Sonnet- A Brief History of Its Journey

The Sonnet as a literary form, inferior to none in variety or extent, is superior to many in nobility of thought, in sanctity of spirit and in generality of comprehension. In beauty or prolixity, it can vie with any other literary genre ancient and modern. Despite of the various experimentation, internal and external, Sonnet had to encounter ever since the dawn of its birth, she has successfully held up to the world her archaic literary beauty.

Sonnet, derived from the Italian word ‘Sonneto’ meaning a little sound or strain, is a lyric poem of 14 lines with a formal rhyme scheme, expressing different aspects of a single thought, mood, or feeling, sometimes resolved or summed up in the last lines of the poem. Originally short poems accompanied by mandolin or lute music, sonnets are generally composed in the standard meter of the language in which they were written—for example, iambic pentameter in English, and the Alexandrine in French. Such outburst of lyricism in English literature is shared by almost all the poets of the literary period including Sir Philip Sidney, Spenser ,Shakespeare Henry constable, Samuel Daniel, Michael Drayton, Robert Browning, Matthew Arnold, Christina Georgina Rossetti, and Gerard Manley Hopkins ,Henry Wadsworth Longfellow etc.

The two main forms of the sonnet are the Petrarchan, or Italian, and the English, or Shakespearean. The former probably developed from the stanza form of the canzone or from Italian folk song. The earliest known Italian sonneteer was Guittone d'Arezzo. The form reached its peak with the Italian poet Petrarch, who’s Canzoniere (about 1327) includes 317 sonnets addressed to his beloved Laura.

The Petrarchan sonnet consists of an octave, or eight-line stanza, and a sestet, or six-line stanza. The octave has two quatrains, rhyming a b b a, a b b a, but avoiding a couplet; the first quatrain presents the theme, the second develops it. The sestet is built on two or three different rhymes, arranged c d e c d e, or c d c d c d, or c d e d c e; the first three lines exemplify or reflect on the theme, and the last three lines bring the whole poem to a unified close. Excellent examples of the Petrarchan sonnet in the English language are found in the sonnet sequence Astrophel and Stella (1591) by Sir Philip Sidney, which established the form in England. There, in the Elizabethan age, it reached the peak of its popularity. Let’s see a Petrarchan sonnet model:

H.W. Longfellow's


As a fond mother, when the day is o'er,   (a)
Leads by the hand her little child to bed,  (b)
Half willing, half reluctant to be led,  (b)
And leave his broken playthings on the floor,  (a)
Still gazing at them through the open door,  (a)
Nor wholly reassured and comforted  (b)
By promises of others in their stead,   (b)
Which, though more splendid, may not please him more;   (a)

So Nature deals with us, and takes away   (c)
Our playthings one by one, and by the hand   (d)
Leads us to rest so gently, that we go   (c)
Scarce knowing if we wish to go or stay,   (c)
Being too full of sleep to understand    (d)
How far the unknown transcends the what we know.  (c)

The English sonnet, exemplified by the work of William Shakespeare and by Amoretti (1595) by Edmund Spenser, developed as an adaptation to a language less rich in rhymes than Italian. This form differs from the Petrarchan sonnet in being divided into three quatrains, each rhymed differently, and with a final, independently rhymed couplet that makes an effective, unifying climax to the whole. The rhyme scheme is a b a b, c d c d, e f e f, g g. Let’s see a Shakespearean sonnet model:

My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun; (a)
Coral is far more red than her lips' red; (b)
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun; (a)
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head. (b)

I have seen roses damask'd, red and white, (c)
But no such roses see I in her cheeks; (d)
And in some perfumes is there more delight(c)
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks. (d)

I love to hear her speak, yet well I know(e)
That music hath a far more pleasing sound; (f)
I grant I never saw a goddess go; (e)
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground: (f)

   And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare(g)
   As any she belied with false compare. (g)

 In the first half of the 16th century the sonnet was introduced in England by Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey. Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, earl of Surrey, are credited with introducing the sonnet into England with translations of Italian sonnets as well as with sonnets of their own. Tottel's Miscellany of Songs and Sonnets,a collection of their sonnets, is one of the landmarks of English literature. It begins lyrical love poetry in our language. It begins, too, the imitation and adaptation of foreign and chiefly Italian metrical forms, many of which have since become characteristic forms of English verse : so characteristic, that we scarcely think of them as other than native in origin. However, in the Tudor court of England there the sonnet came through them with slight variation from Italian models. Wyatt’s sonnets all ended with a couplet and surrey by offer some experiments, 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.

 Firstly 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, which celebrate the history of his love for Penelope Devereux, sister of the Earl of Essex, a love brought to disaster by the intervention of Queen Elizabeth with whom he had quarreled. As poetry they mark an epoch. They are the first direct expression of an intimate and personal experience in English literature. As a sonneteer Sidney is placed next only to Shakespeare and Spenser. His sonnets are mostly written in mixed Italian and English form.

The next most notable Edmund Spenser wrote Amoretti, a sequence of eighty eight sonnets addressed to Elizabeth Boyle whom he married in 1594. In them the poet gives expression to his feeling of his heart in a sincere and unaffected manner without any recourse to allegory. Here is not the unquiet of Sidney’s love for Lord Rich’s wife, nor the complaining tone of Shakespeare whose mistress deceived him with his friend. Spenser’s sonnets are unique for their ‘purity’, ‘maidenliness’, and divine qualities’. In style it is improved upon and rhyme scheme is three interlinked quatrains in an alternative rhyme with the couplet standing alone i.e. abab bcbc cdcd ee.

Shakespeare’s sonnets are expressions of his feelings and experience of love and lust, of friendship and honour, of growth through experience of sin, expiation, of mutability, plentitude and the knowledge of good and evil. According to Oscar Wilde, they are a dramatic presentation of the passions and conflicts raging with in the poet’s own soul. Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets -sequence first published in Thorpe’s edition of 1609. Most critics agree that Shakespeare’s sonnets consists of two group of poems – a long series addressed to the Fair Youth (sonnets – 1 to 126) followed by a shorter series concerned with the Dark Lady (sonnets 127 – 154). The Shakespearean sonnet is divided into four parts – three quatrains and one couplet. Each quatrain has its own rhyme scheme as, abab, cd cd, efef, gg. Like the Italian sonnet the Shakespearean is also normally addressed to dear one, as mentioned already, but unlike the Italian sonnet, it has no turn of thought, hence no pause. Again, Shakespeare’s Sonnets are indeed autobiographic hints. Like the Sun, the Man Shakespeare is hidden in his own brightness. But these are rending of the robe of light, through which glancing, we see something of a darkness, something of that stuff" of mortality of which all mankind are made.

The other notable contribution is Henry Constable’s Diana, containing twenty eight sonnets, besides four sonnets To Sir P. Sidney’s soul prefixed to Sidney’s Apology For Poetry. Henry in his sonnet is often ingenious, sometimes graceful and always conventional. Samuel Daniel’s Delia, a sonnet sequence of fifty sonnets is distinguished by a happy choice of words and phrase and sweet flow of verses. Michael Drayton’s Idea, containing fifty one sonnets however lacks true passion.

The Elizabethan sonneteers, as we saw, used a vocabulary and phraseology in common with their fellows in Italy and France, and none the less produced fine poetry. But they used it to express things they really felt. The truth is it is not the fact of a poetic diction which matters so much as its quality whether it squares with sincerity, whether it is capable of expressing powerfully and directly one's deepest feelings.

In the 17th century the sonnet tradition in England continued, but with more varied subject matter. John Donne wrote a series of Holy Sonnets also known as the Divine Meditations or Divine Sonnets, are a series of nineteen poems; and the sonnets of John Milton, written in English and Italian, concern politics, religion, and personal matters. Milton's sonnets, based on the Petrarchan form, differ slightly in not having a break in the sense between octave and sestet. This results in an even greater cohesiveness of structure.


THOU hast/ made me,/ and shall/ Thy work/ de-cay ?
Re-pair/ me now,/ for now/ mine end/ doth haste ;
I run/ to death,/ and Death/ meets me/ as fast,
And all/ my plea/sures are/ like yes/ter-day.
I dare/ not move/ my dim/ e-yes /any way ;
Des-pair/ be-hind,/ and Death/ be-fore/ doth cast
Such te-/rror, and/ my fee-/ble flesh/ doth waste
By sin/ in it,/ which it/ to-wards hell/ doth weigh.
On-ly/ Thou art/ a-bove,/ and when/ to-wards Thee
By Thy/ leave I/ can look,/ I rise /a-gain ;
But our/ old sub-/tle foe/ so temp/teth me,
That not/ one hour/ myself/ I can /sus-tain.
Thy grace/ may wing/ me to/ pre-vent/ his art
And thou/ like ada-/mant draw /mine i-/ron heart.

 After Milton, however, the popularity of the sonnet form in English declined somewhat until the end of the 18th century, when the romantic poets revitalized it. WilliamWordsworth is regarded as the finest sonnet writer of the period, although outstanding sonnets were also written by his contemporaries Samuel TaylorColeridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats. During the Victorian period Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850), and Dante Gabriel Rossetti wrote the sonnet sequence The House of Life (1881). Other important sonneteers include Robert Browning, Matthew Arnold, Christina Georgina Rossetti, and Gerard Manley Hopkins in England; and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in the United States. The work of Hopkins is marked by radical variations in the traditional sonnet form; for example, his 11-line sonnet “Pied Beauty” uses sprung rhythm and begins with a sestet, concluding with a quatrain and a very short final line.

Pied Beauty

Glory be to God for dappled things—

For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles in all stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.

The sonnet form has proved adaptable to the Twentieth century themes and diction, spanning the gamut from the strictly traditional to the experimental, at times barely recognizable but for the line count. The Austro-German poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote what is considered one of the greatest of modern sonnet sequences, Sonnets to Orpheus (1923; translated 1936). Edwin Arlington Robinson, Elinor Wylie, and Edna St. Vincent Millay are noted 20th-century American sonneteers. Notably, Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sonnets are peculiar in that they ostensibly address modern concerns but operate with an almost Elizabethan sense of diction and syntax.The Anglo-American W. H. Auden wrote the distinguished sequence Sonnets from China (1936-1938), as well as numerous individual sonnets. Notebook (1969) by American poet Robert Lowell comprises blank-verse sonnets on personal and historical events.
Ardhendu De

Reference: Sources and  Analogues of English Sonnets-- Germaine Dempster
My photo

An English Teacher;    M. A.(English) , D. Ed., B. Ed., UGC- NET Qualified

"Dear Readers/ Students, I am a huge fan of books, English Grammar & Literature. I write this blog to instill that passion in you." 

Popular Posts

Analysis of Mulk Raj Anand’s Story, "The Lost Child": Accepted Part of Our Multicultural Neighborhood in the World

Dr. West’s New Method of Teaching English :Its Merits and Demerits

Brief Analysis of R.K Narayan’s ‘Engine Trouble’: Greater Simplicity of Plot and Language, even as it Develops a Greater Complexity of Meaning to Exhibit the Domain of India

G.B. Shaw’s Radio Talk, ‘Spoken English and Broken English’:Broken English’s Relevance in Today’s English Spoken World

Critical Analysis of Rabindranath Tagore’s Story 'Kabuliwala': Love and Waiting

Analysis of Virginia Woolf's Essay "Modern Fiction"

Critical Appreciation of Philip Larkin’s Poem, "The North Ship": Life Award for Best Philosophical Access

Post Chaucerian Barrenness in English Literature

Critical Analyses of Oscar Wilde’s "The Selfish Giant":One of the Stylish Fairy Tales

Critical Commentry on Bacon’s Essay ‘Of Marriage And Single Life’