"No public glory vainly I pursue":
The Paradox of Printing Sonneteers

Kris McAbee

Some Athiest or vile Infidel in love,
When I do speak of thy divinity,
May blaspheme thus, and say, I flatter thee:
And only write, my skill in verse to prove.

-- Michael Drayton, Idea's Mirrour, Amour 12


     1. Only "some Athiest or vile Infidel in love" would doubt the divinity of the sonneteer's beloved or the authenticity of his feelings -- at least according to the twelfth sonnet of Michael Drayton's 1594 Idea's Mirrour. Who are these blasphemers? By the 1599 edition, entitled simply Idea, the sonneteer more softly labels such faultfinders as merely "misbelieving and prophane in love." On first publication, Idea's Mirrour was publically lambasted and most scholars agree that Drayton's revisions were a direct reaction to its negative public reception.1 Of the critiques that survive, Sir John Davies's In Decium (and probably the satirical Gullinge Sonnets, too) mock Drayton's conceits, while Joseph Hall's Virgidemiae criticizes everything from his hyperbolic language and metaphysical imagery to his plagiaristic imitation of Petrarch and Sidney.2 The particular revision from "Atheist or vile infidel" to "misbelieving and prophane" responds to some of the criticism of Drayton's overburdened conceits and irregular meter. What the revised sonnet loses in vitriol, it gains in concision and melody. Yet, the fact that the gentler terms also soften Drayton's retort to his detractors draws attention to the reality that such "misbelievers" actually exist and can be named by the time of his 1599 revision: now, critics like Davies and Hall are no "vile Infidels," but merely "prophane in love." However, at the time Drayton was writing the 1594 edition of Idea's Mirrour (which bears all the marks of being hurriedly assembled in the flurry to compose a sonnet sequence in the years immediately following Sidney's Astrophil and Stella), no such critics of the as-yet-unread sequence exist. Nonetheless, when he predicts that some "vile Infidel" may mock his writing, the sonneteer assumes an a priori critical audience against which he posits his selfhood (defined as lover).

     2. This essay argues that this sort of emphasis on individuality amidst a wider audience is a staple of sonnet culture precisely because, in defining itself against the broad populace, such a culture imagines its own community that can be understood as a public -- one which is fueled by print and which circulates widely around the image of the sonneteer. In other words, sonnet culture first imagines the public -- the public sphere that rejects, critiques, or misunderstands the efforts of the sonneteer -- and, in so imagining, defines for itself a public -- a specific subset community of relative strangers, posited against the outside world, who come together in the inspiration, composition, and circulation of sonnets among fellow poets as well as other consumers of verse. The sonneteer's emphasis on individuality, which I will show to be a sustained concern of Renaissance sonnets, ironically brings about a public of sonnet writers, patrons, and consumers, upon whom he is paradoxically dependent even as he styles himself as alien. This stylized alienation is an unique aspect of sonnet culture as public.

     3. In my conception of the public, I draw from the model of a specifically reflexive and stranger-relational public that Habermas-scholar Michael Warner defines in his collection, Publics and Counterpublics. Warner has emerged as an important figure in rethinking Habermas, particularly in respect to the idea that reflexivity shapes the creation of a public, positing "reflexive circulation of discourse" as the constitutive marker of a public.3 Discussing publics in as varied cultural phenomena as The Spectator, advertisements, and drag performances, Warner moves the discussion of public discourse beyond strategies of domination to emphasize the newness and creativity inherent in the projection of a public. For example, focusing on stranger-relationality, or the way that otherwise strangers are brought together in a public through their reflexive participation in its discourse, allows Warner to emphasize issues of style and accessibility. For a public to bring together strangers, it must circulate a shared vernacular that is accessible because it is framed as style.

     4. My identification of a public in sonnet culture is supported by Warner's theorization of publics as the creative outgrowth of reflexively circulated discourse among strangers; however, I do not see in sonnet culture the same degree of recruitment of strangers that Warner sees as paramount to a public. I suggest as an example of the vernacular-as-style phenomenon the courtly-love tropes of sonnets; although "strangers" to the court would not have access to such language in a native sense, they do access it as a typifaction. They are thus, like the strangers in Warner's theories of publics, brought together through the poetic world making of sonnets. However, sonnet culture poses a unique problem to such inclusion, since the inclusion always comes at the expense of not only those who are defined as outside the public, but also those who would be considered recruits: the central figure of sonnet culture, the sonneteer, will always style himself as alien to the very public whose consumption of sonnets he promotes. The sonneteer emblematizes the love-poet by promoting such consumption to the point of expanding the desire typified in sonnet form into a broader organization that defies generic constraints.

     5. In this way, the sonneteer emerges from the tension between the lyric persona of individual sonnets and the narrative organization of those sonnets in sequence and diffuses beyond sonnets themselves to become a diffusive cultural construct that typifies poetic production. Although the epideictic and panegyric qualities of sonnets overlap with the interests of other contemporaneous lyric forms (such as odes), sonnets posit a unique subjectivity and sense of an interior self, a much-noted critical insight that I discuss in more detail below. I argue that this subject, delineated as a poet-lover, diffuses beyond sonnets themselves in the cultural construct of the sonneteer. Sandra L. Bermann has argued that the sonnet dominated the lyric imagination in the years that followed the English sonnet vogue.4 This essay understands such dominance in terms of the lyric persona of the sonneteer as a poet-lover. Indeed, in the Renaissance, the term "sonnet" could apply to any love poem as well as to a poem of the specific fourteen-line form. Despite the relative permeability of genre, however, sonnet culture functions within what Christopher Warley calls a "pervasive yet tacit understanding of the form." He notes, "it is impossible that any contemporary reader would pick up the 1619 folio, turn to Idea, and have no idea what it was."5 As Warley's assertion suggests, within the opaque unity of sonnet culture, the understanding of the sonneteer-type is also tacit for both writers and readers. In other words, as the sonnet itself becomes the predominant mode of love poetry, the sonneteer becomes a cultural construct symbolizing the poet-lover. Yet, the sonneteer, as a function of type at odds with his own pervasiveness, resists identification with the public who guarantees his typifaction.

     6. In the case of sonnet culture, the public's reflexive discourse takes the form of direct address, assumed audience, and projected response (whether in criticism or continued sonnet production). Even as the sonneteer marks himself out as a unique identity in contrast to hoi polloi, his sonnets constantly look outward. He addresses people outside of himself, from the beloved "mistress" positioned as the reader of the sonnets (and, by metonymic displacement, all readers) to the writers of the influential texts to which he responds. Sonnet culture's public stems from its own intertextuality and the resultant social space of subjects, readers, and writers of texts that surround (and include) sonnets.

     7. Sonnets require the sustained development of an identity who figures himself at odds with a larger group -- a "misbelieving," critical readership or the "vulgar throng." This is one crucial way in which sonnets attempt to define individuality -- the loner against the outside world who does not understand him.6 Of course, the nature of the subjectivity suggested by sonnets occupies much-trodden critical ground.7 While this essay is not interested in retracing those footsteps, one might note that the very same evidence that locates in sonnets an emerging sense of an inner self -- even if perpetually fragmented and deferred8 -- also finds this emergence as posited against an outside entity. Where there is the struggle to express interiority, in other words, there is also the exterior world within which the "individual" exists. It is in the points of contact between the two that my interest lies.

     8. The points of contact between the inner self suggested by sonnets and their outside context are most immediate in the prefatory materials that envelop sonnet sequences. In the case of Idea's Mirrour, the text proper of the sequence is preceded by the frontispiece, a list of errata ("Gentle Reader correct these faults / escaped in the printing"), a dedicatory sonnet, and a prefatory sonnet about the "mirror of Idea's praise." Such introductory materials serve as exterior entry points toward finding the subject evoked inside. Penetrating through prefaces and dedicatory verse involves reading "through public casings toward a secluded interiority."9 These "public casings" acknowledge a sense of an outer world: the printer on the frontispiece, the reader on the errata, and the patron (Sir Anthony Cooke) along with textual influences (Desportes, Petrarch, and Philip Sidney) are all explicitly named on the path inside. Organized in this way, these "outsiders" or "strangers" begin to form a public in the way that Warner describes:

Indeed, a public might almost be said to be stranger-relationality in a pure form, because other ways of organizing strangers -- nations, religions, races, guilds, and so on -- have manifest positive content [i.e., they have an externally established common identity]. . . . A public, however, unites strangers through participation alone, at least in theory. Strangers come into relationship by its means, though the resulting social relationship might be peculiarly indirect and unspecifiable.10

Yet, unlike Warner's formulation of a public, the uniquely stranger-relational organization of a sonnet public brings together with Drayton, whose sonneteering persona in the sequence depends upon individuality, a number of people who are not necessarily strangers. For example, among those figures evoked in the public casings of Idea's Mirrour, Drayton was possibly acquainted with Sir Philip Sidney and Sir Anthony Cooke.11 However, the position could easily be made that many of his readers were strangers to him, as well as to these other figures. The "outsiders" addressed in the prefatory material are thus brought into full relationality with each other only in the social-realm of the text itself. The otherwise disparate groups of the sonnet sequence's public casings gather in the social world imagined by the text -- a public in which the inner self plays less of a role than the outer show.

     9. This essay, then, is concerned with the sonnet's interest in interiority specifically in so far as inward reflexivity defines an outer public. In other words, what happens when we read these uniquely inward-oriented texts from the inside-out? If we accept the indications of internal consciousness as articulated by the sonneteer and consider as well the preponderance of sonnets produced at the end of the sixteenth-century and into the seventeenth, should we not then interrogate what sort of identity publicly aggregates from the repeated signals sent out at this time and in this form of individual selfhood?

     10. In her exploration of the "inward" language uniquely identifiable in sonnet culture, Ferry notes in Renaissance texts a division of the human body "into 'outward parts,' such as limbs and features, and 'inward parts,' the organs -- including powers such as the will, which are no longer thought of anatomically." Yet, the distinction begins to blur when the outward body is figured as the agent of an "outward show," the behavior or performance of which may or may not correspond to "inward feeling."12 It would appear that what makes the outward show specifically outward, as opposed to inward, is not just the use of the physical body to accomplish the performance but also that show's dependence on the outer world -- the world outside of the self -- to receive and perceive it. These acts are outward because they do work outside of the body. They do exterior work in the world.

     11. But the distinction between inward and outward is collapsed in the case of sonnets, where the inward-oriented rhetoric is itself always already an outward show. It is this outward influence that constitutes sonnet culture and that invites the formation of a public around the supposedly "individual" sonneteer. In the first line of the first sonnet of Sidney's watershed sequence, when Astrophil proclaims, "Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show," he indicates this simple irony at the heart of the very impulse to produce romantic sonnets in late sixteenth-century England. He is desirous to outwardly show his inward desire. Indeed, as the final line of this sonnet articulates, that love and the source of his writing are inward feelings: "'Fool,' said my Muse to me, 'Look in thy heart and write.'" But the sonnet is about the difficulty of outwardly expressing what is hidden in his heart. The first line's pun on fain/feign offers contradictory readings in which he is inwardly eager and outwardly pretending, distilling this irony into a single image of the collapse of inward and outward, of private and public. The sonnet details how accomplishing the production of this type of verse is a performance that enacts looking outward; Astrophil finds himself "oft turning others' leaves," for inspiration. Nonetheless, he establishes an outsider identity in that "others' feet still seem but strangers" to him to the extent that his Muse reminds him he can only rely on himself. In this gesture toward others' works, it is his reaching out and inability to make contact (the "others" remain strangers) that defines his uniqueness before he turns inward.

     12. The accumulation of the inward/outward identities posed by and circulated through the English Renaissance's obsession with sonnets brings about a specific social world: the sonneteering public. This public stems from the self-reflexive discourse of sonnet culture in which the sonnets consistently fashion characters who identify themselves in opposition to others, thereby constructing an aggregating community of loners. The twenty-eighth sonnet in Idea's Mirrour clearly demonstrates this pattern. The first two quatrains of the sonnet employ the self-reflexive language of the poet and, like the twelfth sonnet discussed above, assume a critical audience:

Some wits there be, which like my method well,
         And say my verse runs in a lofty vein,
         Some say I have a passing pleasing strain,
         Some say that in my humor I excel;
Some, who reach not the height of my conceit,
         They say (as Poets do) I use to feign,
         And in bare words paint out my passions pain.
         Thus sundry men, their sundry minds repeat.

This sonnet outlines two factions at odds with each other: one, an abstract and broad group, consists of "sundry men" who criticize the poetic endeavor, while the other, set in opposition to the indefinable "some," consists of the poets who make up one part of the sonneteering public. Although some enjoy his verse, he speculates, others who do not fully understand his talent think he merely pretends to his passions "as Poets do." Yet even as he attempts to position himself against such censure, he implicates himself in the act of poetic affectation through the metapoetical language in which he draws attention to his role as a poet. He then closes the sonnet by insisting on the sincerity of his verse (much like Sidney's Astrophil): "I prove my verse authentic still in this, / Who writes my Mistress praise, can never write amiss." The repeated references to a public of other people, "some wits" and "sundry men," culminate in an articulation of a singular identity determined by the supposedly unique experience of writing about this particular mistress. In the context of the poem itself, the sonneteer is an other to the "sundry men" who see him as a feigning poet. The conception of an abstract community of critics defines the sonneteer as anathema to them; this is an imagined set of people who are not participant in a sonneteering public. However, this conceptual fiction is simultaneously suggestive of the very real readers who critique, respond to, and continue to fuel the production and circulation of sonnets as well as the figure of the sonneteer and who, thereby, are actually integral to sonnet culture's public.

     13. Despite the overhaul to Idea's Mirrour that Drayton executed for his Idea of 1599, the revisions to the above sonnet are minimal. However, the few changes underscore a contrast between the individual poet/lover and the reading community at large. The first two lines become: "Some men there be, which like my method well, / And do commend the strangeness of my vein" (emphasis mine). Here the shift is once again toward a broader and more amorphous reception -- from "wits" to "men" in general. When it comes to the individual speaker, however, his identity becomes more specific, more insistent on particularity. These men, he notes, enjoy not simply the "lofty" phrasing he employs, but its "strangeness." Drayton's revision emphasizes the exceptional nature of the poet's skill, which positions him as a loner. Likewise, the edits to the closing couplet stress uniqueness. In the 1594 version quoted above, anyone "who writes my mistress praise" was assured authenticity of feeling. In contrast, the 1599 version specifies the speaking "I" as the unique inheritor of such assurance: "Only my comfort still consists in this, / Writing her prayse, I cannot write amiss." While "still" intimates, on a metapoetical level, the continued process of writing and revision, the shift to the speaker as the only writer secure in the face of criticism further underscores the generality and distance from the poet of the "sundry men" against whom he defines himself. These "sundry men" alone do not constitute the sonneteering public, although they do comprise part of its imagined readership. Meanwhile, they are ironically necessary to the delineation of the character(s) delineated in the closing couplet of this sonnet as well as in the lines of many other sonnets by other writers; they thus contribute to the establishment of the figure at the center of their public -- the collective sonneteers "who write [their] mistress praise" in an attempt to maintain their own identities.

     14. Toward delineating the reflexively circulating discourse of the sonneteering public, we should more fully identify the producing figure at the center of the texts in question. Let us call this figure, whose "outward show" ever entails "inward language," the "sonneteer." The sonneteer is not synonymous with the actual historical sonnet-writer; rather, the sonneteer is a product of sonnet culture and, as such, the emblem of that culture's autotelic public. The sonneteering public is autotelic in the sense that it is internally driven and self-perpetuating. Even those motivating factors that may seem to be external forces, such as favor or fame, are internalized as part and parcel of the discourse of the sonneteering public.13 To designate the figure at the center of this public, I use the term "sonneteer," denoting the metafictional character whose traits and qualities stem from the intertextual environment of sonnets. "Sonneteer" evokes a number of associations stemming from the persona created by sonnets as well as from the surrounding cultural attitudes toward the genre itself. By the late sixteenth century -- when Drayton and approximately twenty-five other writers first published their sequences -- the sonneteer had become a cultural construct who represented a certain type: the poet-figure who works outside any given sonnet sequence as a courtly pose in games of romance, as a motivating force in literary production, as a dramatic icon of futile pursuits (e.g., in Romeo and Juliet), and as a fictionalization of actual historical figures (e.g., the Surrey character in Thomas Nashe's Unfortunate Traveler).

     15. The attributes of any given sonnet-writer are necessarily an aspect of the sonneteer but sonnet culture was such a powerful movement in the sixteenth-century that the sonnet-writer is never purely originary and the sonneteer never purely derivative. An aggregation of lyric persona and generic expectations creates the sonneteer. It is a pose that the sonnets' speakers imply the writers inhabit, but which is a literary and cultural construct distinct from the historical writer or the lyrical speaker in as much as the sonneteer contains elements of both. What I am describing is the accreted subject of a public of speakers of individual sonnets whose dialogic qualities always simultaneously point back to other such speakers and forward to those who may write in response. This figure is the emblem of the sonneteering public but is only one type of participant in the social space of that public.

     16. Through their fictional address and intertextual qualities, sonnets involve an elaborate and dilating social space consisting of readers, critics, and the writers of not only sonnets but also other types of texts that inform, respond to, and surround sonnets. This is the sonneteering public. The print history of the sonnet in England implicates a number of other texts through the variety of genres with which the first English sonnets were printed. For example, the 1557 volume known as Tottel's Miscellany is most famed for being the first example of English sonnets in print--specifically those by Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard Earl of Surrey -- although it anthologizes a variety of verse types fitting to its miscellaneous designation. Its full title, Songes and Sonettes Written By the Ryght Honorable Lord Henry Howard, late Earle of Surrey, and other, suggests the degree to which this text heralds a coming sonnet-vogue as well as the degree to which that vogue will be associated with cultural icons, such as Surrey and Wyatt. The first English sonnet sequences to see print attended other genres as well. At the back of Anne Vaughan Locke's translation of Calvin's sermons printed in 1560 appears the first printed English sonnet sequence, in the form of an extended meditation on Psalm 51. Of the predecessors of the romantic sonnet sequence in English, witness George Gascoigne's An Hundreth Sundrie Flowres of 1573, in which sonnets appear embedded in the prose fiction.

     17. Later sixteenth- and seventeenth-century texts -- Shakespeare's Loves Labours Lost, for instance -- further draw on the sonneteer character as sketched out in such publications as well as in the sequences produced during the sonnet vogue, not to mention in the critical reactions to these texts. As a consequence the sonneteer's quintessential diffusiveness defies generic constraints. The sonnet culture is not the culture of a single genre. On the other hand, the intertextuality critical to the continued production of sonneteering discourse forms a social world identifiable as a public.14 As Drayton's and other sonnet writers' gestures toward the outside world suggest, their sonnets employ rhetoric to establish themselves in a preexisting discourse stemming back to the very origins of their production.

     18. Sonnet culture, born of thirteenth-century Italian poetic experimentation by courtly poets such as Giacomo da Lenitni, is dialectical in origin, along the lines of Warner's idea of responding discourses. The process is also analogous to the coterie system at work in England during the 1590s sonnet boom. In thirteenth-century Italy, groups of poets (including Dante Alighieri) would work together to create sequences called tenzoni, each sonnet of which would be a reply to the last. This practice re-emerged as "a kind of literary game" in the sixteenth century among groups of French and Italian academics.15 From their inception, early sonnets, in other words, entailed a reflexivity of discourse: their contained and prescribed nature triggered a dialectical quality that compelled a reply. The continued production of sonnets across Europe, especially in such periods of intense output as the sonnet vogue of the 1590s in England, results in what one might dub a "feedback loop" (or a circuit in which the output becomes incorporated into the input).16 In Idea's Mirrour, the presupposition of "some Atheist or vile Infidel" or "sundry men" who might question the authenticity of the feelings expressed in the sonnets evidences the role of a feedback circuit in characterizing the text's consumption. The twelfth sonnet of Idea's Mirrour (discussed in the opening of this essay) for example, defines a dilating audience of feedback: on a private level, the beloved to whom the sonnet is addressed when the speaker says such things as "I flatter thee" and, on a more public level, the critics who are assumed to read the sonnets and mock the speaker. The sonnet's public casings suggest the further dilations of this audience, including the readers and the other sonnet writers contributing to the vogue.

     19. The dilating scope of the sonnets and their insistence on the individuality of the speaker relies on a steady irony: the sonneteer defines himself against an imagined critical audience. He sets himself apart as a loner. Yet there are multiple sonneteers who use this same rhetoric, who also set themselves up as loners. Sonneteers are countless even, if we consider as well the literary figures from Gascoigne's Master F. J. to Shakespeare's Romeo who take on this pose. Sonneteers, then, become a community of loners. This paradox is at the heart of the comic action of Love's Labours Lost 4.3 in which four characters separately recite sonnets of their own composing, each erroneously thinking himself to be alone during his recitation. Yet these sonnet writers and sonneteer characters are only one part of the sonneteering public. Sonnet culture also entails the real readers and critics who influence and thereby fuel the continued production of sonnets in this feedback loop. Hence the sonneteering public, in the sonneteer's insistence on individuality, seems to attempt to imagine itself out of existence by insisting on the unique expression of immediate feeling, but, in fact, the public thereby always simultaneously points to its own socially dependent and stranger-relational feedback loop of production.

     20. The sonneteer's persona by virtue of his definition of himself as a man against the world thus creates a paradoxical community of loners who, again paradoxically, publicize their private thoughts; in other words, the sonneteer -- at once singular and exemplary -- emblematizes the public resulting from sonnet culture, which is paradoxically defined by the public exposure of desires portrayed as private. This is the crucial dilemma of sonnet culture: sonnets repeatedly insist upon the unique nature of the love they describe and frequently address a particular figure. Sonnets consistently say, "I love you, and my love for you is unlike any other love." Take Drayton's sonnet, "To the Phoenix," for example. Originally the sixth sonnet of Idea's Mirrour, it was revised for Drayton's 1599 edition of the sequence and again for the 1605 edition. It first appeared with the opening line "In one whole world is but one Pheonix found," and finally settled on the similar opening, "'Mongst all the Creatures in this spacious Round." Despite the slightly varying ways in which the speaker curtails the phoenix's uniqueness in the "whole world" and "spacious round," the thrust and central conceit of the sonnet remains consistent. The phoenix serves as an emblem of the beloved, who is reborn and immortal through the poetic monument. The sonnet insists that there is only one true love just as there is only one phoenix ("none like to you is found") and, likewise, by implication that there is only one unique poet capable of eternalizing her so that she "shall spring again from the ashes of [her] fame." Drayton explores a similar theme in the sixth sonnet of Idea (1619):

How many paltry, foolish, painted things,
That now in coaches trouble every street,
Shall be forgotten, whom no Poet sings,
Ere they be well wrapt in their winding-sheet!
Where I to thee eternity shall give,
When nothing else remaineth of these days,
And Queens hereafter shall be glad to live
Upon the alms of thy superfluous praise.
Virgins and matrons, reading these my rhymes,
Shall be so much delighted with thy story
That they shall grieve they lived not in these times,
To have seen thee, their sex's only glory.
So shalt thou fly above the vulgar throng,
Still to survive in my immortal song.

Here, the "vulgar throng" includes not just those to whom the poet-speaker is other, but also those who cannot compare to his beloved. The inherent misogyny of this poem's first quatrain, where other women are but "paltry, foolish, painted things," develops into the slight against a gendered readership who long to relate to the beloved. In this way the poem distances itself from the part of the sonneteering public in which it participates while simultaneously gesturing toward it. The formulaic nature of the theme of poetic immortalization and individuality in both this and the phoenix sonnet, when combined with their public circulation, belies the uniqueness of the expression while simultaneously necessitating further emphasis on the love's unparalleled nature.17

     21. The insistence upon individuality is, hence, a function of sonnet culture's feedback loop that constitutes its public. Drayton's revisions are the perfect window into the sonneteer's social space, since they encapsulate the reflexive circulation of sonnet-culture's discourse, even if that reflexivity is enacted by what seems to be one man's repeated response to himself. Drayton saw to press in 1619 the final revised edition of his sonnet sequence, by all accounts nearly twenty years after the trend for the genre had ballooned and ruptured in the last decade of the sixteenth-century. Nonetheless Drayton's publication of his sonnet sequence well after the vogue had ended puts him in some very good company: Lady Mary Wroth's Pamphilia to Amphilanthus appeared two years later, while William Drummond's "Sonnets" was published just three years earlier in his Poems of 1616, and, of course, William Shakespeare's famous sonnet sequence was first seen in print only a decade earlier in 1609. Like Shakespeare's sequence, Idea had circulated before its seventeenth-century publication; but unlike Shakespeare's manuscript "sugar'd sonnets," Drayton's Idea made the rounds in print.18 Also unlike many of his more canonical sonnet-writing contemporaries, Drayton had a direct hand in his own publication, specifically adopting a laureate pose (See Figure 1) in the frontispiece for his 1619 Poems.19 Drayton first published Idea's Mirrour at the peak of the sonnet vogue and spent the following fifteen years revising and republishing the sequence, first reissued as simply Idea in 1599 (with significant additions), and again in 1600, 1602, 1605, and 1619, each time adding new poems. In other words, Drayton specifically exploited the power of print to engage in reflexive discourse with others and himself.


Figure 1. Frontispiece portrait from Drayton's Poems, 1619


     22. Drayton's sonnets suggest he was well aware of the community he was joining by participating in the vogue, even as this vogue itself entailed insistence on individuality. He added a sonnet to his Idea of 1599 that begins with explicit reference to other sonnet-writers:

          Many there be excelling in this kind,
Whose well-tricked rhymes with all invention swell;
Let each commend as best shall like his mind,
Some Sidney, Constable, some Daniel.

Although Drayton may have indulged in the unfashionable practice of revising and republishing his sequence, he is certainly aware that in publishing such a sequence at all he engages in a very fashionable practice. He joins, or attempts to join, the ranks of such greats as Sidney, Constable, and Daniel. Though Sidney may have been a mere acquaintance, and Constable's life in exile would make a friendship with Drayton difficult to prove, there can be little doubt that Drayton was acquainted with Daniel. The listing of these figures in his poem signals the formation of a public in specific relationality to the circulation of sonnets. They come together here not as a knight and national hero (Sidney), the son of a knight and possible member of the English secret service (Constable), and, as the tutee of the Countess of Pembroke, the vanguard of the next generation of the Sidney circle (Daniel). Instead, they are those with "well-tricked rhymes," a literary public rather than a socio-political one (literarische Öffentlichkeit as opposed to politsche Öffentlichkeit). Or, as Warner might assert, these figures are united by participation in this discourse alone. Still, contending that he speaks of them with veneration, as "poor men with reverence may speak of a king," Drayton takes pains to differentiate himself from his "excelling" colleagues:

My wanton verse ne'er keeps one certain stay,
But now at hand, then seeks invention far,
And with each little motion runs astray,
Wild, madding, jocund and irregular.
   Like me that lust, my honest merry rhymes
   Nor care for critic, nor regard the times.

The irony is explicit. The fact of Drayton's participation in the vogue for sonnet writing and his very act of repeatedly revising in print his sonnets undercuts the claim that his rhymes "nor care for critic, nor regard the times." The "invention far" that his "wanton verse" seeks is ironically very close to home.

     23. Drayton's direct acknowledgement here of Sidney, Constable, and Daniel recognizes three of the earliest writers of sonnet sequences and the resultant formation of the sonneteering public. These influential writers published before Drayton's 1594 Ideas Mirrour, although he does not include this sonnet commending them until 1599. Singling out these three writers whose early publication dates suggest they are responsible for ushering in the sonnet vogue gives the impression of the degree to which Drayton is participating in the vogue after it has already been established. Perhaps he was an early adopter in manuscript of the trend, but -- based on his publication history -- he nonetheless seems to have been among the number of sonnet writers who began writing only after the sequences of such significant figures had been published.

     24. Plotting the publication of love-themed sonnet sequences during the 1590s on a timeline, Figure 2 shows Drayton's position in relation to the establishment of the vogue.20 The last decade of the sixteenth century has long been identified as a period of immense sonnet production in England, earning the period the epithet "sonnet vogue." Sonnet critics such as Thomas Roche and Michael Spiller provide useful lists of the sonnet-writers and sonnet sequences of the Renaissance and these lists quickly evidence the plethora of sequences published in the 1590s. Timelines reveal even more obviously -- and at a glance -- the increase in sonnet production at the end of the sixteenth-century.


Figure 2.1. Timeline of Sonnet Sequences Published 1590-1599



Figure 2.2. Interactive Timeline of Sonnet Sequences. (Requires Flash Player.)


This timeline, which charts first editions of sonnet sequences in the 1590s, underscores that Drayton's first foray into publishing a sonnet sequence happens very much at the height of the vogue, when the most sequences were being published. Sidney's Astrophil and Stella, the sonnet sequence that is considered to have ushered in the vogue, fittingly appears here as the first bubble (in orange). Next to it (in teal) appears Daniel's Delia, an incomplete version of which was published in the same unauthorized edition containing Astrophil and Stella. (Daniel promptly put out a more complete, authorized edition of Delia in 1592, but this timeline charts only first printings.) Drayton's Idea's Mirrour, however, does not occur until the eighth bubble (in green). Idea's Mirrour appears on this timeline next to Constable's Diana (in blue) because they were both published in 1594 (the vertical lines on the grid indicate the beginning of a new year).21 Constable's and Drayton's sequences appear at the highest point of the timeline because this timeline charts along the vertical y-axis the total number of sequences per year; that is, as the timeline shows, the years 1593, 1594, and 1596 each saw four separate love-sonnet sequences published for the first time. This is the most number of sequences published in any given year. That Drayton's sequence was first published in such a prolific year suggests the trendiness of his participation in the vogue, a fact further emphasized by the distinctive dip in the graph between Sidney's and Daniel's sequences of 1591 and the sudden peak in publication in 1593. The brief lull in publishing activity during 1592 is actually no lull at all. The graph visualizes what a list of publication dates only subtly suggests: 1592 was most likely a period of intense productivity -- not of publication, but of the actual writing of the sonnet sequences of the type legitimated by the 1591 sequences.

     25. Among the defining texts produced in this period, which so influenced the growing respect for printed poetry, Arthur Marotti lists Sidney's sonnet sequence, Astrophil and Stella, noting that "in the last third of the sixteenth century, single-author editions of poems came on the market, as writers and publishers started to claim a new respect for literary authorship and print came to be regarded less as a 'stigma' than as a sign of sociocultural prestige."22 The sonneteering public, consisting of the overlapping communities of sonnet writers, subjects, and readers, emerges from these contributing print-history factors:

There were many prejudices to overcome before lyric poetry could settle into print as its normal medium of transmission: a whole mindset had to change, lyric poets had to be granted a measure of literary and cultural authority, and educated and socially elite readers had to accept print as the proper environment for lyric verse.23

As respect grew for the lyric poets, their poetic "I" metonymically found prominence as well. In other words, the cultural authority gained by poets afforded the poetic "I" of the lyric sonnet sequence a cultural presence as well. This presence was delineated by the speaker's insistence on his own alienated individuality. The result was a personality perpetuated by print culture -- that of the sonneteer. And, indeed, the characteristic metapoeticism in which these sonneteers engage also takes the form of commentary on the very technologies of reproduction that both influence and perpetuate their circulation.

     26. In a single sonnet that perfectly manifests the dialogic characteristics of the genre, Sidney's Astrophil and Stella 34 delineates this self-reflexive discourse characteristic of sonnet culture's dynamic investment in its own material perpetuation. The poem's first 8 lines perpetuate an almost catechismic series of questions and answers, posed and rejoined by Astrophil, the poetic I, himself:

Come, let me write. "And to what end?" To ease
A burthen'd heart. "How can words ease, which are
The glasses of thy daily vexing care?"
Oft cruel fights well pictur'd forth do please.
"Art not asham'd to publish thy disease?"
Nay, that may breed my fame, it is so rare.
"But will not wise men think thy words fond ware?"
Then be they close, and so none shall displease.

Sonnet 34 of Astrophil and Stella reveals Astrophil to experience anxiety about the proliferation of his subjectivity. He questions himself about the ability of poetry to mend his woes, since words are merely the "glasses of [his] daily vexing care" (3). The notion that well-wrought words might be pleasing only makes him ask himself, "Art not asham'd to publish thy disease?" (5). These lines reveal more than the poems' facility to reflect and disseminate Astrophil's pain in the isolated world of his saga with Stella. Although Sidney himself did not write to publish, when read in the context of Astrophil and Stella's popularity and subsequent imitation in print, these lines expose references to the broader cultural context where the growing popularity of print feeds what will become the sonnet vogue. The profound impact of this sonnet sequence on the publication of numerous sequences in the year's immediately following throws the question of the first line into relief: the speaker asks, "To what end?" -- or for what purpose -- does he write, but, in so writing, enters a feedback loop in which no "end" is clear.

     27. Many sonnet sequences of the English sonnet vogue thematize the conditions of their own production, thus reflexively delineating the circulation of their discourse. Most sequences engage in some reference to print culture, indicating the overlapping nature of sonnet culture and its material circumstances; sequences (including Drayton's) published in 1594, at the height of the vogue, display a strong interest in print. Drayton's sequence first appeared in the same year as Constable's Diana, William Percy's Sonnets to the Fairest Coelia, and the anonymously published Zepheria. Percy's Coelia and Zepheria each bear prefatory references to the printing process of the type I discuss above. For example, Coelia opens with Percy's conventional assertion of his determination to "have concealed [his] Sonnets." He laments that "they were secretlie committed to the Presse." Such protestation is especially conventional of printed sonnet sequences precisely because of the fashionability of Sidney's and Daniel's sequences, which were themselves first printed in unauthorized editions.24 In addition to the prefatory references to print in Constable's sequence, Diana 2.9 employs a conceit comparing the beloved's fingers with the arrows of love, such that the lover's heart bears the "print of every dart." The use of "print" here is not necessarily an explicit reference to the printing press but, nonetheless, the word is evocative of printed publication given the context of the sequence's own circumstances as a printed text. Diana's presiding metaphor of the beloved's wounded heart as the impetus for the text further links the metaphorical imprinting of love's arrows with the literal printing of the text.25 Idea's Mirrour itself refers to the printing process in its "outer casings" (discussed above), while sonnet 14 describes the beloved's beauty as "imprinted" on the speaker's tears, which in the final line of the poem themselves become a metaphor for the text: "My life, my youth, my love, I here Anatomize." Like the use of "print" in Diana, "imprinted" in Idea's Mirrour is not an explicit reference to printing; however, forms of the word "print" occur rarely enough in sonnet sequences as a whole that these examples bear significance and are suggestive of an intensified self-reflexive interest in the means of circulation in the burgeoning of the sonneteering public -- as its scope begins to expand, its interest in print, the means toward that expansion, peaks.26

     28. The examples from Idea's Mirrour and Diana, where forms of the word "print" occur in conjunction with images of the lovers' pain, demonstrate how in sonnet culture, the public exposure of print is connected with the sonneteer's self-obsession. And, fittingly, fame exists as a central concern of sonnets. Sonnet sequences claim that the fame achieved will be that of the beloved, but they contain plenty of prerequisite reference to the poet-subject who will bring about that fame. Although such a concern stems back to classical models of the eternizing nature of poetry, the sonnets' interest in fame reveals the pressing issues of the public face of poetic production. A sonnet on this theme appears in the last two editions of Drayton's Idea (1605 and 1619):

In pride of wit, when high desire of fame
Gave life and courage to my lab'ring pen,
And first the sound and virtue of my name
Won grace and credit in the ears of men;
With those the thronged theaters that press
I in the circuit for the laurel strove,
Where the full praise, I freely must confess,
In heat of blood, a modest mind might move.
With shouts and claps at ev'ry little pause,
When the proud round on ev'ry side hath rung,
Sadly I sit, unmoved with the applause,
As though to me it nothing did belong.
         No public glory vainly I pursue,
         All that I seek is to eternize you.

Again we see Drayton reveling in the figure of the isolated poet, alone in a crowd. This crowd praises him, but the mini-drama in which he is sadly "unmoved with the applause" occurs in a precisely theatrical context. By this point in his career, Drayton is well-known as a dramatist -- another occupation where he gained his fair share of criticism. Yet this sonnet reappropriates his fame in theatrical pursuits into poetic ones; the speaker feels or claims to feel that he cannot own the accomplishments for which he is praised since he only seeks to eternize the beloved. His ambivalence toward the "thronged theaters" permeates the ambiguity of the penultimate line: "No public glory vainly I pursue," he asserts. While the cheerless acceptance of his own praise suggests that he identifies public glory as a vain, or worthless, pursuit, his achievement -- especially as described over the first 10 lines of the sonnet -- indicates that he did not pursue public glory in vain, or ineffectively. In other words, by attempting to eternize his beloved, he has successfully entered public discourse.

     29. The writing of poetry (as well as plays) was most likely the source of Drayton's livelihood but his repeated modifications to his sonnet sequence, in five revised editions over a twenty-five-year period, have come to mark Drayton as a writer especially invested in the intersections of print and sonnet culture.27 Like many of his age, he exploited the dialogic qualities of sonnets to simultaneously propitiate and provoke his critics. Toward that end, even the earliest edition of his sequence, 1594's Idea's Mirrour, assumes an a priori critical audience. Thus, in the twelfth sonnet, the poet styles as "some Atheist or vile Infidel in love" any critic who dares to "blaspheme" by questioning the sincerity of his verse. The accusation suits the overriding conceit of the sonnet, wherein the poet speaks of his beloved's "divinity," cataloging the miracles her "great power" brings about. The conceit is a commonplace one. Yet, while the later, revised slight that his critics are merely "misbelieving and prophane" lacks the punch of the earlier version, it also lacks the specificity. Drayton has actual public critics and the slight of calling them out as infidels would be a political misstep. "Prophane" is a less loaded term, culturally speaking, but, as such, it opens up the label to more people. The speaker of Drayton's printed sonnets identifies himself against a community, against the "vulgar throng," against a company (the theater), but in doing so, in carving out the persona of a singular, lonely libertine, details a persona with which many people, the most important writers and political figures of his day -- alongside some of the least important -- themselves would or could identify. While the glory of such a publishing pursuit may be vain, self-congratulatory, and self-obsessed, in its reach, influence, and repeatability, it is also most certainly formative and participatory of a public.



Go to this issue's index.




1 I use the title Idea's Mirrour to differentiate the 1594 edition from subsequent editions, which were called simply Idea. Unless otherwise noted in the text, the title Idea refers to the 1619 edition, which has become the authoritative text for modern editions. Spelling is silently modernized throughout.

2 In her introduction to Drayton's 1619 Idea, Kathleen Tillotson provides a fuller discussion of probable and conjectured criticisms of Idea's Mirrour in its own time: The Works of Michael Drayton, vol. V (Oxford: Shakespeare Head Press, 1941), 138. See also R. M. Alden's The Rise of Formal Satire (1899), 126-127.

3 Michael Warner, "Publics and Counterpublics," in Public Culture 14 (2002): 62.

4 See Sandra L. Bermann, The Sonnet Over Time: A Study in the Sonnets of Petrarch, Shakespeare, and Baudelaire. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1988.

5 Christopher Warley, Sonnet Sequences and Social Distinction in Renaissance England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 8.

6 See the closing epigram of Sonnet 6 of Drayton's 1619 Idea: "So shalt thou fly above the vulgar thong, / Still to survive in my immortal song." I discuss this sonnet in more detail below.

7 Of particular importance is Anne Ferry's landmark study, The "Inward" Language: Sonnets of Wyatt, Sidney, Shakespeare, and Donne (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), which traces in the sonnets an awareness of a distinct inner life.

8 The continual fragmentation and ultimate unknowability of an interior aristocratic self is the crux of Patricia Fumerton's study of subjectivity in sonnet culture, "Secret Arts: Elizabethan Miniatures and Sonnets," in Cultural Aesthetics: Renaissance Literature and the Practice of Social Ornament (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 67-110.

9 This phrase belongs to Wendy Wall, who, after Fumerton, also cites Ferry's attention to architectural references of a progression toward interiority as metaphors used to describe an internal self-consciousness before such language existed; The Imprint of Gender (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993), 178.

10 Warner, "Publics and Counterpublics," 56.

11 In Drayton's capacity as the page to Sir Henry Goodere, Drayton possibly became acquainted with Sidney and Anthony Cooke, or at least Cooke's father (Sir Anthony Cooke of Gidea Hall). Goodere, in whose service Drayton stayed from about 1573 to about 1595, was present at Sidney's death, and participated as one of six assistant mourners in Sidney's funeral procession. See Bernard H. Newdigate, Michael Drayton and His Circle (Oxford: Shakespeare Head Press, 1941), 12, 33-35, 120.

12 Ferry, Inward Language, 61; 66-67.

13 Sonnets acknowledge their own function as exchangeable objects in a gift-economy and as an important phenomenon within the wider sociopolitical sphere. These functions are part of the discourse of the sonneteering public, conforming to Warner's definition of a public as self-organizing: "A public is a space of discourse organized by nothing other than discourse itself. It is autotelic; it exists only as the end for which books are published"; "Publics and Counterpublics," 50. The socio-political functions of sonnets are much explored in, for example, Arthur Marotti, "Love is Not Love: Elizabethan Sonnet Sequences and the Social Order," in ELH 49 (1982), 396-428; and, more recently, Warley, Sonnet Sequences and Social Distinction.

14 Such generic permeability is one of the characteristics of a public identified by Warner:

No single text can create a public. Nor can a single voice, a single genre, or even a single medium. All are insufficient to create the kind of reflexivity that we call a public, since a public is understood to be an ongoing space of encounter for discourse. It is not texts themselves that create publics, but the concatenation of texts through time. Only when a previously existing discourse can be supposed, and a responding discourse be postulated, can a text address a public. ("Publics and Counterpublics," 62)

15 See Michael R. G. Spiller, The Sonnet Sequence: A Study of Its Strategies (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1997), 16.

16 Warner also uses the term "feedback loop" to describe the self-reflexive mode of the Spectator's circulation, 70-73.

17 By engaging with the sonneteer's affectation of individuality in contrast to a broader community, I do not want to suggest that sonneteers form a counterpublic. Of counterpublics, Warner remarks, "Other publics mark themselves off unmistakably from any general or dominant public. Their members are understood to be not merely a subset of the public, but constituted through a conflictual relation to the dominant public," 85. Sonneteering does not in and of itself constitute a counterpublic in as much as early modern sonnet culture's well-established ties to a patronage system confirms it as an agent of cultural hegemony. See also Nancy Fraser, "Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy," in Calhoun, Habermas and the Public Sphere, 122-23.

18 Two of Shakespeare's sonnets which later appear in the 1609 edition (Sonnets 138 and 144) did appear in print in the 1599 anthology The Passionate Pilgrim; however, my point remains that while Shakespeare's sonnets circulated in manuscript almost exclusively until 1609, Drayton's sequence relied primarily on print as a means of circulation. The phrase "sugar'd sonnets" for Shakespeare's sonnets appears in Francis Mere's 1598 Palladis Tamia: Wit's Treasury, where he mentions their circulation "among his private friends," a comment that serves as the much cited evidence for Shakespeare's composition of his sonnets during the 1590s vogue.

19 Andrew Hadfield explains the somewhat self-ironizing nature of this pose since Drayton always seemed to miss gaining the political favor he hoped to achieve in his poetry; "Michael Drayton's Brilliant Career," in Proceedings of the British Academy, 125 (2004), 119-147.

20 The graphs in the essay are from screenshots of Motion Charts by Google, based on my own data organizing both bibliographic information and interpretative analysis of English sonnet sequences published between 1555 and 1630. These motion charts are interactive and can be found as part of my on-going visualization project-in-progress, "The Sonnet Virus," at <http://english.ucsb.edu/faculty/kmcabee/sonnet-virus.html>.

21 I have added labels for the sequences referenced since distinctions in colors might not always be clear. The different sizes of the bubbles indicate the number of sonnets per sequence.

22 Arthur Marotti, Manuscript, Print, and the English Renaissance Lyric, 211.

23 Ibid., 211.

24 Again, see Fumerton, "Secret Arts," and Wall, Imprint of Gender, for fuller discussions of this impulse toward dwelling on the supposed privacy of published sonnet sequences.

25 The lover's heart is a central figure throughout Diana and becomes conflated with the text itself. For example, in Diana 1.7, the speaker explains that envy falsely says the lover's "heart must needs a flatterer be, / which taught both tongue and pen to say" that the beloved is the only sun.

26 A motion-chart visualization of print references in these and other sonnet sequences 1550-1630 is available at <http://english.ucsb.edu/faculty/kmcabee/sonnetvirus-home.html>.

27 See Tillotson, Works of Michael Drayton, 13; 137-138.



Form copyright © 2010 Early Modern Culture.

Content copyright © 2010 Kris McAbee.