Originally an Italian import, sonnet has become the most popular, almost the regular figure in English. The English word “sonnet” comes from the Italian word “sonetto,” meaning “little song.”
English sonnets were introduced by Thomas Wyatt and his contemporary the Earl of Surrey, Henry Howard, in the early 16th century. While Wyatt introduced the sonnet into English, it was Surrey who developed the rhyme scheme – abab cdcd efef gg – which now characterizes the English sonnet. Both poets’ sonnets were first published in Tottel’s Miscellany.
It was, however, Sir Philip Sidney’s sequence HYPERLINK “https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Astrophel_and_Stella” o “Astrophel and Stella” Astrophel and Stella (1591) that started the English vogue for sonnet sequences. In this sequence, Sidney talks about his love for Stella, a married woman and deifies her as the star of his life. Spenser’s sequence, “Amoretti” talks about his real life experience of self-fulfillment when he courted his wife, Elizabeth Boyle. The next two decades saw sonnet sequences by William Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser, Michael Drayton, Samuel Daniel, HYPERLINK “https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fulke_Greville,_1st_Baron_Brooke” o “Fulke Greville, 1st Baron Brooke” Fulke Greville, William Drummond of Hawthornden, and many others. They made an attempt at the sonnet in the late sixteenth century, as may be seen in Samuel Daniel’s “Delia” or Constable’s “Diana”.
The form is often named after Shakespeare, not because he was the first to write in this form but because he became its most famous practitioner. The greatest sequence was Shakespeare’s one fifty four sonnets. The form consists of fourteen lines structured as three quatrains (four-line stanzas) and a couplet. The third quatrain generally introduces an unexpected sharp thematic or imagistic “turn”, the volta. In Shakespeare’s sonnets, however, the volta usually comes in the couplet, and usually summarizes the theme of the poem or introduces a fresh new look at the theme. With only a rare exception, the meter is iambic pentameter.
. The themes of Shakespearean sonnet are very different. Some of his sonnets are addressed not to a woman but to a young man, and they are in the terms of warmest affection. Others are written not with adoration but with an air of disillusioned passion to a dark lady. Shakespeare’s sonnets have led to a greater volume of controversy than any volume of verse in English literature. Shakespeare was very conscious of his skill in writing sonnets and referred to it constantly in the sonnets themselves, although in a joking manner. He also referred ironically to his skills as poor, as part of his development of complex arguments. He seemed to understand, however, that his sonnets would last for as long as human beings were able to read.
It is thought that the English inherited the Italian structure of the sonnet sequence from Dante and Petrarch, and then tailored it to fit their own intentions. The English sonnet sequences “exemplify the Renaissance doctrine of creative imitation as defined by Petrarch”.
The sonnet outlived the Elizabethan period. Milton, the greatest seventeenth century poet, used the sonnet, not however for amorous purposes, but to define moments of autobiography, and for brief, powerful comments on public events. To the sonnet Wordsworth returned to awaken England from lethargy, to condemn Nepoleon, and to record many of his own moods. Keats, who had studied Shakespeare and Milton to such purpose, discovered himself as a poet in his sonnet, ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer.’ In the nineteenth century Meredith in Modern love showed how a sixteen line variant could be made a vehicle of analysis, and D. G. Rossetti in ‘ The House of life came back, though with many changes, to the older way of Dante and Petrarch, employing this most perfect of all miniature verse forms for the expression of love.
Already, the sonnet form has taken a unique position in the literary field. But the question inevitably comes is that why has it proved so popular? Perhaps, though minute in extent, it has immense elasticity: it can have room for story elements; it can stage a brief dramatic scene; it can present a series of philosophical reflections; it can survey a vast variety of reflections, understandings and moods within a tightly organized structure.