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Popular Sonnets and Sonneteers of the Elizabethan Era

Book of Sonnets
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What is a Sonnet?

A sonnet is a kind of lyrical poem where the poet takes up a persona and expresses a certain deep emotional state of mind or imaginative quality. The term sonnet is derived from the Italian word ‘Soneto‘, which means a little sound or a little song, and another word ‘Suono‘ in Italy means sound.

A sonnet is composed of one stanza of fourteen lines written in Iambic Pentameter. The first eight lines form the octave, and the next six lines form the sestet. From the eight lines octave, each four-line unit is called quatrains, and from the six-line sestet, every two internal units of three lines are called tercet.

In English sonnets, mostly there are three quatrains and a concluding couplet. Italian form of sonnets have an intricate rhyme scheme of octave that is abba abba, and that of the sestet is cdc cdc, cde cde and so on. The rhyme scheme abab cdcd efef gg was mostly used in English Elizabethan sonnets.

Meter of the Sonnets

Sonnets are written in iambic pentameter, which indicates an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. An Iamb is a two-syllable unit, where the first one is unstressed and the second one is stressed. Each Iambic pentameter has ten syllables. This meter is commonly used in the English form of sonnets. Caesura is a clearly marked pause in sonnets, usually made by using punctuations or syntaxes such as comma, semi-colon, and so on. It is used in blank verse, heroic couplets, or stanza forms.

Theme or Tone of Sonnets

The general tone of sonnets is much more meditative, introspective, or contemplative. These were poems that were composed to perform in music. Some scholars have also suggested that sonnets should be performed in music. These are usually love poetry.

The major theme is devoted love. It started with the tradition of courtly love, a knightly and platonic passion or chivalric romance. It also encapsulated other subsidiary themes such as thoughts, political issues, social issues, meditation, feelings, and many more.

Origin of Sonnets

A sonnet is a poetic form that originated in the court of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II in Sicily, Italy. Fredrick’s court was a place of cultural and literary exchange. The people of his court wrote poetry in their local languages.

The 13th-century poet and notary Giacomo da Lentini is credited with the invention of the sonnet form. He developed the structure of the sonnets and the concept of the octave and sestet forms. He was the first to use the Italian sonnet form. Francisco Petrarch was the most influential practitioner of the Italian sonnet form. Hence, it also came to be known as the Petrarchan sonnet.

Troubadour poetry became popular in the French region of Provence. Troubadours went around to perform these poems of love lyrics. It was popular mostly in Southern Italy. Other Italian poets who wrote sonnets were Dante Alighieri and Guido Cavalcanti. The tradition of sonnets started in southern Italy and then moved to northern Italy.

The structure of the typical Italian sonnet form of the time included two parts: first, the octave forms the ” preposition”, which describes a problem or a question, and second, a sestet that proposes a ”resolution”. Typically, the ninth line is called Volta. The Volta signals the move from proposition to resolution.

Sonnets originated in England in the Elizabethan period.

Key Features of a Petrarchan sonnet

In Petrarch’s sonnets, you will find that the love of the beloved is unattainable and unrequited, leading to torment in the poet. The picture of the beloved is shown as a beauty with a virtuous heart, having goodness in Elizabethan sonnets.

The metaphor of ‘Petrarchan Conceit‘ was used where striking comparisons are made between desire and pursuit of the beloved. For example, the beloved was often compared to a ‘hunt’, the beloved’s beauty was considered as a trap, and her beauty was compared to the sun. All these together constituted an elaborate wordplay.

There is also a refined style deriving from the tradition of courtly poetry. ‘Blazon‘ is a kind of feature in Petrarch’s sonnets where the poet creates a catalogue of different physical features of the beloved and is praised in turn, in an exaggerated way. The poet creates an elaborate performance of extreme frustration and denial, as the beloved does not reciprocate.

For Petrarch, the resolution to this problem was after the death of the beloved, when she was accessible in the realm of spiritualism and divinity- there is a sublimation of earthly passion that is a passion that can be consummated only in heaven. Here, sublimation is a state by which one expresses his feelings or early passion by transforming into another form. These features, which led to a strictly Petrarchan form, were also followed in the English sonnet.

Some Popular Sonneteers of Italy

1. Dante Alighieri

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Dante’s ‘Vieta Nuova‘ has thirty-one sonnets, which are arranged in the form of narratives. Dante’s Vieta Nuova developed his love for a woman named Beatrice. Beatrice is presented as an idealist and is put on a pedestal in Dante’s mind. Her qualities are celebrated in the poem, and at the end, you will find that she is shown as a saintly figure. According to Dante, Beatrice died in the year 1290. In the context of Elizabethan sonnets, Dante’s work was not very influential.

2. Francesco Petrarch

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Francisco Petrarch’s ‘Il-Canzoni ere‘(a book of songs/lyric poems). It has 366 poems, out of which 317 are sonnets. These sonnets explore Petrarch’s love for Laura. Laura did exist; Petrarch met her at a church at St. Clare in 1347. Laura died in the year 1348. Laura is presented as an idealized beloved.

Canzoni ere is divided into two parts- one dealing with his experiences before Laura’s death and another dealing with his experiences after Laura’s death. The first part shows aspects of physical, erotic, fleshly, natural, and earthly love. This is a love that does not receive a response, which leads to bitter regret. In the second part, it moves to the spiritual or divine kind of realm. Series of moods are depicted such as joy, pain, grief, disappointment, wretched, predominant mood of restlessness.

Beatrice and Laura lead the poets towards spiritual transcendence.

Famous Elizabethan Sonneteers in English Literature

1. Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard

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Wyatt and Howard were the first to bring sonnets to England from Italy. Wyatt worked in the royal court of King Henry VIII. Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard wrote the first known sonnets in English, Earl of Surrey and later sonnets were written by John Milton, Thomas Gray, William Wordsworth, John Donne, Elizabeth Barret Browning.

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Wyatt and Howard either used to translate Petrarchan sonnets or imitated them in their own composition. Surrey developed the rhyme scheme ABAB CDCD EE and divided the sestet in quatrain and couplet. Having previously circulated in manuscripts only, both the poet’s sonnets were first published in Richard Tottel’s ‘Songs and Sonnets‘, better known as ‘Tottel’s Miscellany, in 1557. In ‘Tottel’s Miscellany’, we find Petrarchan sonnets coming in a wide sphere.

2. Sir Philip Sidney

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Philip Sidney’s sonnet sequence, ‘Astrophel and Stella‘ (1591), started the English vogue for English sonnet sequences. He was the third Earl of Leicester. The next two decades saw sonnet sequences by William Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser, Michael Drayton, Samuel Daniel, and so on. These sonnets were all inspired by the Petrarchan tradition and generally describe the poet’s love for some woman, except for Shakespeare’s sequence of 154 sonnets.

Astrophel and Stella‘ was the first sonnet sequence by Sir Philip Sidney, like Petrarch in English. ‘Stella’ means star, and ‘Astrophel’ means star lover. The narrator is Astrophel and his unattainable love for Lady Penelope Devereux. Penelope was married to Lord Rich in 1581. She was the daughter of the Earl of Essex and wife of Lord Rich. ‘Astrophel and Stella‘ stresses various aspects of the speaker’s love for Stella, which is unrequited love. This sonnet sequence has various subsidiary themes of earthly love, desire, eroticism, time, art, sexuality, life, and death.

The poet focuses on different aspects of his desire, his torment, pain and focuses on the earthly realm, and his beloved is shown on a pedestal. The poet created two personas to develop a certain theme. The publication of ‘Astrophel and Stella’ created a craze for sonnet writing and sonnet publishing in England in the 1590s.

3. Samuel Daniel

In 1592, Samuel Daniel published a proper edition of his sonnet sequence known as ‘Delia‘. About 28 sonnets written by Daniel were published with Sidney’s poems. They were dedicated to Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke.

4. Michael Drayton

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In 1594, he came out with a collection of sonnets, ‘Idea’s Mirror. These sonnets were also dedicated to Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke. In 1619, the final edition came out as ‘Idea‘ where the beloved is imagined as Idea. Ann Goodere was the daughter of Drayton’s first patron Sir Henry Goodere, who is imagined as ‘Idea‘. Drayton fell in love with Ann Goodere and remained devoted to her even after her marriage.

5. Edmund Spenser

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He was the greatest Elizabethan sonneteer during the reign of Queen Elizabeth. In 1595, Edmund Spenser’s Amoretti‘, which means little loves were published. It has about 89 sonnets with a typical Petrarchan narrative (88, since one sonnet is repeated). After sonnet 60, the beloved Elizabeth Boyle is seen to reciprocate the love and returns his affections or desires, creating a sense of resolution which finally results in Epithalamion, where Spenser celebrates the fulfilment of his love in marriage with Elizabeth Boyle. The beloved is not fully idealized, and she is somewhere a flesh and blood person. We are moving from a lack of resolution towards the celebration.

The Spenserian sonnet was a unique Elizabethan sonnet form, a bit different from the typical Petrarchan notion of lost love and lost happiness. Spenser’s sonnets have the rhyme scheme ABAB BCBC CDCD EE, where quatrains are interlinked with each other. In the case of Spenser, the resolution occurs in terms of a love relationship and marriage which can both be earthly and spiritual.

6. William Shakespeare

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In 1609 Shakespeare’s sonnets were published by Thomas Thorpe. Shakespearian interpretations are seen through lenses of race, gender, queer studies, and psychoanalysis theories that emerged in the 21st century. Shakespearean sonnets are divided into two categories in general; sonnets 1-126 seem to have a primary subject as a man who is often referred to as the fair youth.

The young man is presented in an idealized way having light features and rare beauty. He is a young friend of the speaker. Whereas sonnets 126-154 seem to have a primary subject as a woman, who is often referred to as the dark lady. The dark lady is an ambiguous and enigmatic kind of figure. Sometimes, the woman is presented as dangerous or ordinary, having dark features, not a woman of noble origins.

There are 154 sonnets in his collection. The rhyming scheme is ABAB; CDCD; EFEF; GG. The excellence lies in the four themes- the theme of time, beauty, the theme of sexuality, and poetic creation and art. Thus, in many ways, the subject matter of Shakespeare’s sonnets is unconventional, and an artistic arrangement is made which is different from typical Elizabethan sonnet concepts.

Shakespeare published his sonnets in quarto edition. A quarto is a kind of publication where a full sheet of paper is folded twice. It is mostly used for the publication of only poems. It was smaller in size than folio (a kind of publication where the full sheet of paper was folded once). The dedication of the text tells us that the only begetter of the ensuing sonnets is Mr W.H, and the publication is signed by T.T, Thomas Thorpe, and not by Shakespeare. According to the critics, Mr W.H. may probably be William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, or Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton.

In the sonnet sequence, the main theme is time and attaining immortality through procreation. The first 17th sonnets are the procreation sonnets, where the speaker is procreating the fair youth and preserving himself and his beauty with posterity through his offspring.

The term ‘Begetter‘ is used in the sense of giving birth; at the same time, it also encapsulates an inspirer of sonnets or one who helped the printer in procuring the manuscripts and helped in printing. Shakespeare presents the model of idealized beauty in fair youth rather than the Dark Lady. The presentation of the fair youth by Shakespeare is very closer to the Elizabethan or Petrarchan notion of sonnets. The relationship that Shakespeare has shown seems to be unconventional. The voice of the sonnet sequence by Shakespeare is incredible.

During Elizabethan Age, a lot of literary concepts flourished along with printing and circulation. The sonnets emerged in England, and people were encouraged to write sonnets. Starting from Wyatt and Howard to Shakespeare, England gave birth to the most talented sonnet writers of all times, and they became widely accessible by the readers. Hence, sonnet writing became a popular convention all over the world, and it created a new pathway for poetry in English Literature.


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