Courtly Love and The Sonnet Hand-out 01/26/2011
While none of the sonnets below will be on the exam, this hand-out is intended to give students an idea of the origins of the sonnet. A modern or contemporary sonnet or something that calls itself a sonnet (because it is being used ironically) will be on the exam. You will be asked to interpret it. That is in the essay part of the exam--worth 30 points. A modern or contemporary sonnet will differ from these old ones, but it will still have some things in common.
So here is a copy of the handout:
Marriages between nobles were always arranged. Courtly love was also a reaction to the Church, which portrayed women as temptresses, incarnations of Eve, and the woman responsible for the fall. The Virgin Mary represents divine womanhood, a standard no woman could possibly achieve.
The knight serves his lady, obeying her every command. She is in complete control. He owes her his complete obedience. The knight’s love for the lady ennobles him. Because of her, he can perform valorous deeds. Even if the lady does not love him back, the very fact that he loves this lady makes him a better man.
Five Main Attributes of Courtly Love
1. The participants must be aristocrats.
2. There are various rituals and elaborate conventions of etiquette. The knight writes songs and poems for her. He gives her flowers, jewelry, and anything else. In turn, she often reproaches him. She is in charge of the relationship. He is her servant.
3. The relationship is secret, except perhaps for a few confidantes and go-betweens.
4. The relationship is adulterous. She is married. He usually is not.
5. It is literary. The troubadours wrote songs about it.
A few thoughts from C. S. Lewis’ The Four Loves:
There are four types of love:
1. Affection: often for the sub-human but for some people as well
2. Friendship: a select group of people
3. Eros: Romantic love
4. Charity: the kind of love that we are supposed to have for God—unconditional, obedient, and expecting nothing in return.
“Divine love is Gift-Love” (11). Lewis calls this “agape”—the kind of love that God gives to the humans that he created. It is complete and unconditional. Humans can never achieve that level of love but that they should strive toward it.
Another way to look at Gift Love is as “that love which moves a man to work and plan and save for the future well-being of his family” (11).
In terms of love for that special “other,” Gift love is “really God-like; and among our Gift-Loves those are most God-like which are most boundless and unwearied in giving. All the things the poets say about them are true. Their joy, their energy, their patience, their readiness to forgive, their desire for the good of the beloved ….those who love greatly are ‘near’ to God. But of course it is ‘nearness by likeness.’ It will not of itself produce nearness of approach… Meanwhile, however, the likeness is a splendor. That is why we may mistake Like for Same. We may give our human loves the unconditional allegiance which we owe only to God. Then they become gods; then they become demons. Then they will destroy us, and also destroy themselves. For natural loves that are allowed to become gods do not remain loves. They are still called so, but can become in fact complicated forms of hatred” (19-20).
Need-love arises from the fact that we are born as helpless infants, totally depending on an adult’s care. Some deem it as ‘selfish,’ but it is not, for we need it in order to survive (12-14). Need-loves are usually “not set up to be gods. They are not near enough (in likeness) to God” (20).
“Need-love cries…from our poverty; Gift-Love longs to serve, or even suffer….Need-Love says of a woman, ‘I cannot live without her’; Gift-Love longs to give her happiness, comfort, protection—if possible, wealth; appreciative Love gazes and holds its breath and is silent, rejoices that such a wonder should exist if not for him, will not be wholly dejected by losing her, would rather have it so than never to have seen her at all” (33).
Eros begins with “a delighted preoccupation with the Beloved—a general, unspecified preoccupation for her in her totality. A man in this state really hasn’t the leisure to think of sex. He is too busy thinking of a person. The fact that she is a woman is far less important than the fact that she is herself. He is full of desire, but the desire may not be sexually toned. If you asked him what he wanted, the true reply would often be, ‘to go on thinking of her.’ He is love’s contemplative” (133-134).
Eros makes a man not just want a woman, but want a particular woman (135). Eros “obliterate[s] the distinction
between giving and receiving” (137). Eros means that the lovers are willing to make sacrifices for the benefit of the other.
The biggest danger is “that of a soul-destroying surrender to the senses” (137). In other words, we start viewing the beloved as divine. “When natural things look divine, the demoniac is just around the corner’ (144-145). The big danger with being in love is that it turns love into a religion. Humans are temporal beings.
Ever tried to break up a friend’s destructive relationship? It’s hard. “For it is the very mark of Eros that when he is in us we had rather share unhappiness with the Beloved than be happy on any other terms” (150).
The Italian sonnets differ from English sonnets, not only in rhyme scheme and stanza design, but also in terms of narrators, audience, point-of-view, types of conceits, and humanist. Also, look at the specific diction and syntax.
Petrarch Sonnet #3
It was the morning of that blessed day 1
Whereon the Sun in pity veiled his glare 2
For the Lord’s agony, that, unaware, 3
I fell captive, Lady, to the sway 4
Of your swift eyes: that seemed no time to stay 5
The strokes of Love: I stepped into the snare 6
Secure, with no suspicion: then, and there 7
I found my cue in man’s most tragic play. 8
Love caught me naked to his shaft, his sheaf, 9
The entrance for his ambush and surprise 10
Against the heart wide open through the eyes, 11
The constant gate and fountain of my grief: 12
How craven so to strike me stricken so, 13
Yet from you fully armed concealed his bow! 14
 In Sonnet 211 Petrarch gives the date as April 6, 1327, a Monday. Here too the day is apparently intended to be the day of Christ’s death (April 6) rather than Good Friday, 1327.
 The image of the eyes as the gateway to the heart had been a poetic common-place since pre-Dante days.
 With grief on commemorating the Passion of Christ.
Petrarch’s Sonnet #61
Blest be the day, and blest the month and year, 1
Season and hour and very moment blest, 2
The lovely land and place where first possessed 3
By two pure eyes I found me prisoner; 4
And blest the first sweet pain, the first most dear, 5
Which burnt my heart when Love came in as guest; 6
And blest the bow, the shafts which shook my breast, 7
And even the wounds which Love delivered there. 8
Blest be the words and voices which filled the grove 9
And glen with echoes of my lady’s name; 10
The sighs, the tears, the fierce despair of love; 11
And blest the sonnet-sources of my fame; 12
And blest that thought of thoughts which is her own, 13
Of her, her only, of herself alone! 14
1. In the first stanza (lines 1-4), Petrarch repeats the word “blest.” How is that word a conceit?
2. One thing to note: Petrarch often uses eyes because they are “the windows to the soul.” They are the place where love enters and invades the heart. Explain the metaphor of the “blest” as it is juxtaposed against the lover’s status as “prisoner.”
3. Fire and water purify. And Petrarch uses fire. How else does he use fire?
4. What does the story of Echo and Narcissus have to do with this poem?
5. In what ways is this poem emblematic of courtly love? Explain.
Petrarch Sonnet #90
She used to let her golden hair fly free 1
For the wind to toy and tangle and molest; 2
Her eyes were brighter than the radiant west. 3
(Seldom they shine so now.) I used to see 4
Pity look out of those deep eyes on me. 5
(“It was false pity,” you would now protest.) 6
I had love’s tinder heaped within my breast; 7
What wonder that the flame burned furiously? 8
She did not walk in any mortal way, 9
But with angelic progress; when she spoke, 10
Unearthly voices sang in unison. 11
She seemed divine among the dreary folk 12
Of earth. You say she is not so today? 13
Well, though the bow’s unbent, the wound bleeds on. 14
Shakespeare’s Sonnet # 20
A woman’s face with Nature’s own hand painted 1
Hast thou, the master-mistress of my passion; 2
A woman’s gentle heart, but not acquainted 3
With shifting change, as is false women’s fashion; 4
An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling, 5 (rolling means straying)
Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth; 6
A man in hue, all hues controlling, 7
Which steals men’s eyes and women’s souls amazeth. 8
And for a woman wert thou first created, 9
Till Nature, as she wrought thee, fell a-doting, 10
And by addition me of thee defeated, 11
By adding one thing to my purpose nothing. 12
But since she pricked thee out for women’s pleasure, 13
Mine be thy love and thy love’s use their treasure. 14
1. What aspects of courtly love can be seen in this poem? Explain—using lines and words.
2. List at least two conceits and explain why they are conceits.
3. What Biblical or mythical allusions are there? Explain.
4. What words are reminiscent of a Petrarchan sonnet? E xplain.
5. Which words are ambiguous? Explain the ambiguity.
Shakespeare’s Sonnet # 130
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun; 1
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red; 2
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun; 3
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head. 4
I have seen roses damasked, red and white, 5
But no such roses see I in her cheeks; 6
And in some perfumes is there more delight 7
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks. 8
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know 9
That music hath a far more pleasing sound. 10
I grant I never saw a goddess go; 11
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground. 12
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare 13
As any she belied with false compare. 14
1. How is Shakespeare turning the Petrarchan sonnet upside-down?
2. Why do you think he is doing this?
3. Which words are ambiguous? Explain the ambiguity.