The Heretical Origins of the Sonnet

Ed Simon
Ed Simon is the Editor-at-Large for The Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of The Los Angeles Review of Books. A regular contributor at several different sites, his collection America and Other Fictions: On Radical Faith and Post-Religion will be released by Zero Books this year. Visit his website at
This essay was published in: Daily JStor, April 21, 2021

Of variable rhyme scheme and meter, sonnets are sometimes structured into stanzas of an octet and a sestet or of three quartets and a concluding couplet. They are normally fourteen lines long, though always with a concluding volta, the rhetorical turn that gives the sonnet its reputation for surprise, rigor, and elegance. In lyric intensity, in density of imagery and turn of phrase, a sonnet is instantly recognizable. The professor of comparative medieval literature Paul Oppenheimer, writing in Comparative Literature, explains that sonnets are highly dialectical, whereby an issue (often concerning romantic love) is posed, but the “form of the poem will solve the problem,” a form somewhere between a poem and a syllogism.

There are structural variations: the Italian or Petrarchan sonnet; the English or Shakespearean sonnet; Edmund Spenser and Alexander Pushkin both invented their own types, and there are any number of deviations, a flexibility that proves their enduring appeal. Oppenheimer argues that the “invention of the sonnet was a momentous event,” as “no major poet… in Italian, German, French, Spanish, and English has failed to write sonnets.” And as Christopher Kleinhenz notes in the edited collection Francis Petrarch, Six Centuries Later: A Symposium: “750 years after its appearance, the sonnet still has the same basic form.

Kleinhenz writes: “For centuries the sonnet has remained the most popular and the most difficult poetic form in Western literature,” with few canonical poets since the Renaissance completely avoiding them. The endurance of the fourteen lines is startling, though a return to its complex origins almost a millennium ago provides a fuller understanding of its appeal. The sonnet, as it turns out, is many things; not least of which is a lesson in the complexity of societies and souls.

With good reason the fourteenth-century Tuscan poet Petrarch is the sonnet’s exemplar. In fact, he’s often erroneously understood as its creator. Petrarch penned Il Canzoniere, a sequence of 366 poems—the vast majority of which are sonnets—dedicated to his idealized love Laura de Noves. Petrarch’s vision appeared bold, new, and uncompromising, whereby he would declare in Sonnet 105 of Il Canzoniere: “Understand me who can, for I understand myself”—a full-throated affirmation of radical individuality.

Though he was an inhabitant of the Middle Ages, Petrarch’s mind was of the Renaissance: the primogeniture of that era. “The early humanists universally regarded Francesco Petrarch as their founder,” writes Robert E. Proctor in Renaissance Quarterly. In his enthusiasms for travel, classical writing, and individual expression, Petrarch was a vital advocate for the pedagogical reform movement known as humanism. The fusion of aesthetics and erudition known as Petrarchism was foundational, for, as Oppenheimer argues, the “invention of the sonnet may possess an even greater importance: it may mark the beginnings of what we must mean by ‘modern’ poetry.” Petrarch didn’t invent the sonnet, however, for that honor is owed to an obscure (though brilliant) poet named Giacomo da Lentini, who was a notary for King Frederick II of Sicily, writing nearly a century before the celebrated Tuscan. If the sonnet was a mechanism for creating modernity, then da Lentini is the engineer whom we must credit. And yet even the most adept of engineers must draw from materials not of their own crafting.

I’ve seen it rain on sunny days
And seen the darkness flash with light
And even lightning turn to haze.

So writes da Lentini in a sonnet translated by Leo Zoutewelle. While da Lentini doesn’t reach the heights that we associate with Petrarch and Shakespeare, the hallmarks are all there. Structured as an octet combined with a sestet, and already with the characteristic volta which mimics a mind in argument with itself, da Lentini engages a series of contradictions, of “sweet things [that] taste of bitterness” and “enemies their love confess,” but by the volta, these paradoxes are set in perspective by the even “stranger things I’ve seen of love.” The paradoxes are never reconciled—if anything, each line is a tiny dialectic—such as when da Lentini writes of that which “healed my wounds by wounding me” and of being “saved from love, [though] love now burns more.”

These contradictions aren’t resolved, even as da Lentini moves from investigating the physical world (sunny days, light, frozen snow, etc.) to love. Central to the sonnet is that mystery, for as incongruous as sweet things being bitter might be, stranger still is love. Though a Christian gloss could be provided, there is a surprisingly secular feel, with Oppenheimer arguing that the “sonnet must itself be considered symptomatic of the slowly developing state of mind that we designate by the term ‘Renaissance.’

The Sicilian School of poets had several traditions to draw from. Because “sonnet” roughly translates to “song,” even though it’s believed that few lyrics were ever actually set to music, scholars have searched for the form’s origin beyond poetry. The most obvious candidate is the eight-line strambotto, a peasant song to which may have been added a sestet.

There are also non-Western candidates, with scholars having long suspected that da Lentini drew from Arabic poetry. This was unsurprising, for Sicily was at the confluence of the known world. By the thirteenth century, Sicily had had periods of rule by the Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Vandals, Ostrogoths, Byzantines, Arabs, and Normans, with strong cultural influence from all of them. Buffeted between the Latin West, the Byzantine East, and the Islamic world, the Kingdom of Sicily was ruled over by Frederick, a Swabian German, who established a Palermo court known for its efficiency, tolerance, and innovation. With a large population of Jews and Muslims, Arab influence remained vital, with the Emirate of Sicily having fallen to Norman invaders only a bit more than a century before.

The scholar Samar Attar claims in Arab Studies Quarterly that the “formation of Italian literary texts between 1200 and 1400 cannot adequately be understood without reference to the various Arabic and Islamic sources that date back to the seventh century onwards.” Likewise, literary scholar Kamal Abu-Deeb writes in Critical Survey that the sonnet has “schemes, or structures, that are variations… on structures of the muwashshahat produced by Arab poets,” a genre which unlike the sonnet is traditionally set to music, while Oppenheimer notes that several scholars have argued that the form “derived from the Arab zajal, a rhyming stanza popular with the Arabs living in Sicily in Giacomo’s time.” Even more evocative than the morphological similarities are the thematic ones; with its volta, the sonnet mirrors the dialectic argumentation that marked Islamic and Jewish philosophy, and in its celebration of secular love there are antecedents in Sufism. “The idea that a beloved woman can be the manifestation of divinity or the emanation of God was acceptable among the Arabs much earlier before the thirteenth century” writes Attar. In short, Petrarch’s Laura has Islamic precedents.

There is the potential for other idiosyncratic influences on the sonnet. From 1209 to 1229 the town of Albi in Languedoc faced a bloody crusade waged by the Church against a group of Christian heretics known as Cathars (though sometimes referred to as Albigensians, after the seat of their movement). Much romanticized in the ensuing centuries, the neo-gnostic Cathars promulgated a gospel that saw the material world as evil, argued that the universe was dualistically split between good and evil, extolled the equivalence of the sexes, and celebrated Platonic spiritual union (including a belief in reincarnation).

The Cathars shared their Occitan tongue (closely related to both French and Catalan) with the troubadours, a movement of poet-performers who set their verse to music. There is academic disagreement about the relationship between the Cathars and the Languedoc troubadours, but some scholars argue that the latter were the artistic vanguard of the former, with Michael Bryson and Arpi Movesian in Love and its Critics: From the Song of Songs to Shakespeare and Milton’s Eden arguing that “the massacres that followed affected the poetry of the thirteenth century. No longer were poets free to flout the morality of the Church without trepidation.” The result was that later troubadour poetry encoded Cathar beliefs rather than explicitly expressing them.

From French Provence, many refugees from the destruction of Catharism made their way across the Mediterranean at the invitation of Frederick, and they may have influenced the nascent sonneteers. Writing in Speculum, the poetry scholar Elias L. Rivers declares that there is a “consensus with regard to most poetry of the Sicilian School, namely that the concept of love on which these sonnets are based is in general the same as that of the Provencal troubadours: the poet ‘serves’ his lady as a vassal.” A tradition of idealized platonic love, so identified with Medieval poetry, finds its way into the early sonnets through Islamic and troubadour influence. Elias confidently declares that the “newly invented sonnet form so shaped, and merged with, the subject-matter of the troubadours as to constitute a coherent poetic genre of great vitality.”

On the other hand, in Parrots and Nightingales: Troubadour Quotations and the Development of European Poetry, the French literature scholar Sarah Kay asserts that there was a “gradual take-up of troubadour inspired poetry among… writers of the Sicilian school.” While orthodox Catholics would have blanched at the association with heresy, the rich heritage of Occitan poetry “was acknowledged by Dante and Petrarch, who extended their indirect influence throughout the Europe of the Renaissance,” as the editors of The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics write. So integral is the influence of Occitan upon the foundations of the sonnet that the comparative literature scholar William D. Paden in Annali d’Italianistica quips that he considers “Petrarch as though he were the last troubadour.”

Oppenheimer claims that the Platonism that became foundational for Renaissance philosophy (also crucial to Catharism) is numerically structured into the sonnet. He sees a crucial relationship between the number of lines in the sestet, the octet, and the twelve lines of the poem before the concluding couplet. “The proportions 6:8 and 6:8:12 did play exceedingly interesting roles in the history of ideas… where they describe… ‘harmonic’ proportions,” Oppenheimer writes, because the “notion of the 6:8:12 relation as ‘harmonic’… may be found much earlier, in the Pythagorean-Platonic theory of numbers.” The ratio between the sestet and octet may indicate a mystical understanding that would dominate Renaissance humanism, but arguably even more important is what the form accomplishes—a full-throated, lyrically compact, dialectically structured meditation on subjective consciousness. Oppenheimer claims that for this reason the sonnet is “in a real sense, a lyric sung by the soul to the soul” with a “mysterious aesthetic perfection… like the profoundest of small mirrors, [which] still plumbs the depths of our best poets’ richest gifts.”

There is an intrinsic mystery to the attractions of those fourteen lines. In the seventeenth-century Donne described sonnets as being like a series of “pretty rooms.” Two centuries later and Edith Wharton would call them a “pure form… like some chalice of old time,” and Dante Gabriel Rossetti said that sonnets were a “moment’s monument,” while in our own century Terrance Hayes claimed that they’re “part prison, / Part panic closet, a little room in a house set aflame.”

The sonnet is arguably something else as well—an ancient vehicle for ideas from a millennium ago, an innovation of forgotten poets in the sun-dappled, lemon-tree-filled courts of King Frederick II, his notaries working at the crossroads of east and west, Islam and Christianity, orthodoxy and heresy, for whom the form would function as an incubator for individuality, the lyric a catalyst for a new way of observing. Rather than saying that the sonnet was an exemplar of the Renaissance, it’s more accurate to say that the Renaissance was born because of the sonnet, this perfect lyric gem of thought and experience.

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