Images of women in poetry

Hausarbeit, 2011

19 Seiten, Note: 1,3



Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Francesco Petrarch
2.1 Petrarch’s tradition and his presentation of the woman
2.2 Image of woman in sonnet 90 by Petrarch

3. Sir Philip Sidney
3.1 Sir Philip Sidney and his presentation of the woman
3.2 Image of woman in sonnet 91by Sidney

4. William Shakespeare
4.1 William Shakespeare, his lyrical tradition and presentation of the woman
4.2 Image of women in Sonnet 130 by William Shakespeare

5. Conclusion.

6. Bibliography/References

1. Introduction

Is it truly love that lets a woman look like a divine beauty? Or does the poet just lists the features of beauty within nearly each and every one of his sonnets?

There are many different images of women in poetry and writers know how to present their beloved best. But actually, how important was beauty in order to love someone? Such questions have inspired me to pick this topic for the further analysis of the typical perception of women in some selected love sonnets.

The man, who brought attention to the Italian sonnet, was Francesco Petrarca who was usually referred to as Petrarch. Especially his sonnets for his idealized girl, Laura, characterized the pan-European love poetry of the Renaissance up to the seventeenth century (c.f. 9.9.201 mario.leis/Download_Anglistik_Frauenbild.pdf)

That is why many writers adopted Petrarch’s conception of love, beauty and perfection. But of course there are just as many poets who have turned away from the pure admiration of the idealized female figure.

In my following analysis I will take a closer look at the image of women in Sir Philip Sidney’s sonnet 91 and Shakespeare’s sonnet 130 in comparison to the traditional concept of Petrarch. It is important to establish the drastic changes which exist in these two works. How much do the ladies of Shakespeare and Sidney differ from Petrarch’s Laura?

Do their shared characteristics outweigh the differences? And more importantly: Is there a turning point in the historical development of literature with reference to the visual representation of feminine beauty?

In my work, I have tried to find answers to these central questions.

First of all, I would like to give a short overview on the Petrarchan tradition and then analyze sonnet 90 which was written for his beloved Laura. After that I will concentrate on Sir Philip Sidney’s presentation of women. In doing so, I will analyze sonnet 91 from his sonnet sequence Astrophil and Stella. Then I will continue like this for sonnet 130 by Shakespeare. Finally, I would like to sum up my results and give a brief conclusion.

2. Francesco Petrarch

2.1 Petrarch’s tradition and his presentation of the woman

Francesco Petrarca, as the founder of the style Petrarchism, was an Italian scholar, poet and humanist. He was born on July 20 th, 1304 and died on 19 th July 1374 (c.f. 10.09.2011 Petrarch established the basic form of the Italian sonnet, also called Petrarchan sonnet, or more precisely, he raised the art of writing sonnets to the greatest heights.

Every sonnet takes the conventional format of fourteen lines and is divided strictly into two halves, an opening octet and a closing sestet, with a fixed rhyme scheme. For the octave the rhyme scheme is typically abba-abba and for the sestet either cdecde or cdcdcd. Normally, the first four lines of the poem should contain the exposition of the theme, and the first line should immediately introduce the reader to the possible problem. The second quatrain further develops the themes, sometimes on the principle of contradiction. At this point there is a kind of turning point, called volta. Lastly, the sestet shows the solution of the problem, the outcome and the conclusion of the author's thinking.

Petrarch’s writings influenced countless others during his lifetime but centuries later his works became so famous that many poets adopted his concept of love and idealism into their own poems. Petrarch inspired many English poets who admired and imitated him. His poetry is always full of grace and desire for idealized beauty, his writings are very artistic.

Petrarch’s sonnets, through the idealization of Laura, made it possible for many others to see in the image of Laura an image of their own lover, and in the lyrical lines to hear their own thoughts of passion resound […] (Julianne C. Kaercher, May 2009: 32)

Petrarch’s poetical collection `Calzoniere`, also known as `Song Book` became very well-known, especially because of the various love sonnets for his beloved Laura. (c.f. 10.9.2011 Frauenbild.pdf) Probably, her full name was Laura de Noves (c.f. Julianne C. Kaercher, May 2009:4)

Laura had a great influence on Petrarch's life and lyrics.

It was 1327 when Petrarch first set eyes on this girl who was already married. Nevertheless, the poet is immediately captivated by her indefinable beauty and enigmatic presence:

It was on that day when the sun's ray

was darkened in pity for its Maker,

that I was captured, and did not defend myself,

because your lovely eyes had bound me, Lady. […] (10.09.2011

Translated by: A.S.Kline)

From now Petrarch describes and praises her female beauty in nearly every one of his sonnets. Laura’s physical beauty is Petrarch’s vision of ideal beauty and he is overcome by emotions:

When I have turned my eyes to that place

where my lady's lovely face shines,

and that light leaves me not a thought

while I burn and melt away inside […] (10.09.2011

The poet constantly finds new words, new images and ways to describe her beauty. In each of her glances and movements he sees something unique and original. In his eyes, she even seems to be a divine or celestial being.

There are creatures in the world with such other

vision that it is protected from the full sun:

yet others, because the great light offends them

cannot move around until the evening falls:


I am not strong enough to gaze at the light

of that lady, and do not know how to make a screen

from shadowy places, or the late hour […] (10.09.2011

However, Petrarch didn’t just admire his beloved. His descriptions of beauty are a way of expressing his feelings and true emotions. His ideal is always near. It seems that Petrarch feels the presence of Laura, even from a distance. He idolizes the lover and gives her ethereal qualities. However, despite all these deep feelings, Petrarch and Laura never meet or speak in the course of his sonnets. She may not even know he exists.

The passion that Petrarch felt for Laura de Noves, combined with the impossibility of a physical relationship with her, put Petrarch in a predicament. He was unable to act upon his feelings of desire, but, at the same time, could not repress those feelings. […] (Julianne C. Kaercher, May 2009: 9)

In Petrarchan sonnets it is very typical that the man is overwhelmed by his feelings and that the beloved woman rejects him. Laura is unreachable because she is already married but not even that fact lets him feel less for his goddess.

Thus, Petrarch devotes all his life and his works to praising the beauty of Laura.

He admires her, while she is alive and continues to worship her after her death. His love for this woman almost merges with the idea of a heavenly and ideal love. As the ideal of his life, she is the embodiment of eternal and perfect beauty.

2.2 Image of woman in sonnet 90 by Petrarch

She let her gold hair scatter in the breeze

that twined it in a thousand sweet knots,

and wavering light, beyond measure, would burn

in those beautiful eyes, which are now so dim:

and it seemed to me her face wore the colour

of pity, I do not know whether false or true:

I who had the lure of love in my breast,

what wonder if I suddenly caught fire?

Her way of moving was no mortal thing,

but of angelic form: and her speech

rang higher than a mere human voice.

A celestial spirit, a living sun

was what I saw: and if she is not such now,

the wound's not healed, although the bow is slack.

(11.09.2011: Translated by: A.S.Kline)

Sonnet 90 is the perfect example of a standard Petrarchan sonnet.

As already mentioned, Francesco Petrarch wrote for his beloved, Laura. In his Song Book which consists of 366 poems the poet constantly writes about love and Laura’s unique and godlike beauty.


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Images of women in poetry
Universität Paderborn
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ISBN (Buch)
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Petrarch, Sidney, Shakespeare, sonnets, images of women
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Anonym, 2011, Images of women in poetry, München, GRIN Verlag,


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