A Poetry Lesson 4: Miniatures and Sonnets – The Snapchats of the Renaissance

It is easy to assume that Snapchat and Instagram are modern phenomenon – but the practice of sending sexy pictures of yourself to admirers has gone on for centuries. This was never more true than in the Elizabethan court where the exchange of miniature portraits was hugely popular. (You can read a great article on them at the The Victoria and Albert Museum website.)

Despite no Photoshop, ladies and gentlemen of the court could make sure the artist painting their portrait flattered them. Henry VIII famously fell in love with his future fourth wife, Anne of Cleves when he saw her portrait painted by Holbein. Unfortunately the reality was slightly different, and Henry dismissed her as ‘the Flanders Mare,’ complaining she was ‘she is nothing so fair as she hath been reported’

(By the way, I’ve just discovered something rather gross – because Henry didn’t think Anne was good looking enough he couldn’t consummate the marriage, so it was quickly annulled. Henry proved it was not his fault – i.e. he was not impotent – by saying he had ‘duas pollutiones nocturnas in somno’ which means he had two wet dreams in the night)

Miniatures were tiny, jewel like paintings kept in caskets and lockets usually made from gold and decorated with precious gems. It was very fashionable to add these tiny caskets to your everyday dress and there are plenty of documents written at the time which attest to their popularity.

Here is an extract from a letter about Queen Elizabeth I. ‘Lady Derby wore about her neck and in her bosom a portrait. The Queen, espying it, inquired about it, but her ladyship was anxious to conceal it. The Queen insisted of having it, and discovering it to be the portrait of young Cecil, she snatched it away, and tying it upon her shoe, walked long with it, afterwards she pinned it on her elbow, and wore some time there. ‘

Look at this beautiful miniature painting case I found through The Frame Blog.

Isn’t it gorgeous?

At the same time these miniatures were the talk of the court, sonnets were also tremendously popular. Sonnets were written to charm Queen Elizabeth I, and like the miniatures they were a way to show off skill and talent. The beautifully crafted sonnet had much in common with the miniature cases with all their artistry and craftsmanship.

The sonnet is a really interesting form of poem. The structure is formal with a restricted number of lines and an ordered rhyme scheme. Writers in the Renaissance period LOVED sonnets. In the Elizabethan court they were hugely fashionable, and were the equivalent of snap chat in terms of flirting. They certainly weren’t all about love – Surrey used this form to write about friendship, death, and courage, and Shakespeare’s sonnets cover about a multitude of themes. But generally, a whole host of courtiers wrote flattering, impassioned romantic sonnets about how in love they were.

Between 1530-1650 approximately 200,000 sonnets were written, an astonishing number. The biggest influence on British sonnet writes was Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374) a medieval Italian poet. The story goes that Petrarch as a young man fell madly in love with ‘Laura’, a married woman who rejected his advances. He wrote a whole sequence of sonnets about the agony of this rejection. There is a mix of emotions in these poems: Being close to her brings about pure, unadulterated joy – but his love being unrequited drives him to the depths of despair. This is the inspiration for the Petrarchan sonnet. Woman are beautiful, but use their beauty like weapons which wound their lovers, who suffer terribly. The romance of this suffering, inspired by Petrarch and the drawing on the roots of Courtly Love has a profound impact on the literature and art of the Elizabethan court.

Petrarch’s poems were beloved by the writers of the Tudor courts from the mid to late 16th century. Poets such as Wyatt and Surrey translated Petrarch’s poems as well as writing sonnets of their own, often as a way of making themselves more attractive to senior member of the court in the hope they would be rewarded by an upwards social move.

The Elizabethan court LOVED these poems of anguish and beauty and you can see the influence of the Petrarchan ideal in many sonnets of the time. Writers like Wyatt made some changes in the structure, adapting the form and rhyme scheme, basically because it’s much harder to rhyme in English than Italian. Instead of using the octave/sestet (8 lines 6 lines) form of Petrarch, Wyatt and his successors wrote sonnets divided into four quatrains and a rhyming couplet.

Both Italian and English sonnets are made up of 14 lines, but in the English sonnet the poem is shaped around three quatrains (groups of four lines) with a rhyming couplet at the end. So instead of having a volta or ‘turn’ (shift in tone or a change in direction) at the eighth line, that English sonnet has the volta at the 12th line. This image sums it up nicely as well as showing the different rhyming pattern.


The most striking impact of this change is the introduction of the rhyming couplet. At the time the writer’s ability to express a philosophical point, or conclusion into as few a lines as possible was greatly admired. The couplet tested the skills of writers to the limit. It has an epigrammatic quality which was appealing. How to compress the 12 lines of the whole poem into a two line summary or conclusion? Many poets could do this with great wit and style, particularly Shakespeare. What I love about the couplets in many of these sonnets is they can surprise you with a sudden shift in approach, or make you laugh by shocking you with an unexpected, witty ending. The couplet acts as a little treasure within the box of the poem – just like the miniatures they dangled from their elbows and shoes.

Even the miniatures portraits were affected by Petrarch. Have a look at this miniature by Hilliard who was a prolific painter. Here you see a rather sexy young man with an open shirt and a come hither look in his eyes. Notice the flames in the background which signifies how much he suffers because of unrequited love. I love the intimacy of this picture.

This tiny painting gives a good insight into how we should see the love-struck poet who burns with unrequited desire.

What about the Petrarchan heroine? Well here we can look at one of my favourite Shakespearean sonnets, but in order to appreciate its message you have to have a look at the ideal woman of the Elizabethan age, based on Petrarch’s Laura.

Here is a poem with sonnet like features by Thomas Watson, written in around 1582

Hark you that list to hear what saint I serve:
Her yellow locks exceed the beaten gold;
Her sparkling eyes in heav’n a place deserve;
Her forehead high and fair of comely mold;
Her words are music all of silver sound;
Her wit so sharp as like can scarce be found;
Each eyebrow hangs like Iris in the skies;
Her Eagle’s nose is straight of stately frame;
On either cheek a Rose and Lily lies;
Her breath is sweet perfume, or holy flame;
Her lips more red than any Coral stone;
Her neck more white than aged Swans that moan;
Her breast transparent is, like Crystal rock;
Her fingers long, fit for Apollo’s Lute;
Her slipper such as Momus dare not mock;
Her virtues all so great as make me mute:
What other parts she hath I need not say,
Whose face alone is cause of my decay.

So hair of gold, eyes like stars, voice like music, a straight nose, and lips as red as coral. This mistress’s breasts have crystal clear skin, and her neck is as long and white as a swan.

I particularly like that at the end of this rather long winded and descriptive poem the poet notes (ironically) the woman’s beauty ‘make me mute’, and the final couplet contains a slightly saucy hint about how bodacious her body is – ‘I can’t talk about her body, describing her face alone is enough to destroy me.’

Like many of the poems of the time it sounds generic. A ‘to whom it may concern’ love poem that flatters the lady love. The couplet does act as a little witty epigram in the poem as a whole, like a miniature portrait hiding in a beautiful case, but generally the images seem unimaginative and the rhythm is monotonous.

So then we come on to Shakespeare. A poet who took a form used and overused by many other writers and lifts it to a whole new level. Here, in one of my favourite sonnets Shakespeare blows a hole through all those sonnets praising Petrarchan heroines.

Let’s look at the first quatrain.

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.

Look at that negative, right from the first line. His lover’s eyes are ‘NOTHING’ like the sun. Immediately, the reader sees Shakespeare is challenging the weary similes and metaphors of other writers, like Watson above, who use cliches to flatter their women.

It draws attention to how silly those images are – how can eyes be like the sun? He goes on, her lips are not like coral, and her breast are brown , not snow white. And then, the ultimate anti-Petrarchan description, her hair is not golden, ‘black wires grow on her head.’

Also note the subtle undermining of the steady iambs of the sonnet. ‘If hairs be wires,’ is iambic- if HAIRS be WIRES. But then he uses a comma which introduces a pause. This means you have to stress ‘black’ which throws the steady rhythm completely off. If we were to read that phrase iambicly it would look like this: black WIRES grow ON her HEAD. But this isn’t how you read it. Actually you are forced to read it thus: BLACK wires GROW ON her HEAD. All over the place!

(Have a look at my lessons on Herbert and Donne for a fuller explanation of metrical structure and how it affects rhythm)

I find it fascinating how Shakespeare uses subtle variances in rhythm to possibly indicate a challenge and subversion of a a recognised and very formulaic structure. Note there are very few rhythmic variations in Watson’s poem above.

I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.

The next quatrain directly challenges those poets with their lazy images. ‘I have seen roses’, he says, ‘but my mistresses’ cheeks look nothing like them’. And then those gloriously blunt lines which say, I have smelled delightful perfumes but they bear no resemblance to the breath ‘that from my mistress reeks.’ It works so well – reeks has such a strong connotation of a stench, a foul emission. I always imagine the mistress to whom this poem is dedicated reading this with shocked laughter and clouting Shakespeare around the head at this point.

I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress when she walks treads on the ground.

The third and final quatrain goes on to describe his lady’s voice and movement. He writes he loves ‘to hear her speak’ but points out music sounds much nicer. Note how here and in the previous quatrain Shakespeare uses a run-on line or enjambment so the sentence flows onto the next line.

This gives the poem a lovely, natural feeling. Almost a chatty quality. It doesn’t have the stiff, formal, almost nursery rhyme feel of Watson’s poem, which can sound sing-songy. In the next line the speaker continues to say he’s never actually seen a goddess but he can say for sure when his lady walks, she ‘treads on the ground.’ I always imagine Shakespeare giving his mistress a sly wink at this point, followed by her rolling her eyes at her mates in response.

And then, oh! That final, beautiful couplet that completes the sonnet.

And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.

It is such a shame that this couplet loses some of it’s impact as you have to translate it a bit. Some of the vocabulary isn’t in general use today.

Basically it means, ‘and yet, by God, I think my lover is as special and rare, as any of those other women who have been lied to by poets who use false comparison.’

As you can see, my version isn’t nearly as elegant as Shakespeare’s! But now you know what it means, have another look.

And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.

This couplet contains the whole sense of the sonnet compressed into two lines. The speakers says, the woman I love is a real woman, not some imaginary Petrarchan heroine. OK, she’s not blonde, her eyes are not like stars, and her boobs have a bit of a tan, but to me she is lovely. And no other woman comes close.

It’s at this point I see Shakespeare’s mistress fighting across the room of the poetry reading and giving him a big hug. The audience wiping their eyes and smiling.

Sonnet 138 reflects a slightly more mature love affair.

When my love swears that she is made of truth
I do believe her, though I know she lies,
That she might think me some untutor’d youth,
Unlearned in the world’s false subtleties.
Thus vainly thinking that she thinks me young,
Although she knows my days are past the best,
Simply I credit her false speaking tongue:
On both sides thus is simple truth suppress’d.
But wherefore says she not she is unjust?
And wherefore say not I that I am old?
O, love’s best habit is in seeming trust,
And age in love loves not to have years told:
Therefore I lie with her and she with me,
And in our faults by lies we flatter’d be.

I love this. Read it a few times. Hear the wry voice of the older man, married to a young woman who lies to him that he is still in his prime. He knows she is lying, but allows the lie to stand. In this way she lies to him and he lies to her.

Therefore I lie with her and she with me,
And in our faults by lies we flatter’d be

I like the little irony of meaning on ‘lie’ meaning to deceive, and ‘lie’ meaning to sleep with. Again, Shakespeare allows his lines to run on to the next, giving the poem an approachable, wry and honest feel which makes this timeless. Beautiful.

If you would like to look at more of Shakespeare’s Sonnets the British Library has a good section on them. You can also read about Hilliard’s Young Man against Flames on the Guardian Website, and this site has some interesting stuff about the artist.

7 thoughts on “A Poetry Lesson 4: Miniatures and Sonnets – The Snapchats of the Renaissance

  1. It’s an enlightening post. I learnt the basis of sonnets. Thank you very much. Written very elegantly. Could not put it down until I finished the whole article. Looking forward to more on this subject! Warm Regards, Dr. Diksha.

    Liked by 1 person

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