Sunday, June 13, 2021

Origins of the Sonnet

From JSTOR Daily:

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.” (Read more.)


No comments: