The term ‘sonnet’ has come from the Italian ‘sonnetto’ (meaning ‘a little sound’). The sonnet is originated in Italy and sonnet was first written in about 1230 or 1240 by Giacamo de Lentino, a Sicilian lawyer at the court of Frederick-II. Later Fra Guittone’d Arezzo developed it but it was carried to perfection by Petrarch, Dante and Cavalcanti. The sonnet as a literary form came into England under the influence of Renaissance in the 16th century.
The sonnet is primarily a poem of 14 lines divided into two unequal parts with a special arrangement for rhymes. The first eight lines are called- ‘Octave’ (or Piedi) with the rhyme-scheme abab ‘abab’. The last six lines are called- ‘Sestet’ (or Volta). The rhyme-scheme may vary here as cde cde or cd cd cd or cde or ccd ccd etc. It is to be noted that these rhyme-scheme is not strictly observed by The Elizabethan sonneteers. They modified like themselves.
The theme of the Italian sonnet, in most cases, is love and its varied moods. Petarch celebrates his love for Laura, Dante for Beatrice, Sidney for Steela, Daniel for Delia, Constable for Diana, Drayton for Idica, Barnfield for Cynthia and Griffin for Fidessa and so on. It is recorded that over 2000 sonnets were printed in England in between 1592-1597.
1) SIR THOMAS WYATT:
* Wyatt is the pioneer in introducing sonnet form Italy following Petrarchan convention.
* He writes 31 sonnets out of his 96 love poems. Ten sonnets are the translation from Petrarch and others are written following Petrarchan form.
* Wyatt does not imitate the Petarchan from blindly. He introduces a concluding couplet and sometimes breaks the sonnet in two equal divisions of seven lines each.
* His sonnets bear the personal note of passion and pangs, love and frustration that constitutes the essence of lyrical poetry.
2) EARL OF SURREY:
* His sonnets are love sonnets addressed to Geraldine or Lady Elizabeth Fitzgerald.
* Instead of adopting Petrarchan form he preferred the new type of sonnet form- three quatrains and a concluding couplet with a rhyme-scheme abab cdcd efef gg. This form is later popularized by Shakespeare and comes to be known as the Shakespearean sonnet form.
* The sonnets are personal in tone and characterized by a note of melancholy and sadness.
* Surrey also writes impersonal sonnets which are marked by cynicism and satire.
3) SIR PHILIP SIDNEY:
* The name of his sonnet sequence is “Astrophel and Steela”, addressed to Penelope Devereux, daughter of Earl of Essex, afterwards who became Lady Rich.
* The poet is here Astrophel, an enamoured of the star and Penelope is Steela, his star.
* It consists of 108 sonnets and 11 songs written probably between the years 1580 and 1584.
* Sidney faithfully follows Petrarch and Ronsard in tone and style.
* His sonnets are marked by fine lyrical emotion, personal confession, beautiful phrasing appreciating love tone and the successive us of apostrophes.
* In form Sidney usually adopts the Petrarchan octave (abbaabba), with variation in the sestet which includes the English final couplet. (cdcdee)
To Ernest Rhy “In Astrophel and steela Sidney writes not because it is pleasant and accomplished thing to do but became he must. His sonnets let our blood”.
To Charles Lamb, “Sidney’s sonnets are not rich in words only, in vague and unlikeliest feelings; they are full material, and circumstantiated. They are struck full of amorous fancies- far-fetched conceits befitting his occupation”.
4) EDMUND SPENSER:
* His sonnets are addressed to Elizabeth Boyle who became his second wife (on June II, 1594).
* These sonnets have been given the Italian name ‘Amoretti’. It consists of eighty-eight (88) sonnets.
* To some critics ‘Amoretti’ is addressed for the most part to Lady Carey rather than Elizabeth Boyle.
* The poet in these sonnets expresses the feeling of his heart in a sincere and unaffected manner without any recourse to allegory. They plainly state a story of love without sin or remorse. The tone is marked by purity which Coleridge named ‘maidenliness’. The sonnets are marked by an easy and familiar grace, clear and melodious tune and with a subtle touch of artistry bring out the ordinary changes and chances of the lover’s fortune as well as the voicing of their ecstasy.
* The sonnet series appears incomplete because when the lover seems already near the desired goal, due to misunderstanding separation comes to them.
* Spenser experimented with the rhyme scheme in his sonnets. Instead of Petrarchan convention he used his rhyme as – abab bcbc cdcd ee. For this his sonnets are called as linked sonnets.
5) SAMUNEL DANIEL:
* The name of his sonnet- sequence is ‘Delia’ dedicated to Lady Pembroke, his neighbour.
* He borrows his ideas copiously from Desportes and other continental poets and he greatly follows Tusso’s model is his ‘Delia’.
* ‘Delia’ is a collection of love sonnets for a lady who remains invisible, cold and absent. His sonnets are the chill appeals of the poet to her lady to get her pity but in vain. Daniel never appears stormy, passionate and tumultuous in his sonnets.
6) MICHAEL DRAYTON:
* The name of his sonnet sequence is ‘Ideas Mirror’. The title is directly borrowed from an extensive sonnet sequence in French called ‘L’Idee’ by Claude de Pontoux.
* ‘Ideas Mirror’ – is a collection of sixty-three (63) poems devoted to Anne, daughter of Sir Henry and Lady Rainsford.
* In his sonnets he represents himself as an adventurous sea-farer who has sailed in the perilous seas of love. His taste for geography often mars his love sonnets.
* His sonnets though hardly can give the inspiration of a true passion “Drayton is lively and interesting, and though he quite lacks Sidney’s depth, he has something of Sidney’s directness” (Tucker Brooke).
7) WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE:
* Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets which were published in 1604 by Thomas Thrope who dedicated the volume to a certain “Mr. W.H.” as being “The onlie begetter” of the sonnets. Mr. W.H. is probably William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke.
* 154 sonnets can be divided into three series-
a) The first series (sonnet 1 to 126) is addressed to a beautiful Youngman probably Earl of Southampton young friend of Shakespeare. In the first seventeen (17) sonnets the poet advises the Youngman to marry in order to gain immortality through his children
b) The second series (sonnet 127 to 152) addressed to a Dark Lady,’ a black beauty’ whose hair is like ‘black wires’ is probably Mary Fitton. It is interesting to note that she happened to be fair; but she perhaps does not exist at all. These sonnets show the lady’s betrayal and the poet’s despair, unhappiness and suffering.
c) Two other sonnets (153 to 154) are addressed to Cupid, the God of love.
* His sonnets are the gems of the Elizabethan casket. The poet transcends the personal to the level of universal. By virtue of his use of imagery, style, love for nature, musical quality, emotional appeal his sonnets stand supreme.
* His sonnets are written in a specific rhyme scheme, though not invented by him but finally become his own. His sonnets have a coherent structure with three logical quatrains and a fitting concluding couplet (abab bcbc cdcd efef gg).
* To quote Albert “In the depth, breath, and persistency of their passion, in their lordly but never overweening splendour of style, and, above all, in their mastery of a rich sensuous phraseology the sonnets are unique.”
Other sonneteers of this of this period are basically the poor imitators of Petrarch and Ronsard. Of them Henry Constable is noted for his sonnet sequence ‘Diana’, Lodge for ‘Phillis’ and Percy for ‘Celia’.