Elizabethan Sonnet - Origin, Growth and Development

Also Read

       The Sonnet is a poem or fourteen lines, governed by certain prescribed rules in the general structure and in the disposition of rhymes. Petrarch, the Italian poet was the first to write sonnets on the subject of his unrequited love for Laura. He was followed by other Italian poets of his age. The sonnet was first inducted into English literature by Surrey and Wyatt. Wyatt wrote thirty-One sonnets in the strictly Petrarchan form. This orthodox sonnet was divided into two parts - Octave (i.e., the first eight lines) and Sestet (the last six lines). There is a clearly marked pause in the idea after the eighth line. The rhyme scheme may be represented as abba, abba in the octave and cde cde or cd cd cd in sestet. These rules of the Italian sonnet were strictly observed in England by Milton and Wordsworth, But the Elizabethans were not very strict in the observance or these rules. The English form of the sonnet, was made up of three stanzas of four lines each rhyming alternately and a concluding couplet. All Surreyan sonnets are written on this plan. His contemporaries adopted a freedom of the arrangenment of the lines and the rhymes.

Love is the dominant theme of the sonnets. In the hands of the minor poets the sonnet was a mere literary exercise, in which they piped their woe for an imaginary lady-love in the manner of Petrarch

      The sonnet enjoyed a brief but intense vogue in the Elizabethan age. The six years from 1591 to 1597 saw the height of sonneteering. Almost all the poets of the period tried their hands at this popular form of poetry. Love is the dominant theme of the sonnets. In the hands of the minor poets the sonnet was a mere literary exercise, in which they piped their woe for an imaginary lady-love in the manner of Petrarch. They drew upon a common pool of ideas, images and modes of expressions. They are more or less disciples of Petrarch. Thus Daniel in his sonnet-sequence, Delin writes in the conventional manner without a real mistress to sing about. His sonnets are but appeals to the pity of the cruel She, who remains unmoved. But he has real merits as a poet. His style and versification are pure and correct. Some of his best sonnets have occasionally real jewels of expression like 'ship-wreck of my ill-adventured youth'. Another poet Drayton may claim some attention. His sonnet-sequence is called idea. It is not known if his Idea represents one woman or several or more. "While he hardly gives the impression of a true passion, shows little delicacy and is often vulgar, he yet is versatile and animated, and more than one ingenious to the point of the fantastic". Many other collections of sonnets by mediocre poets now seem to be lost. Imitation predominates in the sonnets of Thomas Waston, Henry Constable and Thomas Lodge.

      The three great sonneteers of the age are Sidney, Spenser and Shakespeare, the authors of Astrophel and Stella, Amoretti and Sonnets respectively. They are superior to the host of other sonneteers and gave the stamp of their originality on the species. When they had some intimate feelings to express, particularly one of love, they adopted the sonnet which was in fashion but they did not make play with fiction, unconnected with their real life. The few facts revealed in their sonnets are in strict agreement with the little facts known about their life. Thus their sonnets were not merely dramatic or literary exercises in the conventional manner but the note of sincerity rings through them all. They are a blend of convention and originality. Moreover, their sonnets are characterised by splendour of imagery and style and originality in the arrangement of lines and rhymes. In Astrophel and Stella Sidney speaks of his early passion for Penelope Devereux, the daughter of the Earl of Essex, who became the wife of Lord Rich. Bitter regret for lost happiness, the desire to possess the beloved, the struggle in his virtuous heart between duty and passion etc. are the themes of the sonnets. His is a knightly and Platonic passion. The variety of situations depicted is amazing. He brings in various subsidiary themes like the function of poetry and the rule of inspiration in poetry. His themes are inspired by the humanism of Renaissance. The sonnets owe much to Petrarch in form, tone and style. On the whole, Sidney is the greatest Elizabethan sonneteer, second to Shakespeare.

      Spenser's Amoretti was inspired by Sidney's Astrophel and Stella. His sonnets are addressed to Elizabeth Boyle who became his wife. The sonnets are unique in their purity of passion. They tell the story of a love without sin or remorse which ends in final union and joy. Undoubtedly they have much that is conventional or borrowed. But the original touches are also very frequent. Majority of his sonnets are inspired by Platonic idealism. The form of his sonnet is also distinct. Three quatrains, linked by an artistic arrangement of rhymes are followed by a couplet. The result is a harmonious whole. His sonnets are called linked sonnets. They follow a rhyme scheme different from that of Sidney (Petrarchan) and of Shakespeare (ab ab cd cd, ef ef gg). Spenser's sonnets have the rhyme scheme - ab ab be be cd cd ee.

      The sonnets of Shakespeare are in different class for they are the only poems in which the dramatist speaks in his own person. Shakespeare wrote one hundred and fifty four sonnets. Of these one hundred and six are addressed to a young friend and the rest are to a dark lady. Much has been written about the personal elements in the poem, about the friend and the dark lady who figure in the sonnets. Whatever these may be, the sonnets remain as the monument of devoted love. No one other than Shakespeare has explored and expanded the theme of friendship through the whole corpus of poetry. And the poet transcends the personal and raises it to the level of the universal. Those addressed to the young friend are the finest of the lot. Their excellence lies in the rare beauty of the images and style, and the perfection of the versification which has a subtle beauty never to be surpassed. Unforgettable lines and epithets are scattered plentifully over the sonnets. On the whole, it is the same skill as evidenced in the major dramas of the poet, that adds to the appeal of the sonnets. His three quatrains followed by a couplet make a coherent structure. There is a logical development of an argument with a filling conclusion. The quatrains contain images that help the structural development of a single emotion or thought and enhance the musical quality with the rhyme scheme - ab ab cd cd ef ef gg. To quote Albert: "In the depth, breadth and persistency of their passion, in their lordly but never overweening splendour of style, and above all, in their mastery of a rich and sensuous phraseology, the sonnets are unique".

Previous Post Next Post

Search Your Questions