Development of English Sonnet

It is the Italian sonnet (or Petrarchan) which is the legitimate form, for it alone recognizes that peculiar unbalance of parts which is its salient characteristic. The English sonnet does something rather different with the form which is not quite as interesting or as subtle. English took Petrarchan sonnet, modified and elevated it to most celebrated and well-known form of poetry.

Petrarchan sonnet was restricted to the idealization of women and illustration of the agonies of amorous affairs but English poets transformed it into a form capable of convey the subtle feelings, intricacies of mental processes, socio-economic concerns and the individual pathos and miseries.

English sonneteers not only re-invented the form of sonnet but also revolutionized and rationalized its subject matter enabling it to include and articulate the subtle ideas and thoughts.

The Italian sonnet has two parts – the Octave, a stanza of eight lines and the Sestet, a stanza of six lines, The Octave is composed of two rhymes that has the following scheme ; a b b a, a b b a.

The, sestet has sometimes two rhymes, sometimes three, different from the rhymes of the Octave c d e, c d e, c d c, d c d, c d e, d c e. , The Octave may be divided into two quatrains, the sestet into two tercets. At the end of the Octave, i. e. , after the eighth lines, there is a conspicuous pause or Caesura (it is often manifested by a space) followed by a Volta or a turn in the thought.

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But it may be noted that in Italian sonnets this break of thought is not found as a rule. (Spiller, 1992, p. 3) Sonnet in England was pioneered by Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard in the first half of the 16th century, but they did not follow the Italian pattern of the sonnet and thought about a change in its form. It was Sir Thomas Wyatt who first initiated the Petrarchan sonnets and reinvented the art of sonnet (Spiller, 1992, p. 3) He founded the beauty of the form of a sonnet excellently suited as a vehicle for the expression of personal feeling, without taking recourse to allegory or fiction.

And through sonnet, translated or imitated, lyricism with its music of feeling and passion flowed through poetry in England. Wyatt’s sonnets `The Long Love . . . and `Whoso List to Hunt` justifies the opinion. But this change was related to subject matter only. Thomas P. Roche says in this regard; “Petrarch poems of fourteen line and that the earliest examples in English by Wyatt and Surrey established the norm. Almost equally surely there can be no question that the word sonnet in the renaissance did not refer merely to fourteen-line norm. ” (p. XI)

With Wyatt discovered the rhythm and music of English sonnets-born out of a Petrarchan convention. Surrey particularly introduced a rhyme-scheme, different from the Italian model, for instance `The Soote Season`. Surrey substituted the less elaborate and easier form, eschewing the Italian form, which Wyatt had introduced-three quatrains with different rhymes followed by a couplet. His sonnets are divided into three quatrains (of four lines each followed by a rhyming couplet of two lines). Additionally, he totally changed the purpose of sonnets as he wrote elegiac sonnets as well.

Surrey’s elegiac soonets on the death of Wyatt and of Thomas Clere are presumably the first elegiac sonnet in England. (John, 1938, p. 10) Shakespeare has followed the pattern of Surrey in his sonnets. Since he has made a splendid use of this form, it is known after him and not surrey, its real originator. The end of octave in English sonnet does not have any hiatus or twist of thought. It carries the though up to the concluding couplet, where poets wrap up pitching the subject matter of the sonnet at the highest level of his thought. Its rhyme scheme is a b a b, c d c d, e f e f, g g.

In Shakespearean sonnet, the quatrains stand apart so far as the rhyming scheme is concerned, though in their subject matter they are linked together. Spenser evolved a new variety in that each of his quatrains was linked to the other by an intermixture of the rhymes in the following manner a b a b, b c b c, c d c d, e e. (Spiller, 1992) In addition to the form, the major development was the subject matter of the sonnet. Petrarchan sonnet was entirely based on the idealization of women but unlike it, English sonnet showed a consistent resistance to the glorification of women.

“There was never ffile half so well field” by Wyatt and “When my love swears that she is made of truth” are example of this. Dasenbrock labels this as the “blame-style” of Wyatt and his subsequent sonneteers. As it has already been noted, the sonnet found its way to the Tudor court of England through Wyatt and Surrey. Although mid-Tudor miscellanies were very popular in those days but were unable to left its imprint on the form and/or subject matter of the poem. So there was no remarkable development in English sonnet from Wyatt and Surrey in 1830s and 1840s to the time of Spenser and Sidney in 1580 and 1590.

This was due to the fact that there was no critical interest of the contemporary poet in the poetry of the time. This phenomenon is mourned by C. S Lewis as “the late medieval swamp”. (p. 25) Additionally, as far as the metre is concerned, Elizabethan poetic mindset was unable to accept anything else than pentameter. Other metric forms were considered insubstantial but C. S. Lewis considered this metric form in insufficient to comprehend “something fully human and adult”. (p.

139) Even then the point of the Italian form was not entirely grasped, for Wyatt’s sonnets all ended with a couplet, and Surrey, after some experimentation, used a pattern of alternately rhymed quatrains, which encouraged logical exposition right up to this final couplet and postponed the turn. However, Wyatt’s sonnets are rigid and awkward, whereas Surrey’s have great artistic merits. Sir Philip Sidney set the vogue of writing sonnet-sequences, In fact, after Wyatt and Surrey, the sonnet was neglected for a number of years.

It was for Sidney to revitalize this form by composing one hundred and eight sonnets, all put in Astrophel and Stella, commemorating his fruitless love for Penelope Deveneux, the daughter of his patron, the Earl of Essex. Sidney wrote the sonnet not to satisfy the call of the age, but to express his heart-felt love-experience. Sidney’s sonnets reveal a true lyric emotion. On the one hand, there is in these sonnets much of the conventional material of the Italian sonneteers; but on the other hand there are touches so apt to the situation of a man who loves too late that one hesitates to ascribe them to mere dramatic skill.

Sidney’s sonnets are not rich in Words in words only; in vague and unlocalised feelings they are full, material, and circumstantiated. They are struck full of amorous, fancies, far-fetched conceits, befitting his occupation. As a sonneteer Sidney is placed next only to Shakespeare and Spenser. Sidney’s sonnet-sequence known as Astrophel and Stella created a taste for the sonnet form. Many poets tried their hand at the form, mostly to express love for some imagined mistress. This accounts for the artificiality of most of the Elizabethan sonnets. No true passion was the motivation.

Sonnets were written merely for the sake of literary fashion. However, Spenser’s Amoretti, a collection of about 88 sonnets, is marked with sincerity. In these sonnets Spenser ran be seen to express his genuine feelings without recourse to allegory. In the first ranks of the works of the English Renaissance, Spenser’s sonnets come between those of Sidney and Shakespeare from which they are different in forms as in sentiment. Spenser wrote Amoretti, a sequence of eighty-eight sonnets, addressed to Elizabeth Boyle whom he married in 1594. Spenser’s sonnets are unique for their purity.

They tell a story of love without sin or remorse. There is the purity of tone in them and they show better than anything else the quality in Spenser which Coleridge named ‘Maidenliness”. The love embodied in these sonnets is not of the body, but it for the lady’s divine qualities. In this respect Spenser’s sonnets are distinguished from the sonnets of other Elizabethan sonneteers. They are also unique in form, though written in English style. They are written in three interlinked quatrains in alternative rhyme with the couplet standing alone, i.

e. , a b a b, b c b c, c d c d, e e. His best sonnets include: ‘Like as a ship that through the ocean wide’; ‘Most glorious Lord of fife that on this day: ‘Fresh spring the herald of love’s mighty king’; ‘One day I write her name upon the strand’; and ‘Men call you fair, and you do credit it’. Shakespearean sonnets are periodically narrative unlike Sidney and Spenser due to its variety of thematic expressions. He takes into account the socio-economic disquiet about the poet’s abode to frequent worries for the posthumous standing of the poet.

Shakespeare’s sonnets, 154 in number, form “the casket which encloses the most precious pearls of Elizabethan lyricism, some of them unsurpassed by any lyricist. ” It is in these sonnets that Shakespeare unlocks his heart. Besides their sincerity of tone, they possess literary qualities of high order, for instance `When I consider every thing that grows` , `Not marble, nor the gilded . . . ` , `My mistress eyes . . . ` and `Whoever hath her wish . . . `. They touch perfection in their phraseology, in their perfect blending of sense and sound, in their versification.

He is truly a marvelous sonneteer. However, the still sonnet had to wait till Milton in the post. Elizabethan period, for the English passion for sonneteering died out in the early 17th century. It was Milton who widened the scope of the sonnet which had hitherto been a vehicle to express only love and friendship. Milton uses the form to express his deeply felt emotions on contemporary politics, religion, public, figures, womanhood, and such personal subjects as his blindness.

In the words of Henford, “These later English sonnets are the most immediately personal of all Milton’s utterances, representing emotional moments in his later life, experience which find no adequate expression in his prose-writing in the publication of which he was during these years primarily engaged. We may believe also that they were, like the Psalms, prompted in part by a conscious desire in Milton to exercise himself in verse in preparation for the epic poem which he still intended. ” (p. 56) While following Petrarchan pattern, Milton made many stylistic changes in the form.

His sentence structure is more complex and the rhythm is slowed down, the syntax tends to overflow the two main and two subsidiary divisions of the poem. Milton’s use of the new style in the Sonnets foreshadows the methods of his later blank verse, where we also find ‘the sense variously drawn out from one verse into another’. The technical changes he takes over from the Renaissance Italians make what is necessarily a short poem into one that seems weighty and sustained; pauses within the lines are added to those suggested by the rhymes, which are partly submerged by the flow of the sense.

The sonnet thus becomes a single verse-paragraph flowing through a sound pattern made up of four divisions marked by the rhymes. Milton wrote in all, eighteen sonnets in English and two in Italian. These were composed over a period of twenty years when Milton was busy with political problems and affairs of the common wealth. They are in the nature of occasional outbursts of poetical enthusiasm and do not form a continuous series. Unlike some of the Elizabethan sonnet sequences Milton was never tempted by the idea of writing a sonnet series, nor was he attracted by the subject of love.

In fact, he saved it from Cupid and Venus. The sonnets of Milton are simple but majestic records of the feelings of the poet himself. He enlarged the scope of the sonnet by expressing through it sentiments stirred by historical events. Some of his sonnets are personal and domestic. After Milton, the form sonnet fell on evil days for no writer tried his hand on this form seriously. Hardly any sonnet worth the name and recognition was written during the period of one hundred years. It was for Wordsworth to revitalize the form.

He adopted the sonnet and used this form with great artistic skill and care. The sonnet was suited to Wordsworth’s poetic genius, because he could handle one thought at a time effectively and the sonnet was best suited to it. The sonnet with its freedom, of choice in theme and emotion, united to its exacting discipline, and to its need of a clear intellectual basis, was a predestined form for Wordsworth. Now Wordsworth adopted the Italian form and introduced some changes in its form and structure best suited to his moods. Sometimes he avoided the break, sometimes, he varied its position.

He practiced many varieties of rhyming schemes. In fact, Wordsworth’s sonnets are marked with a greater variety than that in Milton’s. So above-mentioned discussion and supported evidence clearly suggest that English poets not only re-invented the Petrarchan sonnet but developed it to an elevated form of poetry. It remains no more a love-poem reflecting the diversity of thought and creativity of the English poets that made it substantial and sustained form to express and to contain the subtle and delicate thought.

Works Cited

Dasenbrock, Reed W.Wyatt’s transformation of Petrarch. Comparative Literature. 1988. 40. 122-123. Hanford. James H. John Milton Poet and Humanist: Essays. The Press of Western Reserve University. 1966. John , Lisle Cecil. The Elizabethan Sonnet Sequences: Studies in Conventional Conceits. Columbia University Press. 1938. Lewis. C. S. English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Except Drama. Oxford: Clarendin Press. 1954. Roche, Thomas P. Petrarch and the English Sonnet Sequences. AMS Press. 1988 Spiller, Michael. The Development of the Sonnet: An Introduction. New York: Routledge. 1992

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Development of English Sonnet. (2017, Jan 30). Retrieved from

Development of English Sonnet
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