Steve Mentz. "Review of Richard Helgerson, A Sonnet from Carthage: Garcilaso de la Vega and the New Poetry of Sixteenth-Century Europe.". Early Modern Literary Studies 14.2/Special Issue 17 (September, 2008) 10.1-5<URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/14-2/revhelge.html>.
How much can one poem mean? Richard Helgerson’s short, evocative book takes this question as a challenge by making a single not-previously-famous sonnet by Garcilaso de la Vega – usually called “Sonnet to Boscán from Goleta,” but retitled by Helgerson as “A Sonnet from Carthage” – represent not only the “new poetry” of imperial Spain, but also, by inference and direct argument, larger shifts in pan-European early modern literary culture. Providing a bravura display of New Historicist close-and-expansive reading, Helgerson reads the sonnet’s internal structures – its references to sixteenth-century Spanish wars in North Africa and to ancient Carthage, to Italian art and courtly friendship, and finally to the self-consuming love that unravels Garcilaso’s Petrarchan soul – as engaging various cultural and poetic projects that accompanied sixteenth-century Europe’s imperial and mercantile expansion. The sonnet serves, in Helgerson’s deft reading, as an allegorical core for shifts and redirections in a culture that was at once classicist and imperial, backward-looking and expansionist. As an example of the power of close reading, and a primer in how to connect broad historical trends to specific examples of poetic form, it’s hard to imagine a more persuasive and elegant book.
The book also feels somewhat truncated, especially compared with Helgerson’s encyclopedic (and award-winning) Forms of Nationhood (1995). It gestures toward a much larger version of itself, with references to other sixteenth-century “new poets” from France (Ronsard and du Bellay), Portugal (Luis de Camões), and England (Sidney and Spenser), whose works also embody many of the tensions visible in Garcilaso’s sonnet. As in Helgerson’s other books, argumentative clarity is a strength. The introduction lays out five “claims” or “engagements” that Garcilaso’s sonnet emphasizes: imperial engagement, self-loss, transformative art, specificity of place, and idealized male friendship. The largest tension, as Helgerson makes clear, is between empire and love. He identifies the sonnet’s imperial claims in its references to the “arms and fury of Mars” and in the poem’s setting, the ruins of Carthage. He also explores an underlying love-versus-war tension within this Virgilian framework, with Garcilaso the soldier performing a quasi-Roman re-conquest of Carthage while also burning with love like vanquished Dido. Addressed to Garcilaso’s aristocratic male friend Boscán, the sonnet implies that the struggle between martial conquest and erotic obsession can be at le
It’s an elegant argument and a persuasive close reading, but Helgerson’s book has larger ambitions. He further claims (still in the introduction) that the sonnet reveals “five fundamental conditions working through…the new poetry of sixteenth-century Europe”: “a political transformation needing a new literary expression,” formal innovation, a commitment to particular places, a “loss of self in desires,” and “relations between the writers who collectively assume the task of radical literary change” (xvi-xvii). These claims build to the conclusion’s final assertion that the sonnet represents the five fundamental features of the “new poetry” across sixteenth-century Europe: it institutes a program of literary renewal; it departs from then-current models of Spanish poetry; it depicts a poetic subjectivity split between the demands of empire and love; it bases its renewal on the Italianate/Petrarchan sonnet (rather than Latin or vernacular forms); and its model of authorship and poetic community is collaborative. Students of Sidney and Spenser, among others, will see how well this model fits the projects of these courtly writers in the 1580s.
If there’s a weakness in this book, it’s one, appropriately enough, born of its own elegance. Like Garcilaso’s sonnet, Helgerson’s study puts “infinite riches in a little room,” and sometimes it feels crowded. It’s difficult to determine Garcilaso’s place among his poetic peers: Helgerson does not claim that he invented these topoi, but at times his argument implies that this sonnet gives them supreme or ideal expression. In some ways the poem’s value for Helgerson’s project is precisely its typicality, its deploying of as many standard features of sixteenth-century courtly Italianate love poetry as can be fit within fourteen lines. As a typical product of an international generation of court poets, Garcilaso’s sonnets raises the question that any rigorously generic literary work – any work that defines itself through and inside a living tradition – raises, the relationship between authorial originality and larger social and poetic continuities. While this tension is a familiar subject for Helgerson, and he has written well about it in the past, it gets muted somewhat in this telling. Helgerson evocatively concludes his study with the claim that the “collaborative” practices of the early modern new poets would dominate European culture until “Romantic ideas of originality supplanted imitation” (70), and with the further suggestion that early modern exploration, science, navigation, print, and even skeptical philosophy underwrote the need to innovate that Garcilaso embodies. I’d like to hear more about the tension between belonging to a generic body and pressure to innovate within it.
The reason A Sonnet from Carthage exists as a “little booke,” of course, is Helgerson’s illness, which he describes in a poignant preface, “Diagnosis for an Essay.” The finished book thus can only gesture toward the full-scale comparative volume that Helgerson had planned. (Helgerson died in April 2008, after this book was published). This book and his bilingual edition of du Bellay comprise the final jewels in Helgerson’s legacy. While students of early modern prose fiction (like me) particularly value his under-read first book, Elizabethan Prodigals (1976), his most influential volumes, including Self-Crowned Laureates (1983) and Forms of Nationhood (1995) investigate what he called “literary systems,” in which multiple authors and traditions jockey for position in relation to each other. A Sonnet from Carthage crowns that career by reminding us not only that little things can have massive implications, but also that not every large project needs to be completed by one author.
du Bellay, Joachim. 'The Regrets', with 'The Antiquities of Rome,' Three Latin Elegies, and 'The Defense and Enrichment of the French Language': A Bilingual Edition. Ed. and Trans. Richard Helgerson. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2006.
Helgerson, Richard. Elizabethan Prodigals. Berkeley: U of California P, 1976.
-----------------------. Forms of Nationhood: the Elizabethan writing of England. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1992.
-----------------------. Self-Crowned Laureates: Spenser, Jonson, Milton, and the literary system. Berkeley: U of California P, 1983.
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