Death and the Sonnet
The Southern African Society for Medieval and Renaissance Studies (SASMARS)
This article argues that the fundamental theme of the sonnet is not love but death. Though some sonnets have from the beginning focused explicitly on death, the majority from the late Middle Ages to the Renaissance are love poems. Petrarch may be regarded as the prototypical sonneteer and idolizer of love; but on close analysis his focus is found to be more on the ephemerality of love than on love itself. The structure of the sonnet supports – even creates – a predisposition toward death. Both the Italian and the English varieties display a fixed and intricate structure of extreme terseness, offering space for an utterance of concentrated force and complexity, but one whose principal feature is brevity. While complexity of structure allows for the conflicted or self-reflecting consciousness that Paul Oppenheimer claims of this form, brevity brings its discourse to a point, in Michael Spiller’s sense, all too quickly. The bringing to a point of a short-lived dilation reflects in miniature the confrontation of the individual consciousness with its own point or full-stop. The article demonstrates that death sonnets are not exceptions to a more erotic rule but explicit statements of what is present in all sonnets, implicit in the form itself.
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