Saturday 13 February 2016

IN LOVE WITH THE SONNET – Elizabeth Fremantle

Anne boleyn
Valentine’s Day almost upon us, which means a plethora of gaudy scarlet gewgaws, overpriced cellophane-wrapped roses, the impossibility of booking a restaurant table for more than two people anywhere in the known universe and worst of all: bad poetry. A modern lover might be happy with a few kitsch emojis, or (perish the thought) a photograph of their beloved’s privates, but in the past expectations were higher and romance had more class and better poetry.

Tudor poet Tomas Wyatt introduced the sonnet to England during Henry VIII’s reign. Originating in Italy it was a form that became associated, more than any other, with the expression of love and particularly the forbidden or unrequited love of a man for a woman. In a sonnet the identity of the beloved is often deliberately obscured to protect her privacy, as is the case in Thomas Wyatt’s famous poem, Whoso List to Hunt, which is believed to be about the very married Anne Boleyn. There is no proof that Anne was ever Wyatt’s lover in a physical sense, and certainly not while she was married to Henry VIII, but when he wrote: 'there is written her fair neck round about,/Noli me tangere, for Caesar’s I am,' it is thought he was lamenting the fact that Anne had become the untouchable wife of Henry VIII – the Latin phrase translating as ‘touch me not’.

Lady Rich
It was sir Philip Sidney, the Elizabethan soldier poet, who wrote the first sonnet cycle in English. Astrophel and Stella, a sequence of 108 sonnets and 11 songs, is a heartrending expression of Sidney’s profoundly jealous love for Lady Rich, a woman who had once been suggested as a bride for him but had been forced into marriage with a man who would bring great wealth to her noble but impoverished family.

The poems express a sense of lovelorn masochism and Sidney reasons that in writing down his feelings, 'She might take some pleasure of my pain'. He repeatedly uses the word ‘Rich’ in his descriptions of his beloved and when he says she: 'Hath no misfortune, but that Rich she is', he makes no attempt to hide Lady Rich’s identity, which suggests his love for her was common knowledge in court circles, leaving little need for secrecy.

Secrecy though is a feature of Shakespeare’s sonnets. He experimented with the form, turning it on its head, as a large number of the sonnets in his collection are, unusually, addressed to a ‘fair youth’. The idea of the bard’s possible homosexuality has often been explained away by suggesting that the poems are written to express a platonic admiration for a benefactor, but whether or not they describe a chaste love the mystery of the person he described as ‘the master mistress of my passion’ has captivated Shakespeare scholars for centuries.

A number of sonnets in Shakespeare’s collection are addressed to a woman and in these he experiments further with the form. Traditionally a sonnet used particular tropes of fairness to describe female beauty. In his poet beginning: 'My mistress eyes are nothing like the sun', he goes on to list the ways in which the woman’s looks diverge from what was then considered beautiful. There has been much speculation about the identity of the so-called ‘Dark Lady’, but Shakespeare’s secret has never been unlocked.

Today’s young lovers are more reluctant than their sixteenth century counterparts to spill their feelings in poetic form, and are more likely to resort to a few trite lines of doggerel in a hastily bought Hallmark card. But I wonder if anyone has ever tried to write an emoji sonnet– now there’s a challenge.

Elizabeth Fremantle’s novel Watch the Lady explores the love between Lady Rich and sir Philip Sidney and takes a look at the possible identity of Shakespeare’s Dark Lady.

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