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Thread: Some thoughts on the origins of the sonnet.

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    Some thoughts on the origins of the sonnet.


    The sonnet has always been difficult for many people to describe. If you ask what a sonnet is, most people would probably reply “a fourteen line poem”. Many poets would call a fourteen line poem a quatorzain just to distinguish it from a sonnet proper, whatever that actually is. Some may even add that it was a ‘fourteen line poem’ in iambic pentameter. In fact the sonnet is incredibly varied; some do not even actually rhyme! Not all of them are fourteen lines either & the metre is usually the prevalent one in the language the poem is written in. In French the Alexandrine dominates & in Italian the hendecasyllable is preferred. The sonnet can be classified into various types, such as Petrarchan, Shakespearean, Miltonic or even Pushkinian but it often seems to defy definition.

    As a form the sonnet is about seven hundred & fifty years old. They have been written in English from around the turn of the sixteenth century. Most European languages have produced sonnets. There is a strong possibility that it has its ultimate origin in a Sicilian song form. Piero delle Vigne & Giacomo de Lentini in the early thirteenth century produced the initial forms of the sonnet as we would recognise them today. Guittone d’Arezzo (1230-94) first used the classical ‘Italian’ sonnet (a strict ABBAABBACDCDCD rhyme scheme). Dante (1265-1321) & Petrarch (1304-74) perfected it in their respective sonnet cycles ‘Vita Nuova’ & ‘Canzoniere’. Petrarch was the first to really extol the virtues of the sonnet. His ‘Rime to Laura’ (possibly a pun on the word laurel, as in ‘laureate’) established the essential romantic form & stylistic model of the sonnet we think of today.

    Sir Thomas Wyatt, the poet & diplomat, bought the sonnet to the English court & then Henry Howard, the soldier, poet, & Earl of Surrey became the innovator of the form of three quatrains followed by an heroic couplet. This was primarily to solve the problem of rhyming in a language which does not have a natural abundance of them. Its effect on the Elizabethans cannot be underestimated. The sonnet seemed to have the uncanny ability to crystallise thought succinctly & with some potency (not unlike the haiku in Japan). All this in an era when the English idiom was in the most rapidly developing phase it has ever been. New concepts & words were being introduced into the language at an alarming rate. The sonnet quickly developed into more than just a poem & had whole layers & conceits within its pithy form. It reached its apotheosis with Shakespeare’s cycle of a hundred & fifty-three.

    In the seventeenth century George Herbert (1593-1633) & John Donne (1572-1631) wrote glorious religious sonnets Prayer & Redemption being two of the finer examples of the former. Donne, who is often seen as the father of the metaphysical poets, wrote some of the most witty & beautiful in the English language in his Songs & Sonets. He also bought a new realism & urgency with an apposite almost psychological penetration which would have a powerful accumulative effect on later poets. John Milton (1608-74) best known for his long narrative poemParadise Lost, the longest in the English canon, pushed the envelope with the form & often expressed deeply held personal feelings, notwithstanding the addressing of certain political subjects close to his heart.

    By the time of Doctor Johnson, the celebrated lexicographer & his even more famous dictionary, (1755) the sonnet had become unfashionable. Johnson claimed in his now legendary lexicon that it (the sonnet) was not very suitable for the English language & nobody had done much with it since Milton.

    In the late eighteenth century the sonnet made a comeback. Spearheaded by William Lisle Bowles & by the nineteenth century the*Romanticshad raised the form to new heights. Wordsworth & Keats particularly had a lot to do with this. The Victorians sentimentalised the form somewhat, although Gerard Manley Hopkins had his own particular spin on the type, the sonnet survived to become one of the most popular forms of poetry enjoyed today.


    One of the most misunderstood terms regarding the sonnet is the ‘volta’. This a term borrowed from the Italian 'volte face' meaning 'about turn'. The turn is merely a subtle & often poignant change in the subject matter, in the Italian usually after the eighth line & in the English normally after the second stanza. This is often perceived as a psychological device to relieve tension by exacting a change. The Golden Mean was the ratio 8:5 & many people have pointed out that the sonnet seems to exhibit similar characteristics to that ratio that fascinated the ancient world so much.


    The main difference between the two is that the Italian consists of an octet followed by a sestet where the English form has three quatrains followed by a rhyming couplet.


    DEATH be not proud, though some have called thee
    Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not soe
    For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
    Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill mee.
    From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
    Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
    And soonest our best men thee doe go,
    Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.
    Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
    And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
    And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
    And better than thy stroake; why swell’st thou then ?
    One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
    And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.

    John Donne(from the) Holy Sonnets ‘x’

    Apart from the antiquated spelling, the use of Middle English personal & impersonal pronouns (thee & thou) & the old present indicative (think’st) this is definitely an Italian sonnet. The turn is obvious on the eighth line & the resolution of the subject poignant.

    The Divine poems & Holy Sonnets are amongst the best work that Donne ever produced. The Holy Sonnets were composed after the death of his wife in 1617. He had been recently ordained into the church & the tone of his poetry became very mystical & soul searching. Many of his early poems could be quite bawdy with much innuendo. He is seen as one of the originators of the Metaphysical movement with its clever conceits. Donne emotively generated his arguments bringing a new realism & urgency to lyric poetry. This was combined with great penetration & psychological analysis. Eventually he became the Dean of St Paul’s He died in London on March 31st 1631.


    Because English, as a language, is notoriously difficult to rhyme in (is there a rhyme with orange?) it was inevitable that a sonnet form would develop that was more suitable to the Germanic language group. Italic languages with their plethora of vowel endings & suffixes are more conducive to rhyming. The form that developed had three quatrains & ended with a rhyming (or heroic) couplet. This all seems fine on the face of it, but the type has problems of its own. With a rhyme scheme ABAB CDCD EFEF GG, it seemed to make it easier for the placement of the volta after the second quatrain. One of the predicaments of this is that you may not be able to say everything you wish before getting to the last couplet. This can give the impression of trying to cram an idea in at the last minute. At the very least it can make the sonnet look a little hurried. Even some of Shakespeare’s sonnets do not always seem to work when they get to that crucial ending couplet.

    Here is an amusing look at the form from the poet Katie Mallet

    The sonnet is a form that’s favourite
    With poets who would like to be well known.
    Its size is modest – tailor-made to fit
    Small gaps in magazines, the neutral zone
    Between opposing columns. Yet its length
    Gives space enough to state an argument,
    Although its structure seems to give a strength
    To quite inconsequential stuff – a vent
    For thoughts and feelings, at the end controlled
    By rhymes on every line (though modern bards
    May stick to assonance). The lines unfold
    A lasting pleasure, and it’s on the cards
    The sonnet will be still around when we
    Like Shakespeare have gained immortality.

    This is a classic exposition of the rhyme scheme, & just about sums up the English sonnet.


    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 immortalise;
    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 lie in dust, but you shall live by fame;
    My verse your virtues rare shall eternise,
    And in the heavens write your glorious name:
    Where, whenas death shall all the world subdue,
    Our love shall live, and later life renew.

    A popular theme with the Elizabethans, poetry to promote some sort of immortality can become clichéd unless done with care. Spenser utilised a form which is a good compromise with the Petrarchan four-rhymed sonnet & the seven rhymes of the Shakespearean. It interlocks the rhyme scheme ABABBCBCCDCDEE.


    Hurrahing in Harvest Gerard Manley Hopkins

    SUMMER ends now; now, barbarous in beauty, the stooks rise
    Around; up above, what wind-walks! What lovely
    Of silk-sack clouds! has wilder, wilful-wavier
    Meal-drift moulded ever and melted across skies?

    I walk, I lift up, I lift up heart, eyes,
    Down all that glory in the heavens to go glean our Saviour;
    And éyes, heárt, what looks, what lips yet gave you a
    Rapturous love’s greeting of realer, of rounder replies?

    And the azurous hung hills are his world-wielding shoulder
    Majestic ¬– as a stallion stalwart, very-violet-sweet! –
    These things, these things were here and but the beholder
    Wanting; which two when they once meet,
    The heart rears wings bold and bolder
    And hurls for him, O half hurls earth for him off under his

    This is written in Hopkins’s sprung & outstanding rhythm. The outriding feet are typical of his poetry. Note the alliteration. Hopkins claims that this sonnet was “the outcome of half an hour of extreme enthusiasm as I walked home alone one day from fishing in the Elwy.” His theories on metre are complex. Essentially he believed that in common English only two metric feet are really possible: The accentual trochee & dactyl. These can be combined to create logaoedic rhythm. Because this would be repetitive other ‘feet’ are interspersed between. This gives an effect that Hopkins named ‘counterpoint’ (from the musical term). He believed that Milton was the true master of this rhythm, particularly in the choruses of his Sampson Agonistes. Note the extra tail (or caudate) of the last line.

    Notice also how the alliteration & repeated words seem to give the reader a feeling of the swirling wind mentioned in the second line. Hopkins has been in & out of fashion for decades. He has been compared to having as much literary influence as Shakespeare or Dante & yet, has sometimes been ignored completely. Some have compared his love of nature with the poetry of the Pre- Raphaelites.

    I would like to look at three more poems, the first two are variations on the standard Italian or Petrarchan, but the last one is a different take on the sonnet entirely. Many people would argue whether it could be called a sonnet at all. I believe it does in fact have some of the criteria which can qualify it as one.

    It has often been said that the 'Miltonic' sonnet is essentially an English sonnet without a turn or volta. This is an interesting example of a variant of the Italian sonnet, a form often employed by Milton. The first two stanzas are the traditional ABBA ABBA, but the last six lines are CDE DCE. There is a definite volta at the eighth line starting with the adverbial conjunctive yet. He made this particular sonnet look very easy, but don’t be fooled by the apparent mellifluous ease that Milton seemed to engender with his use of rhyme and metre. You cannot help but notice that there is no real mawkishness or sentimentality in this poem. It is very decisive & without needless superfluity.

    On Being Arrived at Twenty-Three Years of Age

    HOW soon hath Time, the subtle thief of youth,
    Stolen on his wing my three-and-twentieth year!
    My hasting days fly on with full career,
    But my late spring no bud or blossom shew’th
    Perhaps my semblance might deceive the truth
    That I to manhood am arrived so near
    And inward ripeness doth much less appear
    That some timely-happy spirits indu'th.
    Yet, be it less or more, or soon or slow,
    It shall be still in strictest measure even
    To that same lot, however mean or high,
    Toward which time leads me, and the will of Heaven,
    All is, if I have grace to use it so,
    As ever in my great Task-Master’s eye.

    Matthew Arnold (1822-88) was an Oxford educated schools inspector, better known for his literary criticism & poems such as his religiously inspired 'Dover Beach' & the long narrative 'Sohrab & Rustum' than his ability to write sonnets.

    He is responsible for the introduction of the the term Philistine, borrowed partially from Heinrich Heine, to represent the intellectually incurious. He may not have had the sheer lyricism of Tennyson or the copious energy of Robert Browning but he was in the top three or four poets of the mid nineteenth century. G.K. Chesterton believed that our obligations to Arnold were almost beyond expression & that “His very faults reformed us”.


    In Paris all look’d hot and like to fade.
    Sere in the garden of the Tuileries,
    Sere with September, droop’d the chestnut-trees.
    ‘Twas dawn; a brougham roll’d through the streets and made

    Halt at the white and silent colonnade
    Of the French Theatre. Worn with disease,
    Rachael with eyes no gazing can appease,
    Sate in the brougham and those blank walls suvey’d.

    She follows the gay world, whose swarms have fled
    ‘To Switzerland , to Baden, to the Rhine;
    Why stops she by this empty play-house drear?

    Ah, where the spirit its highest life led,
    All spots, match’d with that spot, are less divine;
    And Rachael’s Switzerland, her Rhine is here !

    This is another take on the Italian sonnet. Arnold had some variations on the sonnet theme, but this is one of his most successful. It is in fact part of a triptych dedicated to the eponymous Rachel.

    Arnold was a bit out of step with his Victorian counterparts & believed they should learn three things: “the all-importance of the choice of a subject; the necessity of accurate construction; and the subordinate character of expression”.

    I think he has achieved all of those here quite admirably. He was also a great literary critic of his time. He particularly admired Wordsworth;“Wordsworth was a great critic, and it is to be sincerely regretted that he has not left us more criticism….”

    Matthew Arnold is mostly famous for lyric poems like Dover Beach & elegiacs such as The Scholar- Gypsy. Rachel was written in July 1863 after the death of the actress he had seen perform in his youth, & who had left such a deep impression on him.


    They pass me with bland looks.
    It is the simplicity of their lives
    I ache for: prettiness and a soft heart, no problems
    Not to be bought to life size
    By a kiss or a smile. I see them walking
    Up long streets with the accuracy of shuttles
    At work, threads crossed to make a pattern
    Unknown to them. A thousand curtains
    Are parted to welcome home
    The husbands who have overdrawn
    On their blank trust, giving them children
    To play with, a jingle of small change
    For their pangs. The tear-laden tree
    Of a poet strikes no roots in their hearts.

    R.S. Thomas was born in Cardiff in 1913. Graduating at the University College of North Wales at Bangor he then worked as Rector of Manafon, Montgomeryshire & later worked as a vicar in Cardiganshire for many years. A traditional & local poet in many ways, his verse often showed its central subject & eventual delineation to exhibit a developing knowledge of the real & the illusory. Sometimes subjective or in the objective awareness of others this was frequently developed from a sense of enforced intimacy. He died on the 25th of September 2000.

    Although this does not appear to have a traditional rhyme scheme the scansion is developed by the use of some alliteration, assonance & the use of sibilants & palatals to create an interesting aural effect. These sounds can be quite prevalent in the Welsh accent & I think give this poem a richness in sound & design.

    The volta halfway through the eighth line is not at first obviously apparent, but it is there & does push the piece towards its inevitable resolution. I fervently believe that this does in fact exhibit enough qualifiers to be pronounced as a sonnet. The last line ties the poetical sentiment to the author & totally removes the slightly patronising tone that seems to be on the verge of developing. Thomas was a man of deep sympathy with the human condition & with the plight of humanity. His choice of career almost certainly reflects this.

    I shall discuss some more variations of the sonnet in later columns.


    A life of Matthew Arnold: Nicholas Murray, Sceptre,1987.
    Essays Literary & Critical by Matthew Arnold, J.M. Dent. 1922.
    Matthew Arnold's Poetical Works: Macmillan & Co 1890, 1st ed.
    PIETÀ: R.S. Thomas, Rupert Hart-Davis, 1966, 1st ed.
    The Works of John Milton: Wordsworth Poetry Library.
    The Oxford Companion to English Literature: Ed; M. Drabble, OUP.
    101 Sonnets Ed; Don Paterson: Faber & Faber
    A Dictionary of Modern Critical Terms: Ed; R. Fowler.
    Oxford English: OUP
    From Donne to Marvell: Ed; B.Ford, Pelican books.
    The Pelican Guide to English Literature: Ed; B. Ford Pelican books.
    Sphere History of Literature in the English Language: Ed; B. Bergonzi.
    How to be Well-Versed in Poetry: Ed; E.O. Parrot, Penguin books.
    The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins: Gardener & MacKenzie, 4th ed, OUP.

    docendo discimus

  2. #2
    Wow... Very informative!

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