The Sonnet Comes to England

S’amor non è, che dunque é què i’ sénto?
Ma s’ègli é amór, per Dio, che cósa, e quale?
Se buòna, ond’ é ‘l èffettó aspro e mortale?
Se ria; ond’ é sí dolce ògni tormènto?


S’ a mia vóglia ardo; ónd’ è ‘l pianto e ‘l lamènto!
S’ a mal mio grado’; il lamentar che vale?
O viva mórte, o dilettòso male,
Còme puói tanto in mè, s’io nòl cónsénto?


E s’io ‘l cònsénto; a gran tórto mi dóglio.
Fra sè contrári vénti in fragil barca
Mi tróve in alto mar senza govérno.


Sí liéve di savèr, d’erròr di carca,
Ch’ i’ medèsmo nòn só quèl ch’ io mi vòglio;
E trémo a mézza state, ardéndo il vérno.




“If no love is, O God, what fele I so?
And if love is, what thing and which is he?
If love be good, from whennes cometh my woo?
If it be wikke, a wonder thynketh me,
When every torment and adversite
That cometh of hym may to me savory thinke,
For ay thurst I, the more that ich it drynke.


“And if that at myn owen lust I brenne,
From whennes cometh my waillynge and my pleynte?
If harm agree me, wherto pleyne I thenne?
I noot, ne whi unwery that I feynte.
O quike deth, O swete harm so queynte,
How may of the in me swich quantite,
But if that I consente that it be?


“And if that I consente, I wrongfully
Compleyne, iwis. Thus possed to and fro,
Al sterelees withinne a boot am I
Amydde the see, bitwixen wyndes two,
That in contrarie stonden evere mo.
Allas, what is this wondre maladie?
For hote of cold, for cold of hote, I dye.”




The first sonnet in English doesn’t look like a sonnet.  It was written sometime in the 1380s, after the Cecily Chaumpaigne case, to give you some historical bearings.  In some ways, it isn’t a sonnet insofar as it doesn’t have the formal conventions of the sonnet, but it is an attempt to engage the sonnet form for the first time in English. What happened was Geoffrey Chaucer, the English poet who wrote the Canterbury Tales was writing a story based on a certain incident in the Trojan war (Troilus and Criseyede) and he imported his translation of the sonnet to build up his own text.  He had been interested in European developments in writing and literature and he found a sonnet from the Canzoniere by Petrarch that he decided to translate.

Clearly, the Chaucer is not anything like what we would call a sonnet in terms of form. It isn’t 14 lines, it has no real Petrarchan rhyme scheme… but it is the first engagement in English with the sonnet form.
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