Development of English Sonnet During the Elizabethan Age

The development of the English sonnet was one of the notable features of Elizabethan literature. The sonnet, a short 14-line lyric poem in iambic pentameter and first practiced by the Italian Renaissance poet Petrarch, was brought to England by Sir Thomas Wyatt and Surrey. In 1557 they jointly published their anthology of sonnets Tottel’s Miscellany. Soon, the writing of the sonnet became a favorite of Elizabethan poets. The Elizabethan sonnets followed the structure and theme of the patriarchal sonnets. A Petrarchan sonnet was divided into two parts: eighth and sestet. The first eight lines were grouped as an eighth and the remaining six lines as a sestet. The function of an octave is to introduce a theme and the function of the sestet is to develop it and bring it to a satisfactory ending.

The subject of a Petrarchan sonnet used to be courtly love. The Elizabethan poets, at first, also used sonnets for courtly love poems. In courtly love poems, the lover is obedient, anxious, adoring, full of hope and praise for his lover expressed in a series of conventionalized images. The lover is proud, unreceptive, but, if the lover is to be believed, highly desirable. Throughout Elizabethan times, poets imitated these Petrarchic moods of love and used sonnets to express them. Sir Philip Sidney, another notable sonneteer of the time, joked about fashion in his Astrophel and Stella and yet half succumbed. However, some of his sonnets advocate realism.

The notable changes in the writing of the sonnet come mainly from Shakespeare. In both style and subject he was different from earlier sonnet writers. However, his sonnet, which was also 14 verses, was divided into four parts: three quatrains and a final couplet. The rhyme scheme of a Shakespearean soneet is abab, cdcd, efef, gg, which is different from the rhyme of the previous sonnet. This rhyme was very suitable for English sonnets as it allowed for seven different rhymes.

The themes of Shakespeare’s sonnet are very different. Some of his sonnets are not addressed to a woman but to a young man, and are expressed in terms of the warmest affection. Others are written not with adoration but with an air of disappointed passion for a dark lady. Shakespeare’s sonnets have led to a greater volume of controversy than any volume of verse in English literature. But they can be enjoyed without the tempting attempt to identify the characters or explain the dedication and circumstances of the actual post.

The sonnet survived the Elizabethan period. Milton, the greatest poet of the seventeenth century, used the sonnet, but not for loving purposes, but to define moments of autobiography and for short, powerful comments on public events. To the sonnet, Wordsworth returned to awaken England from slumber, condemn Nepoleon, and record many of his own moods. Keats, who had studied Shakespeare and Milton for this purpose, discovered himself as a poet in his sonnet, “ On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer. ” In the 19th century, Meredith in Modern love showed how a sixteen-line variant could become a vehicle of analysis, and DG Rossetti in ‘The House of Life returned, albeit with many changes, to the older form of Dante and Petrarch , employing the most perfect of all miniature verse forms for the expression of love.

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