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Elizabethan Sonnets: Origin and History

The term, Elizabethan sonnet represents the chain of English sonnets that were written in the Elizabethan age by eminent sonneteers such as Sir Thomas Wyatt, Earl of Surrey, Philip Sydney, Edmund Spencer and chiefly William Shakespeare.

What is a Sonnet: Definition

The sonnet is a lyrical poem of 14 lines that developed in Italy in the Middle Age, and the initiators were Petrarch, Dante, and Tasso.

What does the Term “Sonnet” mean

Coming from the Italian “Sonneto,” the word sonnet, means a song.

The Italian sonnet


The Italian sonnet consists of two parts:

  • The octave, which comprises of 8 lines with a rhyme scheme, abbaabba
  • The sestet that has six lines with the rhyme scheme cdecde

The Theme

These sonnets centered on the expression of a kind of sentiment that came to be regarded as courtly love.

Characteristics of the Courtly Love Tradition

  • Celebration of adultery
  • Near deification of the mistress
  • Unrequited suitor remaining faithful to his beloved

The social reasons that helped in the emergence of this particular ideology of love were many. The feudal warlords in Medieval Europe formed alliances through marriages between houses. In these associations, the lady maintained a repulsive attitude, both for not being close to the particular warlord and also, as she enjoyed amorous attention in the habitually male dominated castle. Thus, there is the portrayal of a passionate lover, forever pining for his beloved.

Moreover, the constant negation of ardent responses on the lady’s part points at the equally relevant role that the Catholic image of Virgin Mary had in those times.

 The English sonnet

The Pioneers: Wyatt and Surrey

It was Sir Thomas Wyatt, who first introduced the English sonnet in the early 16th century in England and Earl of Surrey, who developed its rhyme scheme. These sonnets, mainly Petrarchan translations, and printed in “Tottel’s Miscellany” proved tremendously influential for, in translating Petrarch, they initiated a new way of thinking and writing about love in English poetry. Also, Queen Elizabeth epitomized the concept of the unapproachable mistress, even more acutely than the beloveds eulogized in earlier poetry. Thus, the desired lady, in being forever inaccessible, was often compared to the queen herself.  Much of the popularity of these sonnets also depended on an elaborate praising of the accession of Queen Elizabeth.

Rhyme Scheme of the English sonnet

abab, cdcd, efef, gg

Sydney and Spencer

Sir Philip Sydney, coming from a noble background and resembling other court poets, looked upon poetry as a mere indulgence. Not willing to risk his social status by candidly adopting the profession of a poet, he chose the tool of deprecation while expressing his sentiments. This is efficiently explored in his “Astrophel and Stella,” a monumental work consisting of 108 sonnets that, employing the usual characteristics of fruitless wooing, ultimately ends on a note of spiritual victory for both the lover and his lady love. This sonnet, widely regarded as the first of the Elizabethan sonnet sequence, is actually a rendering of his futile love for Lady Penelope Rich.

Edmund Spencer did not come from nobility and as such, where the other poets could remain humble, he had the necessity to prove his merit. Consequently, he chose to celebrate Queen Elizabeth and her reign in grander terms than his contemporaries. Spencer’s sonnets deviated from the other sonnets by including other significant features too.

The Spenserian characteristics are:

  • The beloved is worldlier and less deified
  • Inclusion of the Platonic notion of love
  • Less focus on success and failure in love
  • Greater stress on sensual desire

Thus in his “Amoretti” sonnets, the mistress is much more responsive and attainable than those of the earlier ones. Comprising of 88 sonnets, The “Amoretti” in fact, voices his feelings towards his love in real life, Elizabeth Boyle.

Structure of Spenserian sonnets

They consist of four quatrains and a couplet

Rhyme Scheme

abab bcbc cdcd ee

William Shakespeare

Out of the 154 sonnets that Shakespeare wrote, 126 are addressed to an unidentified young man, 26 deals with his sexual feelings for a scheming woman, known as the “dark lady,” and two are addressed to Cupid, the God of love. The most striking feature of these sonnets is the deliberate inversion of the conventional gender role that had been in vogue with the other sonneteers. The result is a complicated depiction of love as apparent in the earlier sonnets. For example, sonnets 1 to 17, where the poet’s  earnest hope to preserve the immortality of his friend makes him urge the young man to marry and have kids so that his traits pass on to them.

Another deviation from the previous sonnets is that the lady, whom Shakespeare talks about, is frail, plain and cruel in comparison to the beloveds of the prior sonneteers.  Moreover, the sonnets have a dark mood, with love being described as a sickness rather than an inspiring sentiment.

The Themes

  • Love
  • The steady flow of time
  • Transience of beauty
  • Mortality

 Structure of Shakespearean sonnets

  • Consists of three quatrains and a rhyming couplet as an ending
  • The subject is discussed in the quatrains, and it is summed up in the couplet
  • After each quatrain, comes a pause to keep intact the ongoing argument
  • Epiphany is disclosed in the ending couplet

Rhyme Scheme

  • Most of the couplets are in iambic pentameter
  • The rhyme scheme is abab cdcd efef gg

Some of the most famous Shakespearean sonnets are Sonnet 18 (Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day), Sonnet 116 (Let me not to the marriage of true minds).

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