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Petrarchan Woman in Wyatt’s and Marvell’s Poems

Renaissance poetry has become influential in many ways. While not being followed directly, it has been incorporated in many areas of art and served as a source of inspiration to several generations of poets. A great example of this is Francesco Petrarch, whose poetry of the early Renaissance was both a standard and a starting point for the poets throughout the period and onward. While credited primarily for establishing the structure and sequences of sonnets as a poetic form, of even greater interest is his thematic influence and its reflection in the poetry of later Renaissance authors.

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His image of a woman, for example, can be found in almost all writings of the period, though sometimes changed considerably, yet still unmistakably Petrarchian. While some poets, like Thomas Wyatt and Andrew Marvell, follow the themes of the chaste, unreachable, and unearthly entity rather faithfully, other poets subvert or even criticize the concept as unrealistic, unfair, and obsolete.

Thomas Wyatt, the Renaissance poet of the sixteenth century, often credited as the one who introduced the sonnet to English literature, was a faithful follower of the Petrarch’s tradition. However, despite being sometimes portrayed as “localizing” the sonnet into English, Wyatt somewhat reworked the initial standard or rather reshaped it slightly for his purposes. The Petrarch’s woman is a chaste and unattainable being, which can be grazed upon from afar but never reached.

For this reason, he often used the tropes that stress the calamities and turbulence that inevitably follow the love of such a being. He often contrasts ice and fire, light and darkness to describe the inevitable uncertainty, and his sonnets often depict the suffering and pain the protagonist feels as a result of the insurmountable barriers such as love implies. Wyatt uses the same elements in his sonnets. However, the reasons that trigger such responses are different.

While Petrarch’s woman is the eternal source of joy, with the unreachable quality being the reason for suffering, Wyatt, disillusioned with the experience from his personal life, adheres to the reasonably more pessimistic tone in his works, often citing the lust and infidelity as the reason to be scornful. This can be seen in They flee from me, in which the woman is deserting her lover in favor of novelty:

But all is turned, thorough my gentleness,

Into a strange fashion of forsaking;

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And I have leave to go, of her goodness,

And she also to use newfangleness. (16-19)

The chastity here is subverted, and the woman is seen rather as a human being with earthly desires. At the same time, some of his works, like Whoso list to hunt, align perfectly within Petrarch’s narrative, exhibiting the motives of relentless yet fruitless chase:

Yet may I, by no means, my wearied mind

Draw from the deer, but as she fleeth afore,

Fainting I follow. I leave off, therefore,

Since in a net I seek to hold the wind. (5-8)

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Therefore, Wyatt has triggered the reviewing of the obsolete medieval image of a woman as a distanced and eternally pure entity – the trend that was later followed by Marvell and, to a larger extent, Shakespeare.

Andrew Marvell is another poet who is regarded as continuing Petrarch’s tradition. Although this is mostly the case, with the majority of his poetry aligning perfectly with all of the characteristics mentioned above, there are several subtle differences. One of his most famous poems, To his Coy Mistress, can be taken as an example. In it, the protagonist expresses the fascination with the woman by going into a lengthy description of the process of praise that will suffice to give her proper credit:

An hundred years should go to praise

Thine Eyes, and on thy Forehead Gaze.

Two hundred to adore each Breast:

But thirty thousand to the rest.

An Age at least to every part,

And the last Age should show your Heart. (13-18)

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While the motive of eternity is consistent with Petrarch’s model, the over-exaggeration provided by the author may indeed bear irony. This gets further confirmed by the lines

But at my back I always hear

Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near; (21-22)

These arguably subtly suggest that the protagonist agrees on the excessive character of the effort required. Thus, Marvell, while being faithful to the principles of early Renaissance views, still points to inconsistencies and inherent discrepancies they bear.

Perhaps the most famous instance of such criticism is Shakespeare’s poetry, specifically, his sonnet 130. It should be noted, however, that the Shakespearean poetry relies heavily on Petrarch’s standards, in both the structure and themes. Shakespearean sonnets exhibit the same motives of love: the feeling is overwhelming, with the power far exceeding that of human nature, thus placing it within the domain of heavens. The power of love and adoration is often compared to the forces of Nature to stress its absolution. The 13th sonnet takes advantage of this:

Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,

And often is his gold complexion dimmed;

And every fair from fair sometime declines,

By chance or nature’s changing course untrimmed.

But thy eternal summer shall not fade,

Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st; (5-10)

As Nature is deemed as one of the highest instances of influence, Shakespeare attributes his lover with absolute fairness, suggesting that it supersedes the humanly possible limits and attains the supreme characteristics. He also uses the parallels characteristic of Petrarch’s poetry: attributing women with characteristics that raise the beauty to the highest degree. These famously include shining and involvement of precious and valuable materials. Shakespeare’s women, much like Petrarch’s, can display such characteristics. Sonnet 55 is a good example of both:

Not marble nor the gilded monuments

Of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme;

But you shall shine more bright in these contents

Than unswept stone, besmeared with sluttish time. (1-4)

The comparison to marble again imbues the woman with supernatural longevity and fairness.

Despite the obvious similarities, Shakespeare’s poetry does not uniformly follow this pattern. He takes Marvell’s expanding strategy to a new level. This is especially characteristic of later sonnets, starting from 127th. The most prominent and well-known example is sonnet 130, as it subverts all of the Petrarch’s, as well as Shakespeare’s model discussed above. The two first lines of the sonnet are

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;

Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;

It is seen that in these two lines Shakespeare subverts the whole notion of unearthly beauty, emphasizing instead the value of the human characteristic. Thus, a Shakespearean woman is not removed from reality but intertwined with it. It exhibits other features except being an unreachable ideal, and the source of fascination and suffering, becoming an individual while at the same time pertaining all of the beauty of Petrarch’s model.

The role and image of woman established by Petrarch in the early Renaissance period were influential but has been challenged and adapted to the changing worldview of the era. Nevertheless, its importance and influence cannot be underestimated, as it helped to shape the finest examples of poetry.

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