“Antithesis Is Essential in Petrarchan Rhetoric”: Analysis of Sonnets from the Golden Age of Spanish Poetry

April 1, 2019 by Essay Writer

The introduction of the Italianate sonnet form into Spanish poetry of the 16th and 17th centuries brought with it both the versification and elements of one of the most influential collections of poetry of all time – Francisco de Petrarca’s II Canzoniere. In sonnets of the Golden Age, we find the typical linguistic juxtaposition of the lover suffering from dilectoso male (‘beautiful agony’) in his poetic idealization of a single lady, an antithesis carried over from the influence of Petrarch. Antithesis can also be found however in the sonnets’ contrast between sensual and spiritual love, which are presented as irreconcilable opposites: we find poetic voices in turmoil, as sexual desire and spiritual worship are incompatible with one another according to Plato’s philosophy of love. Even the use of conceits which seek to reverse the Petrarchan idea of noble suffering and resignation to a fate of dissatisfaction in Quevedo’s sonnets arguably provides an essential antithetical contribution to the development of Petrarchan rhetoric as a whole. With its Baroque and Neo-Stoical influences, the literary environment of the 16th and 17th centuries provided opportunity for the expansion of what began as a literary technique into a theme in itself.

In the original sonnets of Petrarch, we find many examples of antithesis used as a literary technique which give expression to the speaker’s suffering balanced against his willingness to endure it for the sake of the ennobling power of love. In Sonnet 132, the accumulating questions of the octave amount to a typical portrayal of the dilectoso male[1]: ‘Se bona, onde l’effecto aspro mortale? Se ria, onde sí dolce ogni tormento?’[2] Similarly in Sonnet 134, the accumulation of ‘et’ (‘and’) and caesuras structurally support the speaker’s claim he cannot speak and yet still cries out. From these examples and numerous others, we can see that antithesis is the central literary technique Petrarch uses to express the inner torment of the speaker, and that this is supported by the sonnet form which allows for a condensed paradox within stanzas of a limited length. Quevedo’s Es hielo abrasador[3] (It is burning ice) exemplifies this very well with its anaphora and antithesis of nouns which are sometimes even reversed in adjectival form, e.g. ‘Es hielo abrasador, es fuego helado’[4] (‘It is burning ice, it is icy fire’). The sonnet has a clear progression from the contradictory images of love in the octave to the removed voice of the speaker reflecting that love is contradictory in itself. Thus, Quevedo recognizes and employs the Petrarchan antithesis to create a commentary on love rather than a lament with himself as the central speaker.

In terms of antithesis defined as the parallel arrangement of words, it is not always the case that poets of the Golden Age employ the technique as such: rather, the juxtapositioning of ideas is achieved in a different manner, such as one idea supplanting another at the volta at the start of the sestet, even if the content is still largely Petrarchan in nature. The forty-five sonnet contribution of Luis de Góngora to the Petrarchan legacy transforms typical antithesis onto a different level. While still love sonnets, the carpe diem attitude of Mientras por competir con tu cabello[5] (While musing on your locks) and Illvstre i hermossissima Maria[6] (Illustrious and most beautiful Maria) merges the Neo-Stoical idea that love and beauty are both perishable with the Petrarchan-style lament. Both are heavily influenced by Garcilaso’s sonnet En tanto que de rosa y azucena[7] (Just as roses and lillies). Mientras por competir’s linear succession of hair, forehead, lips and neck becomes through repetition a cycle in the poem which then become a vertical axis, as the features are gradually transformed into metaphorical material equivalents and, finally, into the remnants of the woman’s life on earth[8]: ‘tierra, humo, polvo, sombra, nada’[9] (‘earth, smoke, dust, shadow, nothing’). While the octave begins in a deceptively tame style with the speaker contemplating the embellished beauty of the lady addressed, the carpe diem conclusion hits the reader with force in the final tercet. The repetition of ‘en’ (here ‘into’) emphasizes the stark destiny of all the qualities aforementioned, and this creates a new kind of textual antithesis together with the previous emphasis on the lady’s beauty being superior to that of nature. Whether the mortality of the lady’s beauty is comforting to the speaker or not, we are not told, but Góngora’s seeming refusal to suffer in silence for love is clear.

Conversely, the difficulty of bridging the gulf between body and spirit forms a conceivable thematic antithesis in the sonnets of Quevedo and Francisco de Aldana. In Plato’s Symposium, Socrates acts as a mouthpiece for the notion that the mind was drawn upwards by beauty, and therefore loving a woman provided a spiritual stepping stone towards the achievement of knowledge and love of Absolute Beauty – God. This ideal posed a metaphysical problem for the poets of the Golden Age, evident in Aldana’s sonnet Junto a su Venus[10] (Beside his Venus). Here, sensuous love is treated as the supreme value in life instead of that which can be gained from it: antithesis is created between the brutality of masculine love in Mars, God of War, and feminine tenderness in Venus. In a sense, the ‘fiero’ (‘fiery’) nature of Mars doused by Venus’ ‘blando’ tenderness mirrors the Petrarchan antithesis of fire and ice: these two expressions of love and the ‘fuerza extraña’ (‘strange force’) upon which they are based are united in how they govern the universe with their pacifying nature. Similarly, in Sonnet XX Aldana makes an attempt to conceive of sexuality as a good of the soul[11] despite its inability to penetrate it or raise it up. The ‘bien’ and ‘mal’ or good and bad can be read to symbolize not necessarily good and evil, but instead the appeal of sensual pleasure derived from love and its disadvantage of being incompatible with the Petrarchan idea of idolized worship without hope of fulfilment. This use of theme as antithesis takes Petrarch’s linguistic equivalent as its predecessor, while still incorporating strong appeals to the senses and depictions of love as an overwhelming force.

Quevedo’s sonnet Mándome, ay Fabio (Instruct me, dear Fabio) also exemplifies this dilemma through a number of conceits which contrast the original Petrarchan idea of antithesis. The opposition between the spirit and the senses is played out through the continuous repetition of the verbs ‘amar’ and ‘querer’, similar in their meaning of ‘to love’, yet distinct enough for one to imply divine adoration of the lady, and the other a more physical desire for her. The joy of the mind and distress of the human feeling in lines 4 and 5 are juxtaposed both through their division due to the comma and start of a new line, and through the o-a assonance of ‘llora’ (‘cries’) and ‘goza’ (‘enjoys’). The double connotation of ‘amartelado’ in line 6 as both ‘in love with’ and ‘tortured/lovesick’[12] enhances this contrast further, as does the echo of ‘encarcelado’ (‘imprisoned’). The lover in the sonnet appears to be relaying this order given to him by his lady to a companion, but similar to the likes of Garcilaso and Petrarch he resigns himself to this fate; but not before pointing out the inner counterforces which through the lack of possessive pronouns in lines 4-12 are more an observation of the human condition than a lament. The original Petrarchan antithesis of ‘hielo abrasador’ (‘burning ice’) can then still be seen in this sonnet of Quevedo, but concerns instead an element of Petrarchan love not previously explored: the battle between the senses and the spiritual. This passive resignation transforms into a rejection of noble suffering for love in A fugitivas sombras (Into fugitive shadows), as the speaker’s attempts ‘con nueva fuerza’ (‘with fresh energy’) to obtain his lady’s affection ends in ‘con amor me hacen pedazos’ (‘with love, they reduce me to pieces’). The Courtly Love tradition of love as suffering is present in the ‘llanto’ (‘weeping’), but here the pursuit of fulfilment in love does not lead to spiritual serenity and pleasure but instead to obsession and anguish. The use of the present and imperfect tense suggests the continuation of the lover’s suffering, and the anguished tone of the final tercet demonstrates a reversal of the Petrarchan commonplace: fidelity is no longer something the poetic persona takes pride in; instead, it has become something of which he is ashamed.[13] This development of the struggle between sensual and spiritual love then expands typical Petrarchan antithesis by adapting it for the preoccupations of 16th and 17th century Spain.

It would seem that antithesis plays a key role in Petrarchan imitation in Golden Age Spanish poetry and can therefore be considered essential in Petrarchan rhetoric. Evolving with the context of the time, the development of other paradoxical literary techniques such as the juxtaposition of the two halves of a sonnet or the insertion of a hard-hitting final line as in Góngora’s Mientras por competir con tu cabello broadened the effect of the typical Petrarchan antithesis of dilectoso male. This also contributed to the transformation of Petrarchan commonplaces, such as oro (‘gold’) denoting a lady’s hair, into almost synonyms of their comparisons: thus forming the inspiration for the conceits and wordplay of the Baroque. Overall, direct verbal antithesis is arguably not absolutely necessary for a sonnet to be considered as having a Petrarchan theme, but the turmoil created by love is always implied, even if otherwise presented.

[1] ‘Beautiful agony – Sonnet 132, Francisco de Petrarca

[2] ‘If good, why this effect: bitter, mortal? / If bad, then why is every suffering sweet?’ – Sonnet 132, Francisco de Petrarca

[3] Soneto amoroso difiniendo el Amor, Francisco de Quevedo

[4] Soneto amoroso difiniendo el Amor, line 1, Francisco de Quevedo

[5] Sonnet 151, Luis de Góngora

[6] Sonnet 152, Luis de Góngora

[7] Sonnet XXIII, Garcilaso de la Vega

[8] Orphans of Petrarch, UC Press E-Books Collection, p195

[9] Sonnet 151, line 14, Luis de Góngora

[10] Sonnet 2, Francisco de Aldana

[11] The Philosophy of Love in Spanish Literature, A.A. Parker, p65

[12] The Philosophy of Love in Spanish Literature, A.A. Parker, p165

[13] The Philosophy of Love in Spanish Literature, A.A. Parker, p167

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