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Thomas Borgstedt, Topik des Sonnets. Gattungstheorie und Gattungsgeschichte.  Frühe Neuzeit: Studien und Dokumente zur deutschen Literatur und Kultur im europäischen Kontext, Band 138. Tübingen, Max Niemeyer Verlag: 2009. ISBN: 978-3-484-97094-6. €134,95

Reviewed by Anna Carrdus

[1]  The concluding sentence of the publisherʼs blurb on the reverse of this volume claims that the book will provide: ʻNeue Thesen zur Sonettentstehung und zur historischen Vielfalt der Gattung pluralisieren das überkommene Bild der Sonettform.ʼ Yet this description is misleading and fails to do justice to the author. Even experienced readers of the sonnet have often been bewildered by its obvious plurality of form – the variations in its rhyme scheme, metre, line length or typography – not least because it seems arbitrary. In fact, what Thomas Borgstedt supplies is an elucidation of such variations, anchored in meticulous analyses of their origins and evolution.

[2]  The critical framework Borgstedt adopts is set out in the first three chapters and is multi-perspectival, depending upon a coupling of the rhetorical doctrine of topoi, ‘places’ from which argument can be drawn, with modern genre theory. This combination allows the author to successfully examine aspects of the sonnet such as the medium of delivery (song, speech, manuscript, print); the social-historical or ideological context in which it was practised (e.g. imperial court, middle-class urban society; the cultivation of vernacular literature, Neostoic belief); and the literary-historical factors that influenced it (e.g. the systematisations of poetics, intertextuality).

[3]  The flexibility of Borgstedt’s resulting argument can be exemplified by part of his first historical chapter, on the sonnet’s emergence from the ‘Kanzone’ between 1233 and 1245 at the Sicilian court of Kaiser Friedrich II. Borgstedt makes the connection between the aesthetics of numerology, one of the court’s intellectual preoccupations, and the sonnet form, a form typically comprising an initial eight lines followed by a further six, with eleven syllables per line. Furthermore, Borgstedt elucidates the relationship of the sonnets to the mathematical formula ‘pi’ and more specifically highlights a particular contemporary architectural manifestation of comparable numerological relationships, Friedrich II’s Castel del Monte in south-east Italy (138-148; 163-174). This is an illuminating instance of unexpected interplay between the sonnet and its immediate context and one which, as Borgstedt comments, like later forms of interplay, lost significance as the sonnet continued to evolve.

[4]  The author devotes two chapters to the sonnet’s evolution in the 16th and 17th centuries: ‘Das epigrammatische Sonett der Frühen Neuzeit’ (211-268) and ‘Topik des deutschen Petrarkismus’ (269-362). These chapters contain what are arguably Borgstedt’s most valuable contributions to the field of early modern scholarship. As the sonnet form is increasingly utilised throughout Europe in the cultivation of vernacular literature, so the inherited Italianate sonnet form attributed to Petrarch begins to accumulate new characteristics. Borgstedt suggests that participants in this essentially humanist venture were in need of a intermediary ‘stepping stone’ from the relatively recent sonnet to a classical form: the epigram, comparably brief (though not of a fixed number of lines) and made fashionable by the reception of Martial from the end of the 14th century. The ‘Epigrammatisierung des Sonetts’ influenced, for instance, the sonnet’s rhyme scheme – a striking example is Martin Opitz’s ‘Ist Liebe lauter nichts…’, a translation of Petrarch’s Canzoniere 132 in which Opitz departs from the original by rhyming the last two lines, thus emphasising his skilful introduction of an epigrammatic ‘Pointe’. The interplay between sonnet and epigram also opened other new avenues, lending the commemorative potential of the epigram (originally inscribed on stone monuments or in prefaces to texts) to the sonnet, and thus allowing the sonnet form to be used appositely in occasional poetry to mark a birthday, wedding or death. Among the other products of this interplay are the addition of a title to individual sonnets and their altered typographical appearance, but Borgstedt identifies ‘argutia’, the witty ingenuity typical of the treatment of style and subject matter in Martial’s epigrams, as the most significantly wide-reaching alteration to the sonnet, one which permits the form to chime with the general temper of the Baroque age.

[5]  Borgstedt’s greatest strength is his analysis of individual sonnets or groupings of sonnets. The author employs this analysis to illustrate argument with particular lucidity in the chapter on ‘Petrarkismus’, a form of the ‘imitatio’ – the emulation of exemplary poetry – that fuelled the cultivation of vernacular literature in seventeenth-century Germany. Petrarchism has been misunderstood as a static system of stylistic devices (hyperbole, paradox, oxymoron) and thematic motifs (the unattainable lady; the irresistible beauty of her eyes, hands, hair; the fascination exerted by her belongings – veil, glove, mirror) abstracted from Petrarch’s sonnets and more or less laboriously imitated. But Borgstedt reveals Petrarchism (and anti-Petrarchism) as a dynamic and inventive process of combination, renewal and experimentation, especially in sonnets in Opitz’s Buch von der deutschen Poeterey (281-297) and in Paul Fleming’s work (315-332). Following the publication of Hans Pyritz’s Paul Flemings Liebeslyrik. Zur Geschichte des Petrarkismus (1963), research has had to address Pyritz’s contention that Fleming eventually turned away from the traditions of Petrarchism to develop a personal, subjective type of love poetry comparable with the young Goethe’s ‘Erlebnislyrik’. While previous scholars have recognised the error of Pyritz’s contention, Borgstedt is the first to correct it convincingly. In Topik des Sonnets, the author explores Fleming’s blending of sonnet form and Petrarchan motif in ‘Auff den Sonnenschirm’ (which introduces a new object into the Petrarchan repertoire) with epigrammatic ‘argutia’ and ‘Pointe’, then analyses Fleming’s use of an intimately dialogic, colloquial style which is evident in ‘Auff den Sonnenschirm’ but even more pronounced in other sonnets – for instance, in ‘An Adelfien’. Borgstedt argues that the personal style erroneously categorised by Pyritz as early ‘Erlebnislyrik’ is, in fact, the product of Fleming’s innovatory combination of Petrarchism with the traditionally intimate style of letter-writing or dialogue, as exemplified by Seneca and, in the early modern period, by Justus Lipsius. Furthermore, Borgstedt also shows how Fleming transplants this vivid new style from the context of Petrarchism into that of Neostoicism, in the famous sonnet ‘An Sich’. Thus, the author not only resolves a question that has troubled research on Fleming for over four decades, he also amply demonstrates the sonnet’s remarkable openness to stylistic and thematic variation.

[6]  The concluding chapter, ‘Sonett als Lied in Aufklärung und Romantik’, contains further detailed analyses – in this case, of G.A. Bürger’s revival of the sonnet in the 1789 cycle dedicated to ‘Molly’ (410-421), his mistress and, later, wife for a short period before her death. Although aspects of Bürger’s sonnets speak of his direct debt to Petrarch, the dedicatee is no longer an unattainable beloved, as witnessed in the Italian model. Other alterations include the introduction of the ‘Volkslied’ tone and elements of ‘Sturm und Drang’ expressivity, both transplanted from Bürger’s earlier oeuvre, as well as a new use of exclusively feminine rhymes. Bürger worked on these sonnets in Göttingen with his friend, A.W. Schlegel, who, in the ‘Berliner Vorlesungen’ of 1803/4, went on to present a new paradigm for the sonnet’s metre and rhyme that has been markedly influential.

[7]  This review has selected sections of Borgstedt’s study without trying to convey a sense of the rigorous complexity that characterises his argument. While complexity is admirably supported by clarity of style and organisation, the absence of an index is, however, highly regrettable. In all other respects, it is to be hoped that future scholars will follow Borgstedt’s example and maybe explore ‘Topik des Sonetts‘ in the twentieth century or adapt his methodology to the study of further literary genres.

London, September 2010