Renaissance Poetry Essay, Research Paper
Renaissance ideas of women were strongly shaped by the writers of the time and by the conceptions of femininity that had existed since the Middle Ages. No one more strongly affected the early Renaissance idea of what a woman was than Petrarch, he idealized women and heterosexual love in such a way that its power would resonate into love as we see it now.
Love for Petrarch was something that was ideal and perfect, held firmly above man in the heavens, yet at the same time it meant anguish and the lack of connection with any real human emotion. He portrayed women as ideals, with stars in their eyes and their feet treading on golden ground. His ideal woman was so far removed from a real person that it was no wonder Shakespeare was to mock it in one of his most famous sonnet’s.
However more important criticism of the Petrarchan ideal of femininity came from the women writers of the Renaissance because they fully addressed not only the absurdity of the Petrarchan woman but also the desperation of the true Renaissance woman. Writers like Mary Sidney refuted the ideal of Petrarch and retold it to reflect the true suffering that the real woman of the Renaissance was faced with, a life that was weighted down with the chains of an abusive patriarchal society.
The difficulty that female writers faced cannot be understated. As Wendy Wall states, “When women wrote, privately or publicly, they had to confront forms and figures that alienated them from the position of speaking subject.” This difficulty was perhaps the most profound in terms of their ability to set up a counter idea to the Petrarchan ideal woman. Silencing them ensured that males could define what it meant to be a woman, and Petrarch ensured that there was a dominant tradition to counteract any redefinition on the part of women writers.
Petrarch sets up for the reader the masthead of the patriarchal society, a woman who is the virgin ideal. Pure and perfect enough to inhabit the world of fantasy that made up his ideal of love, she is a goddess on earth. He does so through his use of superfluous language and rich images of decadence, women become pieces of art to be eaten with only the senses.
There is perhaps no better example of this than the sonnet number ninety from the Canzoniere. In this piece we are given the description of Petrarch’s desire that is a perfect rendering of his objectification of women.
She’d let her gold hair flow free in the breeze
that whirled it into thousands of sweet knots,
and lovely light would burn beyond all measure
in those fair eyes whose light is dimmer now.
Her hair and everything about her is rendered in terms that are beyond what any ordinary human could be presumed to possess.
While it can be argued that Petrarch is simply describing blond hair with the word “gold”, one must look at the continued reference to gold or brightness which things such as precious metals and sun contain. Through the use of gold she too becomes precious and commodified. For Petrarch she is a glistening jewel to be cherished.
Nature has played its part in creating her and Petrarch seems to state that nature is behind her continued beauty as well. The wind itself helps to enhance her beauty and her connection to the earth comes through this beauty and not by the same means as it would for a man.
By using the images of the wind tying her hair into “sweet knots” Petrarch is also entering the idea that nature itself supports the placing of women on pedestals. If the wind would take special care to treat her hair differently than others, then there must be something about her that is particularly special or worthy of praise. This is a clever way of sanctifying the idealized woman, because if nature itself reveres women in this way then obviously his use of women as ideal objects is justified. Petrarch understands this and thus the inclusion of nature as a beautifying force is useful in legitimizing the ideal woman.
The effect of Petrarch’s idealization of women is to render them unable to converse with men on an equal level. Equality is something that in theory is held dear to the Renaissance, “Being equals, women can participate with me in the sacred friendship that men of honor have always held dear in the Renaissance pastoral.” The removal of this equality hinders the dialogue and relationship that women can have with men and thus while Petrarch seemingly glorifies women, the effect of his glorification renders them impotent in the real world.
Petrarch further separates himself and his affection by deifying the woman even further at the close of the poem.
The way she walked was not the way of mortals
but of angelic forms, and when she spoke 10
more than an earthy voice it was that sang:
a godly spirit and a living sun
was what I saw, and if she is not now,
my wound still bleeds, although the bow’s unbent.
The diction here repeats the effect of the earlier lines and tells the reader that Petrarch and the woman are further separated. Not only is she separated from him, she is also separated from what is left of her own body because her actions now mirror those of angels.
This separation of the body from the idea of what makes up a woman is important because it shows the way that women must, ” write within and against an ideologically problematic discourse, revising the representations of the female body fueled by Petrarchism that positioned them as written text rather than writing subject.”
However women thought of themselves as capable of writing from the position of subject in the Renaissance and of poetry as a feminine activity, and as Anne Southwall says in a letter to the Lady Ridgway, ” being thus poetically composed; How can you bee at unitye with your self, & at oddes wth your owne composition “.
However the idea that women could be composed of poetry can also be assumed from the Petrarchan sonnet we have examined. What we must realize is that women could only really be conceived out of a poetry that was their own. A poetry in which they had created and fleshed out their existence in words which were controlled by them and not by another male influence such as Petrarch. Thus when we read that women are composed of poetry we should interpret it as an affirmation of their ability to control their own words and their own body.
That is what most profoundly separates the female writers of the Renaissance from their male counterparts, they strove to dissect their own selves from the idealized Petrarchan women. They were not goddesses but real people, and in their writings this point is made over and over as they strive to understand what has placed them in the duality of either Virgin or Sinner.
Mary Sidney’s work was for me the most powerful reflection of this because it relied on rethinking the way in which the Petrarchan works examined and defined women. Instead of just reacting to those ideas within the duality of the debate on gender, Sidney reframes the way in which the reader sees women by placing the focal point of the work on women’s emotional response and physical place within the patriarchy. She is effective in subverting the ideas of Petrarch because she not only directly opposes Petrarch on the surface level but also because she opens up a new realm of discourse; leaving the reader open to several possibilities that might have otherwise been excluded from merely a direct statement against Petrarch.
One of her works that strikes me as being most against the Petrarchan ideal of Love is the poem titled “Endless Torments”. On the surface it appears to be a work about the loss of a lover or getting past a relationship that has ended, but when we take a more careful look at the piece we can see that it has undertones which register far deeper.
You endless torments that my rest oppress,
How long will you delight in my sad pain?
Will never Love your favor more express?
Shall I still live, and ever feel disdain?
Something that becomes important in my analysis of these particular lines that begin the work is the way in which the word “Love” is capitalized.
This is important because it signifies that the words here are meant to signify grander ideas, love becomes instead “Love” which I read as relating to the Petrarchan ideal of what love is. Therefore when we look at the poem we are given an immediate clue as to what we should begin to think about in relation to the word “Love”.
Yet this is just a cue to the reader that the following work will be about more than the surface story. “You endless torments that my rest oppress,” tells the reader that Sidney is speaking against that which oppresses all women. “My rest” can mean “the rest of those like me”, if we look at Sidney as the voice of womankind in this poem. Again here we see that she is addressing not simply her own issues but the greater problems that all women face.
The way in which the first four lines are constructed seems to be important as well. Margaret P. Hannay places importance on the structure within Sidney’s works and feels that she often unclouds her meaning through the works structural components. The first declarative statement followed by three questions shows the speakers despair in the situation, instead of waiting to answer the question or waiting for the questioned to answer, the speaker simply continues forward.
This opening builds so much pain into the beginning of the poem that it is very effective in engaging the reader. The tone of the lines also is interesting because each question asks only for a time frame or end to the current behavior, it in no way questions the existence of such actions. It would seem that the fact that something terrible would have been continually occurring is implied, although the reader is left without any reasons as to why this should be so.
Already the vision of Love that is created by Sidney is in stark opposition to that vision of which Petrarch speaks. The speaker here in facts questions what the actions of the lover have to do with “Love” when they cause so much pain. “Will never Love your favor more express” pleas with the other to be more like the great ideal of love that has been so expressed and so often forgotten.
When we compare this to Petrarchan ideals of the women building such a fire of love that it is impossible to ignore, “and I with all love’s tinder in my breast+/it’s no surprise I quickly caught on fire” we can immediately see the origins of Sidney’s disdain for “Love”. She is critiquing the ideal of “Love” that allows women to objectified and thus treated in the poor manner that the speaker has observed.
The second four lines become a plea for the receiver of the lines to stay. This can be read as a plea to the lover who has hurt her, the first layer which the poem seems to be addressing. However they seem to me to address the reader also and ask them for some opportunity to be heard,
Alas now stay, and let my grief obtain
Some end; feed not my heart with sharp distress.
Let me once see my cruel fortunes gain
At least release, and long-felt woes redress.
The Speaker wishes to redress the pain that she feels has been inflicted upon her and the only way that she can do so is to appeal to the outside world.
This is powerful because it shows how important poetry is in defining the sense of self. The only outlet that the speaker feels she has is the pen, and the only people to whom she can go to for help are those who can in fact not help her, only read what she has recorded. This continues the pain that we see so much in the first four lines, and further degrades the capability of “Love” to render any sort of happiness for women.
In fact what Sidney portrays is the real outcome of love, what happens when the ideal is evoked. Yet there is another reading to the last lines of the work which make me wonder if perhaps the ending does not work on a different level.
Let not the blame of cruelty disgrace
The honored title of your god-head, Love:
Give not just cause for me to stay, a place
Is found for rage alone one me to move.
O quickly end, and do not long debate
My needful aid, lest help do come too late.
Word like “god-head”, and the phrase “quickly end” make me wonder if perhaps the speaker is also speaking of a sexual act that for her has been unfulfilling. R.E. Pritchard says of Sidney’s general use of bawdy that, ” the language of her time certainly had such connotations, presumably present in her mind at some level ” Which can lead the reader to question if perhaps there is a third layer to her work which questions the consummation of a relationship as a form of “Love”.
However it seems that the more important reading comes not from the sexual meanings that might lie under the surface layers but instead in the way in which Sidney has ended her work in query that the receiver “quickly end” what he has been putting forth as “Love”.
For me this subject becomes Petrarchan Ideal Love and those who would purport it as real love. The poem is an ardent cry to the reader, which creates another framework beyond that of a response by pulling the reader into the work and making them in some ways a focal point of the pleas and questions that are being addressed.
“Love” for Sidney is something that needs to be addressed and turned into a concept for women. In “Endless Torments” she exposes the ideal as a farce, a painful ideal that destroys the true woman, and in doing so she creates another way of responding to the Petrarchan ideal.