sonnets becomes more ambitious, as “mannerist” is used to define Drayton’s poetics. In this part, Vuillemin distinguishes aptly between Drayton’s and Lyly’s styles on the one hand, and Drayton’s and Donne’s on the other. He insists on the mixture of the three canonical styles—low, middle and high—in Drayton’s sonnets, and his rejection of both Ciceronian suavitas, a comfortable and sweet middle style, and decorum as advised by Castiglione’s influential treatise on the ideal courtier. Vuillemin concludes that Drayton’s style is best grasped as an outgrowth of the Caprice, an Italian and French mannerist genre characterised by the poet’s goatish whimsical imagination (as theorised by the Spaniard Juan Huarte in his Examination of mens Wits [1594]).

In the same part, the most daring comparisons are made with Arcimboldo’s trompe l’œil technique and the anamorphosis in Holbein’s “Ambassadors” double portrait. What Drayton’s sonnets and mannerist art have in common, Vuillemin claims, is a grotesque representation of the body, and more precisely, the mistress’s body. Undeniably, the sister arts may display similar concerns and these analogies make sense. Yet they cannot be entirely satisfactory for they remain too general to grasp what is unique about Drayton’s poetry. Similarly, while Drayton may have shared aspects of Montaigne’s scepticism, this is true of many other poets.

One topic which might have been more exploited in this ambitious study is Drayton’s life. Where did he live and how did he survive while he was writing and revising the collections of sonnets? Who belonged to his closest circle of friends and acquaintances? Which books did he read? It may be nearly impossible to draw connections between the sonnets’ poetics and Drayton’s milieu but it would surely be worth the effort. The sonnets are steeped in the time’s complex aesthetics and philosophy, but Drayton the poet in flesh and blood is eerily absent. This is, though, a small oversight in what remains a truly heroic enterprise, a landmark in Drayton studies, and even Elizabethan sonnet studies, whose sharp questions and thoughtful answers should fuel future debates in the field.

Guillaume Coatalen
Université de Cergy-Pontoise     


[1] (Paris, 1953).

[2] “Michael Drayton’s Brilliant Career,” Proceedings of the British Academy 25 (2003): 119-47. 

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45.1.14

Cite as:

Guillaume Coatalen , "Rémi Vuillemin, Le Recueil pétrarchiste à l’ère du maniérisme: Poétique des sonnets de Michael Drayton 1594-1619," Spenser Review 45.1.14 (Spring-Summer 2015). Accessed December 5th, 2021.
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