- Constructing Sonnet Sequences in the Late Middle Ages and Renaissance: A Study of Six Poets by Danijela Kambasković-Sawers
This book undoubtedly meets the single criterion that the Edwin Mellen Press says it applies to its publications: 'So Mellen's ONLY concern is what new idea an author intends "to contribute to scholarship"' (see http://www.mellenpress.com/newsteps.cfm). The new idea in Constructing Sonnet Sequences consists in establishing the 'ambiguous, polyvalent characterisation of the first-person voice' (p. 289) in sonnet sequences by Petrarch, Sidney, Spenser, Drayton, Daniel, and Shakespeare. The book argues that this 'splintered identification' produces the reader's involvement with the characters and his or her perception of the sequences as integral works. The analyses and arguments put forward ultimately support the presence of 'novelistic thinking' in the sonnets, as a prelude to the historical development of the novel as a dominant literary form. [End Page 257]
Constructing Sonnet Sequences draws on an impressive depth of scholarship, ranging across medieval and Renaissance literature, and including substantial forays into the Roman poets, especially Ovid, and further back to the Bible and Plato. Comparisons between Dante's La Vita Nuova and Petrarch's Il Canzoniere testify to Kambaskovic-Sawers's understanding of European cultural origins, as does a lengthy bibliography and a helpful index of subjects and authors. In addition, the arguments adumbrated in the Introduction and applied in analysis show a wide acquaintance with contemporary theory, including narratology, reader response, Bakhtinian, and feminist theory. Notions of the 'subtext', and 'self-fictionalisation', alternatively named 'characterisation' or 'autopoetics', are frequent reference points.
Some features of the book may nevertheless limit its value for students and readers of Renaissance poetry. The first concerns the treatment of the sonnet sequences and their genesis. The second concerns readability.
That the representative sonnet sequences selected for analysis contain sub-textual or broken stories that are possibly autobiographical has long been recognized. Innovation in the present argument therefore hinges on identifying the fluctuating characterization of the speakers and addressees in the sequences as 'novelistic'. This is a difficult project given the complex identities that Renaissance writers like Sidney, Spenser, and Shakespeare produce in their other poetry, prose, and/or plays, without any predictive knowledge of the novel form. In other words, an alternative theory, grounded in the period of writing, and unrelated to the novel genre, is available to explain many of the literary phenomena that the book describes.
Some of the specific connections drawn with earlier literature are similarly problematic, in that the references in the poems seem to be either general cultural reflections or more readily relatable to contemporary works, sometimes by the same author. For example, in support of the true observation that 'Shakespeare's self-reflexive idolatries use complex imagery', the argument quotes from Sonnet 121: 'No, I am that I am, and they that level | At my abuses, reckon up their own', and comments: 'At times the speaker describes himself in the words God used to describe himself to Moses' (p. 265). However, Edmund in King Lear expresses similar defiance in similar terms: 'I should have been that I am had the maidenliest star in the firmament twinkled on my bastardising' (i. 2. 130-32), so here we are probably dealing with an ensconced cultural memory if not an artefact of the language itself.
Similarly, it is a struggle to understand how Socrates' words to Agathon quoted from the Symposium 196c illuminate Shakespeare's Sonnet 33, 'where the gazing speaker appears in a judging role and rebukes the addressee for an offence even as he allows for it' (p. 211). Again, the language of contemporary [End Page 258] criticism betrays its incongruity, when the immortality in poetry promised to the young man in the closing couplet to Sonnet 18: 'Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?', is described as 'never leav[ing] the focus of the social gaze' (p. 210). To...