The Makings of Literature in English:
The Sonnet Tradition

| Wyatt | Surrey | Sidney | Wroth |
Spenser | Shakespeare | Donne | Milton |

The making of a literature in English is the story of an English Bible, of humanist works which attempted to improve society through perfection of the individual, and of a poetic tradition which began most clearly with the sonnet.

What is a Sonnet?

A sonnet is a poem of fourteen iambic pentameter lines. It follows one of several set rhyme schemes. The two basic types are

  • the Italian or Petrarchan: generally an octave + a sestet (abbaabba + cdecde, cdcdcd or cdedce). The octave presents a narrative, rasises a question or states a proposition to which the sestet then responds.
  • the English or Shakespearean: uses four divisions: three quatrains + rhymed couplet for a conclusion. The quatrains can have different rhyme schemes, but the typical pattern is abab cdcd efef gg.

But there is a third type:

  • the Spenserian: quite rare, this style complicates the Shakespearean form by linking rhymes in the quatrains: abab bcbc cdcd ee.

The sonnet developed in twelfth or thirteenth century Italy, but its reached its height in the fourteenth under Francesco Petrarch, who gave it the distinctive name. Conventionally, such sonnets as Petrarch's dealt with the theme of idealized love. From Petrarch, poets would receive a wealth of conventions or "conceits."

What are Petrarchan Conceits?

A "conceit" is a fanciful notion, generally expressed through an elaborate analogy or metaphor. The sonnet tradition carried its own peculiar conceits which have made their way into our social consciousness.

From Petrarch, the sonneteers of the Renaissance took not only a conventional form but also conventional sentiments. The relation between the poet and his beloved is presented in terms of an idealized courtly love: the persona is a "humble servant" tossed by a tempest on the sea of despair, the beloved can wound with a glance, and her beauty is described in stereotypical fashion. Her cheeks are like roses, her eyes sparkle, and her lips are ruby red.

Shakespeare pokes great fun at such conventions with his "Sonnet 130: My Mistress' Eyes Are Nothing Like the Sun."

In the court of Henry VIII, a group of poets arose who would make significant contributions to the development of a literature in English. Chief among these "courtly makers" were Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey. With their translations of Petrarch's work, Wyatt and Surrey are responsible for introducing the sonnet form into English.

In addition to translating Petrarch, both Wyatt and Surrey created their own sonnets in English, thus establishing a poetic form and a poetic tradition for those writers who followed them.

Although its rules of order and arrangement might seem limiting, the sonnet was actually a challenging "proving ground" for poets: they tested their poetic mettle on it before branching off into other forms. It required the sort of discipline that prepared them for more creative, original works. In polishing their own writing and technique, they also polished English as a fit language for poetic endeavors.

Following the tradition of Petrach some poets even created a sonnet sequence, a collection of poems linked to one another and dealing with a single subject. Sidney's Astrophel and Stella, Lady Mary Wroth's From Pamphilia to Amphilanthus, Shakespeare's sonnets, and Spenser's Amoretti are examples of sonnet sequences.

Take Special Note of Wroth's
A Crown of Sonnets Dedicated to Love

Lady Mary Wroth's A Crown of Sonnets Dedicated to Love takes the sonnet sequence one step further: each succeeding sonnet begins with the last line of the prior one. The final line of the last sonnet is the first line of the original poem. The resulting crown or "corona" presents an even more complicated sequence than does the traditional one.

See information on Wroth, below.
Read some of Wroth's work,


Sir Thomas Wyatt

The older of the two "courtly makers" of Henry's court, Wyatt can be identified as the father of modern English poetry: it is with his translations from Petrarch that the tradition in English begins.

Wyatt and others who followed him "exercised" the vernacular in two ways:

Since Chaucer's day, English had undergone many semantic and grammatical changes. By the sixteenth century, writers intent on writing in English had to work out their own stylistics and metrics. Changes had effected the way words were pronounced or accented, and such alterations made the role of the sixteenth century poet difficult.

These early poets were basically craftsmen rather than artists in the standard sense:

Wyatt's poetic contributions are a bit uneven:

What to expect from Wyatt's sonnets:

On the whole, Wyatt's lighter verses are more successful than his sonnets.


Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey

Like Wyatt, Surrey travelled to Italy, and his imagination was captured by Petrarch's sonnets.

In terms of his contribution to the development of a literature in English, Surrey has less strength but more polish than Wyatt. He is more successful in fitting the accent to the normal accent of the word in spoken language, but he lacks the originality of Wyatt's creative touches.

Of the two, Surrey is more of a craftsman; Wyatt, more of an artist.

What to know about Surrey's work:

What is Antithesis?

Antithesis is a figure of speech characterized by strongly contrasting words, ideas, clauses, sentences. An example is "Man proposes, God disposes."

Like Wyatt, Surrey also produced other types of poetry, and it is in these other forms--especially the autobiographical works--that his true artistry is found.

Surrey is perhaps best known for introducing blank verse into English with his translation of Virgil's The Aeneid.

What is Blank Verse?

Blank verse is unrhymed but otherwise regular verse, generally iambic pentameter. Blank verse is considered to be the best form for dramatic verse.

Although the poetry of Wyatt and Surrey was not published during their lifetimes, after their deaths their work was collected in 1557 by the printer Richard Tottel.

The First Anthologies?
Tottel's Miscellany & Other Collections of Renaissance Verse

Tottel published Wyatt's and Surrey's work, along with the poetry of others, in his massively popular Songes and Sonnettes, written by the ryght honorable Lorde Henry Haward late Earle of Surrey, and other (more commonly known as Tottel's Miscellany).

Tottel's collection ushered in many other such anthologies during Elizabeth's reign. They had wonderfully suggestive titles, among them The Paradise of Dainty Devices, A Gorgeous Gallery of Gallant Inventions, A Handful of Pleasant Delights.


Sir Philip Sidney

Sir Philip Sidney was considered both by his day and history as an ideal and courteous knight--along with Thomas More, he was the quintessential Renaissance man. A nobleman, he was an active participant in the most engaging and significant literary discussions of the time.

As with Wyatt and Surrey, none of Sidney's work was published during his lifetime, although it circulated widely in manuscript. His sonnet sequence Astrophel and Stella, which appeared in 1591, can be considered responsible for the large number of sonnet sequence which followed it. Sidney's sequence of 108 sonnets also includes 11 songs.

Who was Sidney's Stella?

Penelope Devereux, who was betrothed to Sidney in her youth, is the original for Stella in Sidney's sonnet sequence. When the engagement was broken, she married Lord Rich and Sidney married Frances Walsingham. However, the clearly autobiographical sonnet sequence records his hopeless love for Devereux.

What should we take from Sidney's sonnets?


Lady Mary Wroth

Lady Mary Wroth--niece to Sir Philip Sidney and Lady Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke--was the first Englishwoman to produce a full-length prose romance, as well as the first to create a sonnet sequence.

Wroth was raised with wealth and privilege, educated in ways not traditional to women of her generation. Wroth's literary career was an unconventional as her upbringing. Her major prose romance, The Countess of Montgomery's Urania, enraged many noblemen because it included thinly-veiled portraits of well-known courtiers. Wroth defended herself against charges of immorality, but within six months of its appearance in manuscript, The Countess of Montgomer's Urania was withdrawn from circulation by its writer.

Wroth is perhaps best known for the sonnet sequences From Pamphilia to Amphilanthus, which appeared appended to Urania, and A Crown of Sonnets Dedicated to Love. The former sets the sonnet tradition on its head: it is written from the point of view of the woman, the constant and chaste Pamphilia.

Here's what to know about Wroth's work:


Sir Edmund Spenser

Spenser's sonnet sequence, the Amoretti, fittingly was published along with his Epithalamion, a poem written in honor of his wedding to Elizabeth Boyle. Whether his sonnets were written for her is an unanswerable question--as they focus on the ebbing and flowing of a romance: first the lover gains his love, then he loses her.

Here's what you should know about Spenser's sonnets:


To read about Spenser's
other works, click


William Shakespeare

Shakespeare began his career as a poet, and his plays show the artistry developed in such forms as the sonnet. Written over a number of years, his sonnets were not published until 1609, considerably after the "vogue" for sonnets had passed.

With his sonnets, Shakespeare breaks from tradition in several ways:


To read about Shakespeare's
The Tempest, click

John Donne

Although later sonneteers like Shakespeare and Ben Jonson play with the Petrarchan tradition, the first really significant change in the genre occurred at the end of the 16th century, when religion gradually displaced love as the primary subject of the sonnet, setting in motion a thematic shift that would lead to even greater innovation in later years.

Donne was the first to express and fully develop the potential of the form the expression of religious faith. In his Holy Sonnets (written mainly 1608-10), he explores his obsessions with death and salvation.

Donne changed the face of the sonnet in several ways:


John Milton

Milton's sonnets--which he produced over the course of his poetic life--reflect both contemporary public and private events.

By his time, the great surge of Elizabethan sonneteering had past, and he was left with a form that was still useful but was in need of a change in direction, focus and variety. Instead of returning to his own English literary forebears, Milton took to the original: he adopted the Petrarchan rhyme scheme and, in doing so, reenergized the English sonnet.

Although he is writing sonnets past their glorious age, Milton took his work with the tradition to new heights:

For originality, thematic variety, and craftsmanshsip, Milton's sonnets are unique in the language and are believed by some readers to be perhaps the most important development in the genre since Wyatt and Surrey.

So How Does This Sonnet Story End?

Essentially, sonnets do not disappear; in fact, they are still being written today. But they experienced their greatest vogue during the Renaissance, and thereafter they declined in popularity.

Although Milton dramatically revived (resuscitated?) the form, other poets were not inspired by his example. After him, very few sonnets were written during 1660-1740.

Eighteenth century and subsequent generations of writers tended to reject the sonnet form, but it still cropped up periodically. For example, Wordsworth and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, both 19th century writers, adapted the form to their own uses.