Friday, April 30, 2021

Cottontail, one of about 350 remaining North Atlantic right whales, did not have an easy life


He was born in the balmy waters of Florida on December 30, 2008, and migrated thousands of miles up to Canada, his mother by his side, when he was less than a year old. Spotted more than 125 times by scientists, Cottontail was a welcome fixture in Cape Cod Bay.

“But Cottontail, one of about 350 remaining North Atlantic right whales, did not have an easy life. He became entangled in fishing gear as a calf, and then his mother disappeared somewhere in the Atlantic when he was just three years old. She is presumed dead, and Cottontail was her only calf.

“Cottontail got entangled a second time as an orphaned 8-year old, but the third entanglement is what ultimately led to his demise. In October of 2020, just shy of his 12th birthday, he was spotted off Nantucket with hundreds of feet of fishing rope trailing from his mouth and wrapped tightly around his upper jaw.

“Cottontail swam laboriously for hundreds of miles, dragging the fishing line and unable to eat. He struggled through his annual fall migration to more subtropical waters, and was re-sighted at the beginning of his spring migration northward on February 18th off the mid-Florida coast. With ropes still wrapped around him, Cottontail was emaciated.

“Cottontail was found dead off the coast of Myrtle Beach on February 28th. A teenager for a species that can live to be over 70, his probable cause of death was starvation due to strangulation. Gifted with complex cognitive abilities and feelings, whales are curious, playful, animals that grieve their dead. Cottontail probably enjoyed little of his life; much of it was spent struggling to free himself of ropes and fishing gear.

“His gruesome manner of death stunned Florida fisherman Joey Antonelli, who spotted Cottontail south of Cape Canaveral swimming north, and alerted wildlife officials. Researchers boated out to the whale to attach telemetry buoys to the ropes, hoping to track his migration while considering disentanglement efforts, but the buoys fell off and Cottontail was lost. It was the last time he was seen alive.

“Antonelli posted a video of Cottontail on his YouTube fishing page, normally reserved for the joys of hooking tarpon, wahoo, snapper and other prized sports fish. Atonelli said he was moved as to how “insanely skinny” Cottontail was and reminded his thousands of viewers that we all have to be better conservationists.

“The North Atlantic right whale is one of the most critical endangered animals on the planet. Up in Canada, the government recently announced measures to move more quickly on fishing closures and speed limits for ships when right whales are in an area, and to boost its support of ropeless lobster and crab traps.

“But the United States has done nothing significant to reduce the 900,000 ropes dangling between traps on the sea floor and buoys at the surface in U.S. North Atlantic waters. The desire for cheap seafood rules the day.

“Cottontail’s death touched many people. It was noted in newspapers and television stations along the east coast. Antonelli’s video has received almost 9,000 views. Perhaps it serves to remind us—extinction is a choice, and we are making that choice for right whales and millions of other species. We all need to be better conservationists.

“It is an epitaph worth repeating.”

Tim Whitehouse is the executive director for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

Common Dreams

Thursday, April 29, 2021

The Supreme Court Is “Frightened to Death” by the Case of a Foul-Mouthed Cheerleader by Mark Joseph Stern


In 2017, Brandi Levy posted a message on Snapchat that would lead her all the way to the Supreme Court. The Pennsylvania high school student and junior varsity cheerleader was disappointed that she did not make the varsity cheerleading squad at her public school. While hanging out at the Cocoa Hut, a local convenience store, Levy snapped a picture of herself shooting the bird with the caption: “Fuck school fuck softball fuck cheer fuck everything.” The photo was initially seen by, at most, her 250 friends on Snapchat. But one of those friends was the daughter of the cheerleading coach, who showed it to her mom. The coach, grievously offended, told Levy that she would be suspended from the team for the rest of the year. (For what it’s worth, Levy made varsity the next year.)

Versions of this story probably play out at schools across the country all the time. But this occasion was different, because Levy did not simply accept her punishment; instead, she filed a federal lawsuit alleging a violation of her First Amendment rights. This, too, is not that unusual: The great American trait of litigiousness starts early, and students sue their schools with some frequency. 

By punishing Levy, however, the cheerleading coach triggered a vexing and contentious debate: Can public schools penalize students for speech that occurs off campus? Remarkably, the Supreme Court has never answered this question—which is a problem, because today, school officials can access a huge amount of off-campus speech thanks to social media, and they often try to censor it. SCOTUS took up Levy’s case to decide, at long last, whether public schools can actually abridge their students’ free expression beyond the schoolhouse gate. But after oral arguments on Wednesday, they sound unlikely to provide a clear answer.

The history of school speech at the Supreme Court is short and mostly depressing. In 1969, the court famously held in Tinker v. Des Moines that students have First Amendment rights at public schools. Tinker is basically impossible to disagree with: The plaintiffs were a group of students who were suspended for wearing black armbands at school to protest the Vietnam War; they sued, and the Supreme Court found that the school had violated their free speech rights. 

The court explained that schools may only censor students when the speech at issue is likely to cause “substantial disruption of or material interference with school activities.” In the years since, though, the Supreme Court has substantially weakened protections for student speech, allowing schools to punish and silence young people for disfavored expression. At the bottom of this downward slope was 2007’s Morse v. Frederick, in which the conservative justices let a school penalize a student for holding a banner that read “BONG HITS 4 JESUS” at a school-supervised event.

None of these decisions addressed speech, like Levy’s, that occurred outside a school’s supervision. In the absence of such guidance, lower courts have divided, though most have held that out-of-school expression may be penalized if it could cause “substantial disruption” in school later on. In Levy’s case, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected this approach, declaring that it would “sweep in too much speech and distort Tinker’s narrow exception into a vast font of regulatory authority.” The 3rd Circuit declared that Tinker and its exception for disruptive speech do not apply off campus. Accordingly, it held that Levy’s school had violated her constitutional rights.

On Wednesday, a majority of the Supreme Court seemed to doubt the 3rd Circuit’s categorical rule. It was not apparent, though, if the justices have any better ideas. This case is certainly easy for Justice Clarence Thomas, who believes that students have virtually no free speech rights in or outside of school because, according to the justice’s own historical research, minors had no such rights when the First Amendment was ratified in 1791. 

But setting Thomas aside, this dispute may not divide the court along ideological (or partisan) lines like Morse v. Frederick did in 2007. Over the past 14 years, the suppression of student speech has evolved from liberal concern to a GOP talking point. Republican politicians now constantly complain about woke cancel culture stifling speech on campus, at both universities and high schools. They have come to understand that deference to school censorship may suppress speech that is conservative or religious.

This evolution is reflected in the amicus briefs filed on Levy’s behalf. A slew of right-wing organizations—such as the Becket Fund for Religious LibertyAlliance Defending Freedomthe Life Legal Defense Foundation, and Americans for Prosperity—weighed in on Levy’s side. (They were joined by more than 30 progressive groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, which represents Levy.) Conservative civil rights attorneys understand that if students can be disciplined for posting F-bombs on Snapchat, they can also be disciplined for anti-abortion Instagram posts that, in the eyes of school administrators, might create “substantial disruption” in the classroom.

Justice Samuel Alito reflected this concern during arguments. The justice asked Lisa Blatt, who defended the school, whether a student could be punished for refusing to use a transgender classmate’s proper name and pronouns. (Blatt said, in short, maybe.) But Alito’s deeper fear was that the court would muddle this issue more than it already has. “I’m really worried about how that is going to be implemented,” he told Blatt. “If schools are going to have any authority under Tinker outside of school, there has to be a clear rule.” Justice Sonia Sotomayor was similarly desperate for a straightforward rule that would lead to consistent and fair enforcement.

“I’m told by my law clerks that among certain populations … how much you curse is a badge of honor,” she told Blatt. “That would surprise many parents. However, if it is true, where do we draw the line with respect to it targeting a school? Kids basically talk to their classmates. Most of their conversation is about school. Most of their exchanges have to do with their perceptions of the authoritarian nature of their teachers and others. And why isn’t this any different than just that the coach of this team took personal offense?”

Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who coaches girls’ basketball, spent much of his colloquy with Blatt condemning Levy’s school for punishing her so severely. “As a judge and maybe as a coach and a parent too, it seems like maybe a bit of overreaction by the coach.” He told Blatt, continuing:

So my reaction when I read this, she’s competitive, she cares, she blew off steam like millions of other kids have when they’re disappointed about being cut from the high school team or not being in the starting lineup or not making all league. … It is so important to their lives, and coaches sweat the cuts, and it guts coaches to have to cut a kid who’s on the bubble, and good coaches understand the importance and they understand the emotions. So maybe what bothers me when I read all this is that it didn’t seem like the punishment was tailored to the offense.

This monologue may be a bit of a tangent, but it’s not wrong, and it touches on something important: Levy’s speech was not vulgar drivel, as Alito later implied. She expressed anger about her stymied dreams; it wasn’t a war protest, but it wasn’t meaningless, either. Kavanaugh’s point is a nuanced one. And it is hard to carve a one-size-fits-all doctrine out of a case with such subtleties.

“Everyone seems to want some rule,” Justice Stephen Breyer complained. He admitted to David Cole, who represented Levy: “I’m frightened to death of writing a standard.” Chief Justice John Roberts asked whether it was even possible to draw a line between on- and off-campus speech. “If a text or a Snap that you send, you send from the park and it’s read in the cafeteria, is that off campus or on campus?” he asked Cole. Justice Elena Kagan brought up cases involving bullying and harassment—a real concern among states that cautioned the court not to hobble schools’ ability to protect students from threats, intimidation, and violence. Would a decision for Levy imperil anti-bullying laws?

If the court can cobble together five votes for a majority decision in this case, it will be a small miracle. The justices have reasonable concerns, and no consensus emerged on Wednesday over a test that could incorporate them all into First Amendment law. Most of the court seemed to think Levy should win but feared a decision in her favor might tie schools’ hands, preventing them from enforcing discipline or protecting vulnerable students. Say what you will about Thomas, but at least his absolutist opposition to students’ free speech offers clarity. In their quest for some middle ground, the rest of the justices may devise new rules that make everyone else wish the court had kept its mouth shut.


Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Southern Illinois judge rules FOID card unconstitutional


Illinois State Rifle Association press release:

White County Resident Judge T. Scott Webb has ruled Illinois’s FOID card law unconstitutional, paving the way for the Illinois Supreme Court to take up the issue, according to Richard Pearson, executive director of the Illinois State Rifle Association.

The case is The People of Illinois vs. Vivian Claudine Brown. In March of 2017, Brown was accused of possessing a firearm without a FOID card. In dismissing the charges against Brown, Judge Webb also ruled the FOID card unconstitutional.

In his ruling, Judge Webb stated, “A citizen in the State of Illinois is not born with a Second Amendment right. Nor does that right insure when a citizen turns 18 or 21 years of age. It is a façade. They only gain that right if they pay a $10 fee, complete the proper application, and submit a photograph. If the right to bear arms and self-defense are truly core rights, there should be no burden on the citizenry to enjoy those rights, especially within the confines and privacy of their own homes. Accordingly, if a person does something themselves from being able to exercise that right, like being convicted of a felony or demonstrating mental illness, then and only then may the right be stripped from them.”

Pearson said he is hopeful for a positive outcome when the Illinois Supreme Court takes up this case.

“The rights afforded to us in the Constitution are rights guaranteed to every American,” Pearson said. “The right to bear arms should not be contingent on paying a fee. Right now, there is legislation pending in Springfield to make these fees even costlier. It is absolutely ridiculous that honest citizens should have to pay fees, fill out applications and wait on government to respond to their requests just to be able to exercise their rights. Illinois is one of only four states with the arcane FOID laws. We need to join the other 46 states that place a premium on our Constitution liberties”  (Rich Miller, Capitol Fax, April 27, 2021).

Monday, April 26, 2021

Mating 'til Death/Virgin Birth


This mammal mates so intensely that he disintegrates

“Live fast and die young” is the life motto of this little mouse-like marsupial. For two or three weeks, male antechinuses very nearly mate non-stop. Not long beforehand, his body had stopped making sperm, so he has to get it all out to pass on his genes. It’s imperative that the females get pregnant during this time so they have their babies in a season with plenty of food.

The male antechinuses do it with as many females as they can and each time can last as long as 14 hours. But the exhaustion takes hold of his body: his fur starts falling out, he’s internally bleeding, he gets gangrene, he goes blind, and soon enough, he drops dead.

Komodo dragons can have virgin births

It was a bit of a shock to zookeepers when a female Komodo dragon laid eggs despite being completely isolated from any males. How had she managed to reproduce all by herself? In science, this sort of virgin birth is called parthenogenesis. Her eggs fused with other materials in her body to make embryos.

Essentially, the Komodo dragon’s babies are her clones; they have the same DNA as her. Similarly, a python and a swellshark also surprised their keepers with their own virgin births. Some animals can do this if no males are around, as a last effort to pass their genes on to a new generation.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Top Scams Targeting Older Americans in 2021 (AARP)


Here's how to recognize and protect yourself from these costly cons

by Sari Harrar

1. Zoom phishing emails

Con artists registered more than 2,449 fake Zoom-related internet domains in the early months of the pandemic, just so they could send out emails that look like they're from the popular videoconferencing website, according to the Better Business Bureau.

The scheme: “You receive an email, text or social media message with the Zoom logo, telling you to click on a link because your account is suspended or you missed a meeting,” says Katherine Hutt, national spokesperson for the BBB. “Clicking can allow criminals to download malicious software onto your computer, access your personal information to use for identity theft, or search for passwords to hack into your other accounts.”

How to avoid: Never click on links in unsolicited emails, texts or social media messages, Hutt says. If you think there is a problem with your account, visit Zoom's real website at and follow the steps for customer support.

2. COVID-19 vaccination card scams

Many who got a COVID vaccine posted selfies on social media showing off their vaccination card. Scammers immediately pounced.

The scheme: “With your full name, birth date and information about where you received your shot, scammers have valuable data for identity theft, breaking into your bank accounts, getting credit cards in your name and more,” Hutt says.

How to avoid: If you want to inform friends and family that you got your shots, a selfie with a generic vaccine sticker will suffice. “Or use a Got My Vaccine profile picture frame on social media,” Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody suggests. And review your social media security settings to choose who can see your posts.

3. Phony online shopping websites

Phony retail websites aren't new, but they look more real today than ever before. “Fake sites are using photos from real online retailers and mimicking their look and feel,” Hutt says.

The scheme: You click on an ad online or on social media, see stuff you like at a great price, enter your credit card info … and never receive a product. “Or you receive a lower-quality item shipped directly from an overseas seller,” Hutt says.

How to avoid: Never click on an ad to go to a retailer's website. Instead, bookmark the URLs of trusted shopping websites you visit frequently and use those, suggests Tyler Moore, professor of cybersecurity at the University of Tulsa. “Don't bother with trying to figure out whether the web address is real. Attackers adapt and change them frequently.”

If you're considering buying from a new site, first check online reviews as well as the company's track record via the Better Business Bureau's online directory (

4. Celebrity impostor scams

Real celebs like Kim Kardashian and Justin Bieber grabbed headlines during the pandemic with social media money giveaways. Fans posted their cash-transfer app identifier (or $Cashtag, in Cash App) for a chance at free money. Right away, scammers posing as celebrities started offering fake giveaways as a way to get people's private information.

The scheme: You get a note via social media, email or text message, claiming you won! You just need to verify your account info and send a small deposit up front.

How to avoid: If you really win, you won't be asked to send money first, says Satnam Narang of Tenable, a cybersecurity firm. “The easiest way to defeat this scam is to block incoming requests on your cash-transfer app. Remember: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is."

5. Online romance scams

They're not just lurking on dating sites. “Romance scammers are getting close to unsuspecting women and men in online prayer groups and book groups, through online games like Words With Friends and other groups people are turning to during pandemic isolation,” Nofziger says.

The scheme: Scammers typically lure their romance marks off of sites that may be monitored and onto Google Hangouts, WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger, where no one's watching. Eventually they hit you up for money.

How to avoid: Rule number one: Never send money to someone you've never met in person. And say no to requests for suggestive selfies and videos that a scammer can later use to blackmail you. “It's flattering to be told you are attractive,” Nofziger says, “but it will be used against you.”

6. Medicare card scams

Scammers are emailing, calling and even knocking on doors, claiming to be from Medicare and offering all sorts of pandemic-related services if you “verify” your Medicare ID number.

The scheme: The offers include new cards they claim contain microchips. Some posers are asking for payment to move beneficiaries up in line for the COVID-19 vaccine.

How to avoid: Hang up the phone, shut the door, delete the email. According to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, Medicare will never contact you without permission for your Medicare number or other personal information. And it will never call to sell you anything. Guard your Medicare number and never pay for a COVID vaccine. It's free.

7. Peer-to-peer (P2P) payment scams

The rise of smartphone tools like CashApp, Venmo, Zelle and PayPal, which let you transfer money directly to another person, has led to a range of frauds.

The scheme: “One of the more pervasive is the so-called ‘accidental transfer of funds’ scam,” Narang says. “A scammer sends hundreds of dollars, then sends a follow-up message requesting the money back, claiming it was ‘an accident.’ “ But the original transfer was made with a stolen debit card; those funds will eventually be removed from your account. And you're out the money.

How to avoid: Scrutinize money requests before hitting “accept.” To be extra diligent, “disable [or block] incoming requests altogether on your app and only use it for sending money,” Narang suggests. Enable it when someone you trust is about to send you cash. And ignore a notice to return an accidental deposit. Report the incident to the app's support team to resolve the dispute.

8. Social Security scam calls

Scammers are using “spoofed” phone numbers that look like they're coming from Washington, D.C., to appear credible.

The scheme: You get a scary phone call saying your Social Security number was used in a crime — and you'll be arrested soon if you don't send money to fix it. “They may say your number was used to rent a car where drugs were found and that the Drug Enforcement Agency is on their way to your house,” Nofziger says. “The caller may refer you to a local law-enforcement website where you can see the person's picture. You think you've checked it out, call them back and send money.”

How to avoid: “Don't pick up the phone unless you absolutely know who's calling,” Nofziger says. “If it's important, they'll leave a voicemail.”

9. Account takeover scam texts

Scammers are sending fake text messages alleging there's big trouble with your internet account, a credit card, bank account or shopping order on Amazon. They want you to click on links and provide personal info.

The scheme The urgent-sounding text message may have a real-looking logo. “People don't expect scammers to use text messages, so they're more likely to click,” Moore says.

How to avoid: Remember, don't click on links in emails and texts that you haven't asked for. Call your bank or credit card company to check for a problem. Installing security software on your computer and keeping it updated is also crucial, says cybersecurity expert Brian Payne, of Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia.

AARP’s Fraud Watch Network can help you spot and avoid scams. Sign up for free Watchdog Alerts, review our scam-tracking map, or call our toll-free fraud helpline at 877-908-3360 if you or a loved one suspect you’ve been a victim.


Saturday, April 24, 2021

"Could it be that after all these years the marriage of business and racist voters is twisting apart?" -Heather Cox Richardson


“…On April 19, Senator Rick Scott (R-FL), who is the chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, in charge of fundraising to elect Republicans to the Senate, wrote an astonishing op-ed for Fox Business. It lashed out at ‘Woke Corporate America,’ the corporations Scott blames for shunning states that are undermining voting rights in order to try to keep Republicans in power, particularly Major League Baseball.

“Using language that echoes that of former president Donald Trump, this scathing op-ed accuses business leaders of catering to ‘the rabble leftist mob’ because they are ‘hoping to buy time to rake in more cash.’ It warns, ‘There is a massive backlash coming. You will rue the day when it hits you. That day is November 8, 2022. That is the day Republicans will take back the Senate and the House. It will be a day of reckoning.’

“The man who is in charge of raising money to elect Republicans to the Senate, a businessman whose net worth is estimated to be more than $200 million, with his wife worth another $170–208 million, is turning viciously on the business people who, until now, have provided the financing to keep Republicans in office. This strikes me as an interesting moment.

“The ideological faction that is currently in control of the Republican Party grew out of opposition to the active government both Democrats and Republicans embraced after World War II. But since Americans actually liked business regulation, a social safety net, and infrastructure projects, those Movement Conservatives who wanted to take the government back to the 1920s got little traction until 1954, when the Brown v. Board of Education decision enabled them to harness racism to their cause.

“With federal government efforts to end segregation in the public schools, businessmen who hated government regulation warned voters that their tax dollars were being used to give Black Americans extra benefits. It was socialism, they said, and it would encourage Black people to step out of their place.

“This formula worked. Businessmen determined to cut the government bankrolled Movement Conservative candidates, and people determined not to let their tax dollars go to Black or Brown people voted for them. In 1986, Grover Norquist, a former economist for the Chamber of Commerce, brought together business people, evangelicals, and social conservatives. ‘Traditional Republican business groups can provide the resources,’ Norquist explained, ‘but these groups can provide the votes.’

“These two very different groups have worked together since the Reagan administration, but former president Trump changed the equation. In the past, the racist and sexist language was understated enough that supporters could wink at it and insist that those calling it out were overly sensitive. But Trump put it openly on the table.

“When Trump announced his candidacy for president on June 16, 2015, suggesting that Mexican immigrants to the U.S. are drug dealers, criminals, and rapists, supporters continued the old pattern of excusing that rhetoric. But in August 2017, when Trump appeared to side with the white supremacist mob that killed Heather Heyer and wounded 19 other counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, with his claim that there were ‘very fine people on both sides,’ a split seemed to open up in the party.

“Fed on decades of racist and sexist rhetoric and emboldened by the president, white supremacists stepped into public view in a way that could not be ignored. And party leaders who depended on their votes did not turn away. But the calculation for business leaders changed with the January 6 insurrection and the attempts of states like Georgia to restrict the vote, largely to keep Black people from the polls.

“Consumers and employees are pressing business leaders to take a stand against the white supremacist wing of the party, and many of them are doing so. At the same time, though, small donors are making up for the money that corporations are withholding from Republican candidates. This seems to have inspired Senator Scott—who is in charge of fundraising, after all—to turn viciously on businessmen in order to court Trump loyalists. Could it be that after all these years the marriage of business and racist voters is twisting apart?

“If it is, it seems to me there are two logical outcomes to this split. It could be that the people running today’s businesses fall in line behind the white nationalists and let them call the shots, letting them take the lead in the old partnership for a change. If that happens, we can expect any future Republican government formally to throw out our foundational principle of equality before the law, and the vision that the former president and his followers embraced will come to pass.

“But there is another possible outcome. It was, after all, the marriage of these two very different groups that gave Movement Conservatives the power to take over the Republican Party in an attempt to destroy the post–World War II government. If they finally wrench apart, the remnants of the Republican Party would once again have to appeal to ordinary voters who want to keep the active government that provides Social Security and Medicare and roads and clean water but who want a real conversation about what that government should look like” (Heather Cox Richardson).


Friday, April 23, 2021

The Heretical Origins of the Sonnet by Ed Simon (JSTOR)


Of variable rhyme scheme and meter, sonnets are sometimes structured into stanzas of an octet and a sestet or of three quartets and a concluding couplet. They are normally fourteen lines long, though always with a concluding volta, the rhetorical turn that gives the sonnet its reputation for surprise, rigor, and elegance.

In lyric intensity, in density of imagery and turn of phrase, a sonnet is instantly recognizable. The professor of comparative medieval literature Paul Oppenheimer, writing in Comparative Literature, explains that sonnets are highly dialectical, whereby an issue (often concerning romantic love) is posed, but the “form of the poem will solve the problem,” a form somewhere between a poem and a syllogism.

There are structural variations: the Italian or Petrarchan sonnet; the English or Shakespearean sonnet; Edmund Spenser and Alexander Pushkin both invented their own types, and there are any number of deviations, a flexibility that proves their enduring appeal. Oppenheimer argues that the “invention of the sonnet was a momentous event,” as “no major poet… in Italian, German, French, Spanish, and English has failed to write sonnets.” And as Christopher Kleinhenz notes in the edited collection Francis Petrarch, Six Centuries Later: A Symposium: “750 years after its appearance, the sonnet still has the same basic form.”

Kleinhenz writes: “For centuries the sonnet has remained the most popular and the most difficult poetic form in Western literature,” with few canonical poets since the Renaissance completely avoiding them. The endurance of the fourteen lines is startling, though a return to its complex origins almost a millennium ago provides a fuller understanding of its appeal. The sonnet, as it turns out, is many things; not least of which is a lesson in the complexity of societies and souls.

With good reason the fourteenth-century Tuscan poet Petrarch is the sonnet’s exemplar. In fact, he’s often erroneously understood as its creator. Petrarch penned Il Canzoniere, a sequence of 366 poems—the vast majority of which are sonnets—dedicated to his idealized love Laura de Noves. Petrarch’s vision appeared bold, new, and uncompromising, whereby he would declare in Sonnet 105 of Il Canzoniere: “Understand me who can, for I understand myself”—a full-throated affirmation of radical individuality.

Though he was an inhabitant of the Middle Ages, Petrarch’s mind was of the Renaissance: the primogeniture of that era. “The early humanists universally regarded Francesco Petrarch as their founder,” writes Robert E. Proctor in Renaissance Quarterly. In his enthusiasms for travel, classical writing, and individual expression, Petrarch was a vital advocate for the pedagogical reform movement known as humanism.

The fusion of aesthetics and erudition known as Petrarchism was foundational, for, as Oppenheimer argues, the “invention of the sonnet may possess an even greater importance: it may mark the beginnings of what we must mean by ‘modern’ poetry.” Petrarch didn’t invent the sonnet, however, for that honor is owed to an obscure (though brilliant) poet named Giacomo da Lentini, who was a notary for King Frederick II of Sicily, writing nearly a century before the celebrated Tuscan. If the sonnet was a mechanism for creating modernity, then da Lentini is the engineer whom we must credit. And yet even the most adept of engineers must draw from materials not of their own crafting.

I’ve seen it rain on sunny days
And seen the darkness flash with light
And even lightning turn to haze.

So writes da Lentini in a sonnet translated by Leo Zoutewelle. While da Lentini doesn’t reach the heights that we associate with Petrarch and Shakespeare, the hallmarks are all there. Structured as an octet combined with a sestet, and already with the characteristic volta which mimics a mind in argument with itself, da Lentini engages a series of contradictions, of “sweet things [that] taste of bitterness” and “enemies their love confess,” but by the volta, these paradoxes are set in perspective by the even “stranger things I’ve seen of love.” The paradoxes are never reconciled—if anything, each line is a tiny dialectic—such as when da Lentini writes of that which “healed my wounds by wounding me” and of being “saved from love, [though] love now burns more.”

These contradictions aren’t resolved, even as da Lentini moves from investigating the physical world (sunny days, light, frozen snow, etc.) to love. Central to the sonnet is that mystery, for as incongruous as sweet things being bitter might be, stranger still is love. Though a Christian gloss could be provided, there is a surprisingly secular feel, with Oppenheimer arguing that the “sonnet must itself be considered symptomatic of the slowly developing state of mind that we designate by the term ‘Renaissance.’”

The Sicilian School of poets had several traditions to draw from. Because “sonnet” roughly translates to “song,” even though it’s believed that few lyrics were ever actually set to music, scholars have searched for the form’s origin beyond poetry. The most obvious candidate is the eight-line strambotto, a peasant song to which may have been added a sestet.

There are also non-Western candidates, with scholars having long suspected that da Lentini drew from Arabic poetry. This was unsurprising, for Sicily was at the confluence of the known world. By the thirteenth century, Sicily had had periods of rule by the Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Vandals, Ostrogoths, Byzantines, Arabs, and Normans, with strong cultural influence from all of them. Buffeted between the Latin West, the Byzantine East, and the Islamic world, the Kingdom of Sicily was ruled over by Frederick, a Swabian German, who established a Palermo court known for its efficiency, tolerance, and innovation. With a large population of Jews and Muslims, Arab influence remained vital, with the Emirate of Sicily having fallen to Norman invaders only a bit more than a century before.

The scholar Samar Attar claims in Arab Studies Quarterly that the “formation of Italian literary texts between 1200 and 1400 cannot adequately be understood without reference to the various Arabic and Islamic sources that date back to the seventh century onwards.” Likewise, literary scholar Kamal Abu-Deeb writes in Critical Survey that the sonnet has “schemes, or structures, that are variations… on structures of the muwashshahat produced by Arab poets,” a genre which unlike the sonnet is traditionally set to music, while Oppenheimer notes that several scholars have argued that the form “derived from the Arab zajal, a rhyming stanza popular with the Arabs living in Sicily in Giacomo’s time.”

Even more evocative than the morphological similarities are the thematic ones; with its volta, the sonnet mirrors the dialectic argumentation that marked Islamic and Jewish philosophy, and in its celebration of secular love there are antecedents in Sufism. “The idea that a beloved woman can be the manifestation of divinity or the emanation of God was acceptable among the Arabs much earlier before the thirteenth century” writes Attar. In short, Petrarch’s Laura has Islamic precedents.

There is the potential for other idiosyncratic influences on the sonnet. From 1209 to 1229 the town of Albi in Languedoc faced a bloody crusade waged by the Church against a group of Christian heretics known as Cathars (though sometimes referred to as Albigensians, after the seat of their movement). Much romanticized in the ensuing centuries, the neo-gnostic Cathars promulgated a gospel that saw the material world as evil, argued that the universe was dualistically split between good and evil, extolled the equivalence of the sexes, and celebrated Platonic spiritual union (including a belief in reincarnation).

The Cathars shared their Occitan tongue (closely related to both French and Catalan) with the troubadours, a movement of poet-performers who set their verse to music. There is academic disagreement about the relationship between the Cathars and the Languedoc troubadours, but some scholars argue that the latter were the artistic vanguard of the former, with Michael Bryson and Arpi Movesian in Love and its Critics: From the Song of Songs to Shakespeare and Milton’s Eden arguing that “the massacres that followed affected the poetry of the thirteenth century. No longer were poets free to flout the morality of the Church without trepidation.” The result was that later troubadour poetry encoded Cathar beliefs rather than explicitly expressing them.

From French Provence, many refugees from the destruction of Catharism made their way across the Mediterranean at the invitation of Frederick, and they may have influenced the nascent sonneteers. Writing in Speculum, the poetry scholar Elias L. Rivers declares that there is a “consensus with regard to most poetry of the Sicilian School, namely that the concept of love on which these sonnets are based is in general the same as that of the Provencal troubadours: the poet ‘serves’ his lady as a vassal.”

A tradition of idealized platonic love, so identified with Medieval poetry, finds its way into the early sonnets through Islamic and troubadour influence. Elias confidently declares that the “newly invented sonnet form so shaped, and merged with, the subject-matter of the troubadours as to constitute a coherent poetic genre of great vitality.”

On the other hand, in Parrots and Nightingales: Troubadour Quotations and the Development of European Poetry, the French literature scholar Sarah Kay asserts that there was a “gradual take-up of troubadour inspired poetry among… writers of the Sicilian school.” While orthodox Catholics would have blanched at the association with heresy, the rich heritage of Occitan poetry “was acknowledged by Dante and Petrarch, who extended their indirect influence throughout the Europe of the Renaissance,” as the editors of The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics write. So integral is the influence of Occitan upon the foundations of the sonnet that the comparative literature scholar William D. Paden in Annali d’Italianistica quips that he considers “Petrarch as though he were the last troubadour.”

Oppenheimer claims that the Platonism that became foundational for Renaissance philosophy (also crucial to Catharism) is numerically structured into the sonnet. He sees a crucial relationship between the number of lines in the sestet, the octet, and the twelve lines of the poem before the concluding couplet. “The proportions 6:8 and 6:8:12 did play exceedingly interesting roles in the history of ideas… where they describe… ‘harmonic’ proportions,” Oppenheimer writes, because the “notion of the 6:8:12 relation as ‘harmonic’… may be found much earlier, in the Pythagorean-Platonic theory of numbers.”

The ratio between the sestet and octet may indicate a mystical understanding that would dominate Renaissance humanism, but arguably even more important is what the form accomplishes—a full-throated, lyrically compact, dialectically structured meditation on subjective consciousness. Oppenheimer claims that for this reason the sonnet is “in a real sense, a lyric sung by the soul to the soul” with a “mysterious aesthetic perfection… like the profoundest of small mirrors, [which] still plumbs the depths of our best poets’ richest gifts.”

There is an intrinsic mystery to the attractions of those fourteen lines. In the seventeenth-century Donne described sonnets as being like a series of “pretty rooms.” Two centuries later and Edith Wharton would call them a “pure form… like some chalice of old time,” and Dante Gabriel Rossetti said that sonnets were a “moment’s monument,” while in our own century Terrance Hayes claimed that they’re “part prison, / Part panic closet, a little room in a house set aflame.”

The sonnet is arguably something else as well—an ancient vehicle for ideas from a millennium ago, an innovation of forgotten poets in the sun-dappled, lemon-tree-filled courts of King Frederick II, his notaries working at the crossroads of east and west, Islam and Christianity, orthodoxy and heresy, for whom the form would function as an incubator for individuality, the lyric a catalyst for a new way of observing. Rather than saying that the sonnet was an exemplar of the Renaissance, it’s more accurate to say that the Renaissance was born because of the sonnet, this perfect lyric gem of thought and experience.



JSTOR is a digital library for scholars, researchers, and students. JSTOR Daily readers can access the original research behind our articles for free on JSTOR.

The Origin of the Sonnet
By: Paul Oppenheimer
Comparative Literature, Vol. 34, No. 4 (Autumn, 1982), pp. 289-304
Duke University Press on behalf of the University of Oregon
The Studia Humanitatis: Contemporary Scholarship and Renaissance Ideals
By: Robert E. Proctor
Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 43, No. 4 (Winter, 1990), pp. 813-818
Cambridge University Press on behalf of the Renaissance Society of America
Love and its Critics: From the Song of Songs to Shakespeare and Milton’s Eden
By: Michael Bryson, Arpi Movsesian
Love and its Critics: From the Song of Songs to Shakespeare and Milton’s Eden, 576 pages
Open Book Publishers
Petrarch as a Poet of Provence
By: William D. Paden
Annali d'Italianistica, Vol. 22, Francis Petrarch & the European Lyric Tradition (2004), pp. 19-44
Arizona State University