- Sonnet Sequences and Social Distinction in Renaissance England
Christopher Warley argues that an important attribute of English Renaissance sonnet sequences is their ability to articulate "a series of social and linguistic contradictions" (5) such that "the process of social differentiation in these works helps to form the very idea of class as a unique process of social distinction" (14). In his highly researched and occasionally difficult work, he argues that the sequence, with its indeterminacy of form, gendered discourse, and competing narrative and lyric voices, encodes the speaker's struggle for poetic authority and social distinction. The habitus of each speaker reflects the way in which his desired "noble imaginary" or "idealized social order" is undermined by "the language and conceptual apparatus used to reinforce that order" (6). For Warley, "class" is "a unique process of social differentiation" (3), and the speaker, caught up as he is in the contradictory demands of his situation, may not even be aware of the process underlying it.
In the first two chapters, Warley draws upon writers such as Robert Brenner, Pierre Bourdieu, Frederic Jameson, Mary Poovey, and Michael McKeon for his theoretical framework. Chapter 2 traces the history of sonnet criticism, revealing how the critical apparatus used by modern critics of sonnet sequences is inherited from the nineteenth and early twentieth century; during this period, the lyric, individualized speaker-lover gave way to the much-maligned, highly imitative professional writer seeking patronage through publication. Warley states that both critical trends were more related to class issues than to literary analysis of the sequence, and he suggests that New Historicist emphasis on political subtexts in [End Page 962] sequences and feminist focus on Petrarchan blazons are still caught up in earlier conceptual frameworks.
Discussion of the sequences of Anne Lok, Sir Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, and Michael Drayton make up the remaining chapters. Warley shows how the particular social positions of each writer influence the nature of the respective speakers. The "noble imaginary" sought by each is also key to understanding the underlying social processes. Warley starts with Anne Lok's sequence, despite its publication in 1560 (before sonnet sequences became popular), in part because it is non-Petrarchan and, despite its authorship, it has a male speaker (the voice of David). Here lyric authority, situated in the sequence's grounding in Psalm 51, is at odds with the enabling power (political authority) of Elizabeth. So, too, the private interpreter of biblical text, the lyric I, is both undermined and enabled by the narrative of the coming of the New Jerusalem — Elizabeth's reestablishment of the Protestant faith — resulting in a social distinction "entailed in the circulation of commodified declarations of sin" (70).
In each chapter Warley sees the speaker as navigating between the narrative of which he is a part and the lyric voice by which he attempts to control his situation. The mercantile and gendered language used by the speaker reveals his attempts to create stability within the context of destabilizing social and economic influences, what Warley calls "the socially mutable effects of exchange" (175). Astrophil's desire for Stella reveals the gap between status (nobility) and wealth (the emergent class). Spenser's speaker desires "old English" status but is aligned with the new social order created by Elizabeth's colonialist strategy (reflecting Spenser's own situation). Shakespeare's sequence is especially significant in that the speaker genders the conflict between the "noble imaginary" (the young man) and the uncontrollable and unstable market forces (the dark lady). Finally, Drayton's Idea marks a culmination point, while its many revisions reveal the process by which the speaker absorbs narrative into lyric and creates a different "noble imaginary" — a poetic authority grounded in the "English straine" of the 1619 prefatory sonnet. According to Warley, "in claiming changeableness and fashion for himself," Drayton genders social mutability as masculine. This marks an endpoint in that class, "as a mode of producing social distinction, increasingly becomes gendered male" (175).