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Elizabethan Sonneteers: Contribution of Wyatt, Sidney, and Spenser

Updated on December 8, 2017
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Poet, blogger, college professor, literature, and film enthusiast. Excited about critical and creative writing. Pursuing a Ph.D. in English.

Sonnet: Its Origin and Development in England

Sonnet (originating from the Italian “sonnetto”) refers to a short poem of fourteen lines with a special technical pattern. It originated in Italy in the master hands of Dante and Petrarch, although the latter’s influence was more potent on the subsequent sonneteers of different regions, including England.

The sonnet as a specific poetic genre was introduced in England under the impact of the Renaissance, during the great literary age under the rule of Queen Elizabeth. Sir Thomas Wyatt, a scholar and diplomat, was the first to innovate the sonnet form in English from the Italian model of Petrarch. A good many poets were drawn to it and served to develop it in diverse ways. Of the great sonneteers of the age, Wyatt, Sidney and Spenser, besides the great bard Shakespeare, were specifically remarkable for their contribution to the genre of sonnet in English.

Elizabethan Sonnet and Petrarch

The Elizabethan Sonnet, prior to Shakespeare, is found to follow more or less the conventional pattern, as practiced by Petrarch. In the Petrarchan sonnet, a harmonious unity in theme, mood, imagery and versification is clearly perceptible to produce a single impression. This unity is a cardinal feature in the art of sonnet-writing. The theme of the Petrarchan sonnet is love; its passion and pain, desire and despair. The subject-matter of the conventional Elizabethan sonnet is the treatment of love, rather physical love, in its varied moods. Moreover, the sonnet has its especial technique which gives it a unique form. The Petrarchan form comprises the two unequal parts of Octave (eight lines) and Sestet (six lines) with specific rhyme schemes.

Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-- 1542)   (16th-century English politician, ambassador, and lyric poet credited with introducing the sonnet to English literature.)
Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-- 1542) (16th-century English politician, ambassador, and lyric poet credited with introducing the sonnet to English literature.) | Source

Sir Thomas Wyatt

Sir Thomas Wyatt is rightly deemed as the pioneer in English sonnet writing. However he is found to suffer from the inevitable limitations of a pioneer because of his faithful rendition of the Petrarchan mode. Consequently, there is a lack of spontaneity as well as native honesty in his sonnets. Yet, Wyatt has a significant role in the growth of the genre. His maiden representation of the theme and technique of the classical sonnet in English is certainly a great enterprise in itself.

Wyatt’s sonnet, “A Renouncing of Love”, for instance, is a typical Petrarchan sonnet. Its theme is love, or rather, the angry renunciation of love by the frustrated lover:

FAREWELL, Love, and all thy laws for ever;

Thy baited hooks shall tangle me no more:

Senec, and Plato, call me from thy lore,

To perfect wealth, my wit for to endeavour;

In blind error when I did persever,

Thy sharp repulse, that pricketh aye so sore,

Taught me in trifles that I set no store;

But scaped forth thence, since, liberty is lever:

Therefore, farewell, go trouble younger hearts,

And in me claim no more authority:

With idle youth go use thy property,

And thereon spend thy many brittle darts:

For, hitherto though I have lost my time,

Me list no longer rotten boughs to clime.

In a fierce fury, he bids farewell to love and seeks refuge in great classical scholars and masters. The sonnet, therefore, concerns itself with love, but has a not of despair and anger.

Another sonnet of Wyatt, “I Find No Peace”, represents the restlessness of a lover, caused by the intensity of love:

I find no peace, and all my war is done.

I fear and hope. I burn and freeze like ice.

I fly above the wind, yet can I not arise;

And nought I have, and all the world I season.

That loseth nor locketh holdeth me in prison

And holdeth me not—yet can I scape no wise—

Nor letteth me live nor die at my device,

And yet of death it giveth me occasion.

Without eyen I see, and without tongue I plain.

I desire to perish, and yet I ask health.

I love another, and thus I hate myself.

I feed me in sorrow and laugh in all my pain;

Likewise displeaseth me both life and death,

And my delight is causer of this strife.

The theme of this sonnet is also love, and the poet emphasizes the mood and various shades that define love. The tone is extremely personal though the imagery is not exactly unique. Of course, the sonnet is a kind of personal poetry and Wyatt’s credit lies in the transformation of English poetry from medieval objectivity to subjectivity. His originality is well established in the structure of his sonnets. He has deviated occasionally from the set Petrarchan pattern and has divided the sonnet into two equal parts of seven lines, with a concluding couplet. The use of the concluding couplet is found to be a favourite practice with several subsequent sonneteers including Shakespeare.

Sir Philip Sidney (oil on canvas, 18th century or after, based on a work of circa 1576)
Sir Philip Sidney (oil on canvas, 18th century or after, based on a work of circa 1576) | Source

Sir Philip Sidney

Sir Philip Sidney’s sonnet sequence “Astrophel and Stella” registers a great advancement in English sonnet writing. Sidney, like Wyatt, is also a conventional sonneteer. His subject matter is his personal experience of love which he felt for the daughter of Duke of Essex. He imagines himself to be Astrophel, pining for Stella, the love of his life. His sonnets are characterized by intense subjectivity and profound sincerity. Moreover, there is an idealistic zeal in his sonnets, that elevates and adores love as the very ideal, the only object of life. The sonnet “Loving In Truth” shows his eager yearning to please his lady by writing original verse:

Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show,

That she, dear she, might take some pleasure of my pain,—

Pleasure might cause her read, reading might make her know,

Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain,—

I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe;

Studying inventions fine her wits to entertain,

Oft turning others' leaves, to see if thence would flow

Some fresh and fruitful showers upon my sunburn'd brain.

But words came halting forth, wanting invention's stay;

Invention, Nature's child, fled step-dame Study's blows;

And others' feet still seem'd but strangers in my way.

Thus great with child to speak and helpless in my throes,

Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite,

"Fool," said my Muse to me, "look in thy heart, and write."

A deep, devoted feeling of love characterizes the whole poem. It is this quality that has inspired Sidney’s successors including Shakespeare.

Edmund Spenser, English Renaissance poet and author of The Fairie Queene. His sonnet Sequence "Amoretti" is famous for his innovation and originality
Edmund Spenser, English Renaissance poet and author of The Fairie Queene. His sonnet Sequence "Amoretti" is famous for his innovation and originality | Source

Edmund Spenser

Edmund Spenser holds as equally, if not more, conspicuous position as an Elizabethan sonneteer. His sonnet series “Amoretti” is a significant addition to the great bulk of Elizabethan sonnet sequences. His sonnet sequence is concerned with his love for Elizabeth Boyle. The sonnet “Fresh Spring…” is an apostrophe to spring in order to enjoy love in happy youth and time:

Fresh spring the herald of loves mighty king,

In whose cote armour richly are displayed

All sorts of flowers the which on earth do spring

In goodly colours gloriously arrayd:

Goe to my love, where she is carelesse layd,

Yet in her winters bowre not well awake:

Tell her the joyous time wil not be staid

Unless she doe him by the forelock take.

Bid her therefore her selfe soone ready make,

To wayt on love amongst his lovely crew:

Where every one that misseth then her make,

Shall be by him amearst with penance dew.

Make hast therefore sweet love, whilest it is prime,

For none can call againe the passèd time.

Spenser’s contribution is discerned in his use of imagery, particularly nature imagery. The season of spring, with all its colourful flowers “gloriously arrayed” is grandly depicted here. This nature imagery may well be taken as a precursor of Shakespeare’s memorable depiction of nature in its beauty as well as its decay. The tone has a certain urgency in it, making the poem a classic example of the “carpe-diem” theme which was later popularized in the memorable poem “To His Coy Mistress” by Andrew Marvel. There is, therefore, a deliberate shift from the convention of the courtly love, where the lady-love is treated as the unattainable goddess, worthy of praise but not of satiety. In Spenser one finds the sensuousness that may be associated with physical love and intimacy. His agony is not that of unrequited love, but that of a helplessness about mortality and transience. His sonnet “One Day I Wrote Her Name” is a direct assertion of his despair and an eventual realization of the true power of his verse:

One day I wrote her name upon the strand,

But came the waves and washed it away:

Again I wrote it with a second hand,

But came the tide, and made my pains his prey.

"Vain man," said she, "that dost in vain assay,

A mortal thing so to immortalize;

For I myself shall like to this decay,

And eke my name be wiped out likewise."

"Not so," (quod I) "let baser things devise

To die in dust, but you shall live by fame:

My verse your vertues rare shall eternize,

And in the heavens write your glorious name:

Where whenas death shall all the world subdue,

Our love shall live, and later life renew."

Spenser stands out as an innovator in sonnet-writing in his handling of the rhyme structure. Instead of the usual division of the sonnet into octaves and sestets, he has divided the sonnet into three quatrains followed by a concluding couplet. This pattern was first fashioned by Earl of Surrey. Spenser’s sonnet has, no doubt, five rhymes like the Petrarchan sonnet, but there is a novelty in the very pattern of his rhyme to secure a more effective melody. The last line of every quatrain is made to rhyme with the first line of the following quatrain. This generates a fluidity, resulting in the sensuous sonority of his verse. It feels as if one quatrain flows into another and creates a continuum.

In the rise of the English sonnet, Wyatt, Sidney and Spenser are undoubtedly the greatest names. They molded the Italian form to suit the English diction and paved the way for the later master versifier, William Shakespeare, to compose his timeless sonnets.


Whom do you love the most as a sonneteer?

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© 2017 Monami

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