I’ve made my creative intentions and process on this project as transparent as I can. These notes are extensive and hyperlinked throughout. They’re organized in an inverted pyramid; thank you, journalism.
I begin with an overview, then delve into several specific aspects of the work as a whole, each in its own headed section. A list of sources and editions used appears at the bottom of those sections. At the most detailed level, I’ve provided an annotated copy of each sonnet (including glosses) linked from its roman numeral in the original post.
What It Is…
I have been writing Elizabethan sonnets for some time, and I wanted a greater technical challenge and a larger canvas. I decided to write a sonnet sequence.
A sonnet sequence, as distinct from simply a group or volume of sonnets, is connected by a narrative thread. The sonnets may not directly “tell a story” in a straightforward manner, but they must be more sequentially and thematically connected than simply a group of poems on the same topic. The best-known example from Elizabeth’s reign, Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella, details the progress of a love affair, heavily influenced by the neoplatonic ideals of Petrarchan love. I took it as my main stylistic model. John Donne’s Holy Sonnets also influenced me significantly, as did the sonnets of Edmund Spenser and of course William Shakespeare. (Donne’s poems were published posthumously, so their publication date places them post-SCA period, but he was writing poetry by the 1580s at the latest.)
Sonnet sequences can be any length. Mine is seven sonnets long, because there are seven classical planets. More details about the content appear under the Subject subheading.
…and Why I Did It
The in-persona goal of the sequence–Ursula Mortimer’s goal in 1590s London– is to present herself to the community of arts and letters as both an accomplished poet and an up-and-coming natural philosopher. As a model for the former, I had Spenser, the generation’s professional Great Poet; for the latter, the Elizabethan court itself, with its bevy of gentlemen anxious to set themselves in the best possible light before their sovereign/beloved/Muse, who was also an excellent politician.
In the sequence, Ursula is showing off both her ability to write the poems and her learning in mystical fields, attempting to carve out a space for herself among the learned and noble. It’s a daring, not to say brash, undertaking for a woman of gentle birth but no fortune who has been compelled to work for a living. Apprenticed to a court wizard and learned doctor, she makes a bid for fame, status, and social advancement.
I had had it in mind for two years to write an astrologically-based sequence addressing each of the seven classical planets*. Historian Frances Yates’s work on 16th century science showed me a path forward for this. I also learned from Yates that Sir Philip Sidney and his coterie went to court astrologer John Dee for instruction in natural philosophy, i.e., science. At that time, astrology was indistinguishable from astronomy and not too distant from magic. Dee’s work, for example, included alchemy and angelology as well as celestial observation and calculation.
*Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn
The style of the sequence is frankly as elevated and formal as I could get it, as befits both its purpose and its subject.
Structure of the Work
To determine the order of the poems, I employed the astrological concept of the planetary hours. Each hour of the day–in the Renaissance sense; planetary hours are longer than 60 minutes– is associated with a planet, and they rotate in a fixed sequence. However, the association of planet with time of day shifts daily. Unlike the canonical hours, the planetary hours were broadly unknown to laypeople. If one wanted to send out a messenger during the hour of Mercury, for example, one would have to consult a professional astrologer.
To strengthen Ursula’s claim to respect as a scholar, the imagery of the poems employs alchemical and mythical associations of the planets and of the Roman deities for which they were named. (See notes on individual poems.)
One of the benefits of a complex form is that sometimes you get more out of it than you knew you were putting in. Initially, I had no notion of creating any overriding structure beyond the sequence of planets. However, when I had worked my way through three and a half sonnets to the sphere of Jupiter, I discovered that the sequence was mirroring the traditional organization of a single sonnet: a beginning section that establishes the situation, a “turn” that introduces new meaning, and then a wrap-up. In the sequence, the Mercury, Moon, and Saturn poems show the speaker invoking the Muse and declaring her purpose. The Jupiter poem turns toward service to the Queen, which is continued into the Mars and Venus poems and the opening of the final poem. Midway through the Sun poem, the speaker returns to her goals as poet and scholar and asks for her ultimate reward. The variations in style through the sequence, from extremely elevated to more personal, serve these shifts in focus.
Rhyme and Rhythm
Besides the challenge of connecting the sonnets thematically, Sidney as a model provided a further challenge: Astrophil and Stella uses variants on the Italian rhyme scheme rather than the Shakespearean. The Italian scheme uses five rhymes, whereas the English or Shakespearean sonnet uses seven. English words have a greater variety of final sounds and fewer repetitions than Italian words, so reducing the number of available rhymes increases the difficulty of composition.
Because the Shakespearean rhyme scheme has become so familiar to English speakers, using the Italian pattern makes the poems sound less regularly rhymed or sing-song. It provides a series of surprises to the ear, holding the listener’s attention.
As I progressed in the writing, I found that every completed sonnet limited my choices for all those that followed, in both sound and sense. For example, I didn’t want to repeat rhyme sounds too often, and there’s a limit to how many times you can felicitously use the word “celestial.”
At times, I use a regular, flowing iambic pentameter meter like Sidney’s or Spenser’s, and elsewhere, a rougher meter more similar to Donne’s. Every metrical choice has a model somewhere in the works of these four exemplars.
Choices I Didn’t Make
Most women poets writing in 16th (and 17th) century England circulated their work in manuscript among members of their own class, a practice known as “coterie publication.” Even in this form, they almost invariably included lip service to the notion that their writing was a venture beyond woman’s proper sphere—a trope known as “only a weak woman.” When women began submitting their works for print, this trope was virtually universal.
My artistic reason for ignoring the trope was that I did not want my audience to read the conventional protest and consider that it represented my real views, either in my own person or in persona. I was already being bold and brash; very well then, I would do so without a disclaimer that might weaken the impact I was striving to create. (I also have a sheaf of personal reasons for avoiding that road.)
At an early point, I considered including an indicator of the time of day each hour was associated with. Since I chose to reflect a day that began with the hour of Mercury, the first sonnet would have included references to dawn; the Jupiter poem would have suggested noon, etc. I discarded this notion because sonnets are short, and there simply wasn’t enough room to shoehorn this idea in without slighting my purpose.
Sources and Editions
The Compact Oxford English Dictionary
The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume One, both for the poems and the editor’s essay on the Elizabethan period
The Norton Anthology of Poetry
The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics
The Riverside Shakespeare
Shakespeare’s Sonnets, The Folger Shakespeare Library
Katharina M. Wilson, Women Writers of the Renaissance and Reformation
Frances Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition
Frances Yates, The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age
The above list names items specifically read in the progress of this project or quoted in these notes. Much of the background of this project developed over years of reading and pondering, though, so this list is not comprehensive.
Thanks to Mistress Arwen and Master Tonis for their encouraging and constructive criticism of poems i-iii.
Thanks to Project Gutenberg for being a place one can reliably find a quality text of anything, no matter how obscure, and to www.poetryfoundation.org and Sonnets Central for ready reference.
And always and evermore, thanks to my dear Laurel, Doctor Henry Best, who provided the inspiration to begin this project and the chutzpah to finish it.