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Rémi Vuillemin, Laetitia Sansonetti and Enrica Zanin, eds., The Early Modern English Sonnet: Ever in Motion
by Melissa J. Rack

Rémi Vuillemin, Laetitia Sansonetti and Enrica Zanin, eds., The Early Modern English Sonnet: Ever in Motion. Manchester UP (The Manchester Spenser), 2020. 272 pp. ISBN:  9781526144393. £80.00. Hardcover.


This collection of nine essays explores the linguistic and material forms of the early modern English sonnet. The arguments within feature close readings based on philological and translation studies, as well as the editing, revision, publication, and readership of sonnet collections during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The authors interrogate the sonnet as a formal category, as well as the organizing structure of the sonnet sequence, tracing its formal and transnational repurposing, beginning with Wyatt and Surrey and extending well into the seventeenth century. The book attends to the verse of canonical poets (Shakespeare, Sidney, Spenser), but also interestingly foregrounds minor sonneteers whose significance is often overlooked (Samuel Daniel, Michael Drayton) and others who are perhaps less well known for their sonnets (Gabriel Harvey, Barnabe Barnes). Here are particularly strong essays by William John Kennedy and Elisabeth Chaghafi, as well as a remarkable new historical document presented (and masterfully framed) by Hugh Gazzard: a short printed poetic miscellany titled The Muses Garland (ca.1603) which contains versions of sonnets by Spenser and two poems attributed to ‘S.P.S.’ (Sir Philip Sidney). There is certainly much of interest here for Spenserians and Sidneians alike, as well as for scholars of book history, genre theory, early modern poetics, and continental literature during the Renaissance.

Editors Rémi Vuillemin, Laetitia Sansonetti, and Enrica Zanin provide a fine introduction that both critically and historically contextualises the study overall, as well as the readings within the volume. Given the authors’ focus on the poetics of the sonnet form within the context of its material culture, these essays build on influential studies in book history like Wendy Wall’s The Imprint of Gender: Authorship and Publication in the English Renaissance and Arthur Marotti’s Manuscript, Print, and the English Renaissance Lyric. From the outset, the editors align the collection’s methodology with the emergent ‘New Formalism’, which follows Stephen Cohen’s model ‘to fulfil the promise of an historical formalism’.[1] As its name suggests, this method avows a return to traditional close readings of verse form, while also considering that form’s historical and material fashioning. This discerning lens is a fruitful approach for this collection, given the rich archival material examined here. Applications of this method to early modern literature are not without precedent, and other collections of essays have been generative as well. Mark David Rasmussen’s Renaissance Literature and its Formal Engagements, and B. Burton and E. Scott-Baumann’s The Work of Form: Poetics and Materiality in Early Modern Culture, have played a large part in this.

Formal evaluations of the sonnet in terms of its definition in context are often found in criticism and commentary within anthologies of the sonnet. Edward Hirsch and Eavan Boland’s The Making of a Sonnet: A Norton Anthology, for example, as well as Phillis Levin’s The Penguin Book of the Sonnet: 500 Years of a Classic Tradition in English, offer thoughtful insight into the sonnet’s form, as do similar critical commentaries in editions of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, such as Katherine Duncan-Jones’s Arden Shakespeare edition, Colin Burrow’s The Complete Sonnets and Poems, and more recently, Cathy Shrank and Raphael Lyne’s The Complete Poems of Shakespeare. The latter is particularly influential for this study, as many of the arguments here are aligned with Shrank and Lyne’s proposals that evaluations of form must include a better understanding of the sonnet’s historical evolution, and that such insight would support the need for a more inclusive definition  to account for less well-known authors like Barnabe Googe, George Turberville, and George Gascoigne.

The essays in this collection are usefully organised into four parts, according to the sonnet’s transcultural development, repurposing in performance, paratextual shape (independent vs. sequenced), and editing practices. The first section, ‘Shaping the sonnet, from Italy and France to England’ considers both the material production and theoretical codification of the sonnet in England, France, and Italy during the Renaissance. In Chapter 1, William J. Kennedy argues that the English sonneteers’ re-visioning of Petrarch is informed by Italian commentaries on the Canzoniere, and interestingly proposes an understanding of poetic practice itself as a form of commentary. In a chapter that would doubtless prove useful for scholars who study the sonnet’s transcultural and multimodal repurposing, Carlo Alberto Girotto, Jean-Charles Monferran, and Rémi Vuillemin follow the evolution of the sonnet form in Italian, French, and English poetic treatises as it moves from its early formalisation in Italy via Petrarch, to a more precisely delineated and nativised form in France by the Pléiades, and finally to its appropriation by English poets as a tool to illustrate the poetic qualities of the English language.

Kennedy’s essay stands out here in its intriguing proposal of commentary as an intermediary for the English poetic reception of Petrarch. His argument explains how annotated editions of Petrarch’s Rime sparse provided the English sonneteers with a model for lyric verse: a schema that allowed early modern poetry to function as critical commentary on the work of previous generations. In an intricately woven analysis which examines the sonnets of Wyatt, Surrey, Sidney, Spenser, Drayton, and Shakespeare, Kennedy proposes three movements of English Petrarchism and groups the English sonneteers accordingly in terms of reception, imitation and culmination. The jewel of this essay is Kennedy’s thoughtful reading of Sonnet 83 of the Amoretti, in which his tripartite comparative approach brings together a discussion of poetic craft, audience, and readership, revealing how Sonnet 83 offers a self-reflexive commentary on Sonnet 35.  In turn, these competing lines of lyric commentary echo the competing interpretations of Petrarch’s poetry rendered in early modern editions of his work. Kennedy’s incisive reading adeptly and lucidly moves between complex lines of intertextual commentary, demonstrating how Shakespeare and Drayton’s sonnets reflect on Sidney and Spenser’s formal variations. His essay is a delightful read, and well placed at the head of this fine collection.

The two chapters of the second section, ‘Performing the English sonnet’, unravel the complexities of the sonnet’s repurposing in performance and in its subsequent inverse translation from stage to page. This section’s focus on the concurrence of the dramatic and poetic mode, and the defining role of audience in that subsequent juxtaposition, is thought-provoking and generative. In Chapter 3, Guillaume Coatalen’s argument sheds light on how the characterisation of the sonneteer and ‘sonnet-monger’ in early modern drama point up the social and economic uses of poetry. In Chapter 4, Sophie Chiari explores the strategic repurposing of the sonnet as a dramatic representation of manuscript culture in Love’s Labour’s Lost and in its subsequent recasting on the page in the publication of William Jaggard’s The Passionate Pilgrim. Chiari asserts that Love’s Labour’s Lost offers up commentary on poetic reception by foregrounding the misappropriation and misinterpretation of the sonnet form, thus dramatising the way poetry escapes authorial mastery and, in public consumption, becomes part of what she terms a ‘collaborative poetics’.

The third section, ‘Placing the sonnet: Sonnets isolated or sequenced’, considers the significance of the form’s arrangement, with an emphasis on poems often excluded from critical discussion, oddly placed, autonomous, associated with non-sequenced collections, or composed by sonneteers whose work is largely understudied. In Chapter 5, Chris Stamatakis begins this inquiry with the suggestion that the sonnet is a form that self-presents as independent, self-enclosed, and singular. His reading considers the sonnet as a stand-alone rather than a sequenced form. In addition, he argues, the sonnet’s self-referential nature works to foreground the Englishness of its poetic attributes. In Chapter 6, Elisabeth Chaghafi presents another reading that considers the sonnet in an unusual context – as an accompaniment to a prose pamphlet – specifically Gabriel Harvey’s Foure Letters and Certaine Sonnets (1592), a text that played a key role in the quarrel between Thomas Nashe and the Harvey brothers. The function of these sonnets, Chaghafi argues, is for Harvey to demonstrate the ability to temper his own passions via his writing style, and hence compensate for the aggressive tone of the Foure Letters. Similarly, Chapter 7 also considers texts that are affiliated with the Harvey-Nashe controversy: Barnabe Barnes’s two sonnet sequences, Parthenophil and Parthenophe (1593) and A Divine Centurie of Spirituall Sonnets (1595). Here, Rémi Vuillemin demonstrates how the logic of reordering, annotation, and what he terms ‘retrospective patterning’ sheds light on the thematic exchanges between separate sonnet sequences.

Chaghafi’s essay on Gabriel Harvey’s Foure Letters and Certaine Sonnets (1592) is worth mentioning here. Her analysis traces how ‘Certaine Sonnets’ self-reflexively engages with the text that precedes it, and her study is notable in both its subject and framing. The Foure Letters are remembered primarily as the pamphlet which first incited the Harvey-Nashe quarrel and prompted Nashe’s response with Strange Newes (1592). Due in part to this dramatic lure, critical attention has mostly been given to the letters, particularly as ‘Certaine Sonnets’ are rather lacking in aesthetic virtues. Chaghafi acknowledges these shortcomings in a highly entertaining explication comparing Harvey and Spenser’s employment of the rhyme ‘self / elfe’. What she underscores is that it is precisely Harvey’s lack of lyrical prowess that makes his choice of form an unusual one. To complicate matters, the text of Foure Letters closes with a sonnet written by Spenser (for a separate occasion), and its presence casts more than a bit of shade on Harvey’s challenges as a lyricist. At the same time, it is these challenges, as well as the placement of the Spenser sonnet in the text as a literary and moral character reference, that Chaghafi argues comprise Harvey’s attempts to strategically re-cast himself in a more positive (and temperate) light. ‘Certaine Sonnets’, then, are Harvey’s attempt to demonstrate the validity of Spenser’s character reference in the Spenser-sonnet by shaping his message in a Spenserian manner.

Part four, ‘Editing the sonnet’, addresses modern editing practices from different points of view. Hugh Gazzard provides new insight into the verse miscellany – its contents, format, printing, and publication – in an introduction to and diplomatic edition of a fragment of a verse miscellany called ‘The Muses Garland’ (ca.1603). The text features two otherwise unrecorded sonnets by ‘S.P.S.’ and, as Gazzard explains, ‘It offers new witnesses to known works by Spenser [;] presents several poems … by Robert Devereux, second Earl of Essex[;] and gives a new text of part of a poem possibly by him. It [also] tells us interesting things about the production and character of printed verse miscellanies’ (143). Gazzard’s discussion is centred on miscellanies during the 1590s, following the publication of the Sidney oeuvre, and his narrative regarding the social nuances of the genre and its elite coterie of aristocratic readers explains how miscellanies are consistently framed with compliments to their audience on the virtues of refinement and gentility, as well as  commendations for their principal poets that both glamourise and congratulate them. The Muses Garland, he explains ‘offers a concentrated representation of the pleasures and, potently, pains of courtship, courtiership and courtly life’ (149). His essay includes images of the verse miscellany fragment, which is also digitised and available online.

There is much here to consider regarding the revision, editing, publication, readership, and overall materiality of the early modern sonnet. In the final chapter, Andrew Eastman shifts the focus to contemporary the editing practices of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, expounding on the potential dangers of interrupting their continuity – although not in a narrative sense. Eastman’s reading focuses on the punctuation and syntax to show that the continuity of the Sonnets is based not on narrativity, but on the rhythm, or ‘sound continuum’ of the sequence. He invokes Henri Meschonnic’s theory of rhythm to reconsider the contentious notion of unity in Shakespeare’s Sonnets. This issue of editorial interruption, Eastman suggests, points up the necessity of reevaluating editorial approaches to the 1609 Quarto. His reading is smart, innovative, and persuasive – a satisfying closing to this collection.

This remarkable volume is a fine addition to the current body of scholarship on the sonnet form. Scholars of English lyric would benefit from a look at this volume, as would those who have especial interest in the structure and material production of early modern verse miscellanies. Spenserians will find the chapters by Kennedy, Chaghafi and Gazzard of particular interest; Kennedy’s readings of the Amoretti are especially perceptive, and Chaghafi’s essay sheds new light on the Spenser-Harvey friendship, including a fine formal analysis of Spenserian (and Harvey-an) stylistic idiosyncrasies. Likewise, Gazzard’s document is an essential read for Sidney scholars, as it presents newly discovered poems that are labeled S.P.S. (Sir Philip Sidney).

This collection has many strengths, not the least of which is its editing. These essays are thoughtfully chosen and aligned in both methodology and objective, and the volume includes chapters about editing – indicating that the editors themselves have reflected at length on the practice. Although a discussion of lyric smallness, the relationship between the sonnet and the epigram, or the mediation of Petrarchism via continental sources does not seem complete without at least a passing mention of Catullus and his sixteenth-century imitators, but that absence merely underscores the fact that there is still much work to be done on the role of continental Neo-Latin literature in shaping the English reception and imitation of classical poetic form. Overall, this book provides invaluable insight into the structure of sonnet sequencing, as well as the relationship between the English sonnet and its continental sources, the latter a labyrinthine web of social, political, and intertextual connections that we are perhaps only in the early stages of mapping.  


Melissa J. Rack

University of South Carolina, Salkehatchie


[1] See S. Cohen, ‘Introduction’, in S. Cohen (ed.), Shakespeare and Historical Formalism (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007), pp. 1–27, esp. 2-3. Also see M. Levinson, ‘What Is New Formalism?’, and B. Burton and E. Scott-Baumann, The Work of Form.


  • Law Offices of Durham and Ng 4 months, 1 week ago

    The arguments within feature close readings based on philological and translation studies, as well as the editing, revision, publication, and readership of sonnet collections during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

    Link / Reply
  • Mississauga Mobile Truck Repair 4 months, 1 week ago

    This collection of nine essays explores the linguistic and material forms of the early modern English sonnet.

    Link / Reply

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Cite as:

Melissa J. Rack, "Rémi Vuillemin, Laetitia Sansonetti and Enrica Zanin, eds., The Early Modern English Sonnet: Ever in Motion," Spenser Review 51.2.9 (Spring-Summer 2021). Accessed April 17th, 2024.
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