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Sonnets in English Literature

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Scorn not the Sonnet; Critic, you have frowned,
Mindless of its just honours

- 'Scorn Not The Sonnet' by William Wordsworth

It is easy now to forget that up until the 16th Century, the English did not have a body of great literature such as the French, Spanish, and most of all the Italians possessed. We had Chaucer, and that was about it as far as our international reputation went. But when the English discovered the sonnet, our poetry changed forever.


'Sonnet' just means 'little song' in Italian, but it is a precise lyric form. Its greatest Italian exponent was Petrarch (1304-1374), an older contemporary of Chaucer, who wrote a sequence of lyric poems addressed to Laura, a woman he saw one day in church at Avignon and fell passionately in love with. Most of the 365 poems of his Rime in vita e morta di Madonna Laura1 are sonnets and this poetic form quickly gained great popularity all over Europe.

During the Renaissance period2 it was highly fashionable - nay, practically required - for the well-born, educated courtier to write verse in his spare time. It was seen as good mental exercise (a bit like doing the crossword!), showed an understanding of art and philosophy, and it amused one's friends. There was no such thing as a 'professional' lyric poet, and for many centuries, even after the invention of the printing press, such poetry was passed around one's social circle in manuscript form.

Two English courtier-poets, Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, introduced the sonnets of Petrarch to these isles during the reign of Henry VIII, in the early 16th Century. They first translated some of Petrarch's sonnets and then began to compose their own. The groundwork was thus laid for that generation of Elizabethans - Sidney, Spenser, Daniel, Drayton, Greville, Shakespeare - who honed the English lyric to its finest form.

We often refer to the Elizabethan period as a 'flowering' or a 'golden age' of poetry. That's all very poetic - but let's cut to the chase: most of the greatest lyric poems in the entire canon of English literature were written within a period of about two decades. A white-hot supernova of poetry exploded in the 1580s and burnt fiercely to the end of the century!

Its glamorous young hero was Philip Sidney (1554-1586) - courtier, diplomat, poet, fighter, and author of the first great sonnet sequence in English, Astrophil and Stella. Through 108 sonnets and songs he remade the sonnet into a handsome and enduring vessel for the English vernacular.

The Petrarchan Sonnet

The Petrarchan sonnet (which denotes a type of sonnet written in English, as opposed to Petrarch's actual sonnets) is composed of 14 lines, usually in iambic pentameter. The 'pentameter' part means that the line has five metrical feet. The 'iambic' bit refers to the type of foot. In this case it is an iamb, an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. 'Prefer' is an iamb, as are 'today', 'myself', 'as if'. In other words, an iambic pentameter is a line of ten syllables in a da-dum rhythm:

Was this the face that launched a thousand ships
And burnt the topless tow'rs of Ilium?

- From Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe

There is also a particular rhyming scheme for the Petrarchan sonnet, which is:

abba, abba, cde, cde - although variations are allowed in the sestet (eg, cdcdcd).

A rhyming scheme is simply a way of describing which lines rhyme with each other. Since the rhyme is external (i.e. the last word or syllable of each line) each of the letters above refers to one line of the sonnet, and any line denoted by the letter 'a' rhymes with any other line denoted by the letter 'a', and so on.

Petrarchan sonnets are divided into two parts - the octave is eight lines long, and is used to present a thesis, an argument or an idea. At line nine, a change occurs, known as the volta (Italian for 'turn). This is generally signalled by a word such as 'But', 'Yet' or 'Then', or an exclamation. The final six lines, the sestet, give the reason, conclusion or counter-argument for what was presented in the octave.

The English poets started to play around subtly with this structure for different effects. Sidney favoured a slightly weakened volta in the ninth line and a stronger one in the 13th line. This would develop into the final rhyming couplet favoured by Shakespeare. Sidney and Shakespeare, then, both had a penchant for delivering the real blow in the final two lines of the sonnet.

To get an idea of how these structural rules work, one needs to see them in action:

Like some weak lords, neighbor'd by mighty kings,
To keep themselves and their chief cities free,
Do easily yield, that all their coasts may be
Ready to store their camps of needful things:
So Stella's heart finding what power Love brings,
To keep itself in life and liberty,
Doth willing grant, that in the frontiers he
Use all to help his other conquerings:
    And thus her heart escapes, but thus her eyes
    Serve him with shot, her lips his heralds are;
    Her breasts his tents, legs his triumphal car;
    Her flesh his food, her skin his armor brave,
    And I, but for because my prospect lies
    Upon that coast, am giv'n up for a slave.

- Sonnet 29 from Astrophil and Stella by Philip Sidney (c 1582)3

In the sonnet above, the octave, which has a rhyming scheme of abba, abba, builds up an elaborate simile - Stella's heart is being compared to something. There is a definite volta at the ninth line: 'And thus her heart escapes'. The sestet then extends the simile and begins to explain the situation. There is a much stronger volta at the 13th line: 'And I', which is the lover's complaint, the punchline. This structure of ideas and images is known as the conceit of the poem, a complex and sustained comparison or concept, often witty or paradoxical.

Sex and Guns

The conceit of Petrarchan sonnets in the Elizabethan period very often involves sex, which is traditionally and rather coyly referred to in the text books as 'courtly love'. However, to imagine these characters as self-pitying lovers is radically to misunderstand them. In the sonnet above, we have a classic guns'n'girls story that would not be out of place in Loaded magazine4. A typical Sidney conceit, 'I on my horse, and Love on me doth try' in sonnet 49 describes Astrophil manfully astride his steed, being 'ridden' by Love.

Petrarch had established, through his descriptions of Laura, the 'ideal' of female beauty based on the atomisation of the woman's body - fair hair, cherry lips, soft cheeks, pale skin, breasts like orbs and such. The Elizabethans used this as a poetic convention, but often undermined it at the same time. In this sonnet, Stella is more Lara than Laura, and Sidney is less interested in the fact of beauty than in the power that it bestows.

Furthering the conceit of Love bestowing Power, Sidney includes the latest military hardware used by the more sophisticated forces on the Continent: 'thus her eyes/Serve him with shot'. By the mid-16th Century, handguns - such as muskets or cavaliers - were the weapon of choice for infantry across Europe and in the New World but the English were still hanging on to the trusty longbow5 Sidney may also be the first English poet to replace the traditional arrow of Cupid with the gun as a phallic symbol!

Politics and the Queen

As well as being a young man skilled in martial arts, Sidney was a politician and diplomat, and his career was on the rise. Sidney's description of Stella's heart 'neighbor'd by mighty kings' and the references to 'their coasts' and 'upon that coast' seem to indicate the British Isles under threat. Stella's heart, 'finding what power Love brings' has taken a decision to effect a policy which will 'keep itself in life and liberty' - in other words, a decision of political expediency, a sacrifice in one area to achieve survival in another area.

In 1581, around the time Sidney was writing his sonnet sequence, Queen Elizabeth was being courted once again by the Duc D'Anjou, younger brother of the French king. Funnily enough, no-one in England was overjoyed at the prospect of gaining a French prince as consort.

Sidney was at this time closely involved in the Earl of Leicester's attempt to build a Protestant alliance across Europe, and the Leicester faction believed that marriage to Anjou would greatly endanger the project. 'Stella's heart' like Elizabeth's heart, is a political object; if it would 'easily yield' the result could be that England is 'giv'n up for a slave', with English resources being used to prosecute France's wars in return for safety from Spain. The significance of 'serve him with shot' is also a reference to Continental-style warfare, as opposed to traditional English fighting.

The English Sonnet

In 1591, five years after Sidney's untimely death, Astrophil and Stella was published. It started a craze for sonnet-writing which resulted in two further sonnet forms: the Spenserian sonnet (named after Edmund Spenser)6 and the English sonnet. Surrey was the first to favour the English sonnet form, but it is sometimes known as the Shakespearean sonnet, as Shakespeare is considered to be its greatest exponent.

Instead of comprising an eight-line section followed by a six-line section, the English sonnet breaks down into three four-line stanzas, or quatrains, followed by a couplet. The rhyming scheme is generally:

abab, cdcd, efef, gg

Thus new rhymes are introduced with each section, making it better-suited to the English language, which, being uninflected, has less rhyming words than Italian.

The new schema also influences the way that the argument is presented. The three quatrains may be used to present three parallel images, tied together by the final couplet, or to set out three points in a argument, with the couplet providing the conclusion. This format seems to allow more complex moral and religious arguments, and certainly Shakespeare (1564-1616) was able to exploit the form to encompass broad ideas and profound feelings within the normal conventions of the sonnet.

Like as the waves make towards the pibbled shore,
So do our minutes hasten to their end,
Each changing place with that which goes before,
In secret toil all forwards do contend.
    Nativity, once in the main of light,
    Crawls to maturity, wherewith being crown'd,
    Crooked eclipses 'gainst his glory fight,
    And Time that gave doth now his gift confound.
Time doth transfix the flourish set on youth,
And delves the parallels in beauty's brow,
Feeds on the rarities of nature's truth,
And nothing stands but for his scythe to mow:
        And yet to times in hope my verse shall stand,
        Praising thy worth, despite his cruel hand.

- Sonnet 60, by William Shakespeare (c.1592-3)

The first quatrain introduces the simile, 'Like as the waves...' but extends it almost immediately, creating a forward movement which reflects the waves which 'forwards do contend' and carries the conceit onwards through birth, death and beyond. The volta occurs at the 13th line, 'And yet', with a conclusion emphasised by the rhyming couplet. There is also something of the palinode about this couplet, which is typical of Shakepeare's sonnet style. A palinode is a recantation of something said formerly, and here the statement 'nothing stands but for his scythe to mow' is denied by the next line with 'my verse shall stand'.

Like most of Shakespeare's sonnets, this is addressed to a young man of the writer's acquaintance, blessed with all that nature can bestow in terms of beauty and potential. Shakespeare is using certain lyric conventions, such as the immortality of verse and the ravages of time on physical beauty, but it is the pattern and logical progression of his argument, aided by his complex use of language that gives this sonnet its impact.

The Sonnet in the 17th Century

By the beginning of the 17th Century, the craze for sonnets appeared to have run out of steam. But in 1609, Shakespeare's sonnets were published, and inspired poets of the 17th Century, such as John Donne (1572-1631) and John Milton (1608-1674) to revive the form. The unique structure of the sonnet was to serve a wider religious and political purpose in the lyrics of these two poets.

For his Holy Sonnets, Donne chose the Petrarchan form. Because it splits the sonnet into two, rather than four parts, this form allows for a more focussed argument on subjects existential and contemplative.

Milton also favoured a more straightforward style of sonnet for his philippics. Having been attacked at various times in his career for his radical Protestant views, his liberal stance on divorce, and his support for Cromwell, it is no surprise that his sonnets are often bullish, both in form and in language:

I did but prompt the age to quit their clogs
By the known rules of ancient liberty,
When straight a barbarous noise environs me
Of owls and cuckoos, asses, apes and dogs:

- From Poems, by John Milton (c.1645-46)

Here Milton is responding to the reactions produced by his tracts on divorce; not only those Puritans who criticised him, but those who ignorantly embraced his doctrine as an excuse for license - or indeed licentiousness.

It is revealing that Milton turned to the sonnet to express both his most fervent political ideas, and his most personal fears. His sonnets on the passing of his years, 'How Soon Hath Time', and his blindness in later life, 'When I Consider How My Light Is Spent', speak of guilt at what he has failed to achieve, but also a deep faith in his Maker. Within those fourteen lines, Milton goes on a profound journey from regret to redemption.

Scorn not the Sonnet

Why have we scorned the sonnet? Its popularity in our literary history has certainly gone through many cycles of rise and fall. After Milton, the sonnet fell from favour, only to be elevated once more in the 18th Century by Wordsworth, Shelley and Keats. In the 19th Century it recovered once again under the pens of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, W. B. Yeats, G. M Hopkins and others.

The prevailing attitude seems to be that sonnets are too much concerned with form, artifice and cleverness, which makes them difficult and inaccessible. With post-Romantic sensibilities, we tend to prefer our poetry to linger over images and emotions. Sonnets are seen as rigid, imposing too many rules for the creative spirit to breathe freely.

But form is vital in poetry. Without it, poetry is elaborate prose. The beauty of poetry is its ability to encapsulate ideas and images concisely and completely - as Keats would have it:

Let us find out, if we must be constrain'd,
Sandals more interwoven and complete
To fit the naked foot of poesy

- From 'On the Sonnet', by John Keats (1819)

What Sidney, Shakespeare, Milton and our other great poets discovered is that the very constraints of the sonnet lend power to its ideas and arguments, providing a logical framework through which they can progress. Its conventions can be used or indeed abused, and the choice that is made can itself speak volumes. The English language is a gloriously unstable, organic thing but, like a rare allotrope, it can sometimes be formed as a perfect, crystalline gem.

1Translated as 'Poems During the Life and After the Death of the Lady Laura', but usually known simply as the Canzoniere.2In English literary history, roughly 1450-1600.3When a date for a quotation is given, this is the approximate date of composition, not the date of first publication.4A 'lads' magazine.5Not until 1595 did the Privy Council order the infantry to switch to muskets.6The rhyming scheme of the Spenserian sonnet is abab, bcbc, cdcd, ee, a characteristic interlocking scheme sometimes known as 'link rhyme'.

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