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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

XII. The Elizabethan Sonnet

§ 1. The model of construction

THE SONNET, which, for practical purposes, may be regarded as an invention of thirteenth century Italy, slowly won the favour of English poets. Neither the word nor the thing reached England till the third decade of the sixteenth century, when English sonnets were first written, in imitation of the Italian, by Sir Thomas Wyatt and the earl of Surrey. But these primary efforts form an isolated episode in English literary history; they began no vogue. A whole generation—more than a quarter of a century—separated the final sonneteering efforts of Surrey and Wyatt from the birth of the Elizabethan sonnet. At first, the Elizabethan growth was sparse; nor did it acquire luxuriance until queen Elizabeth’s reign was nearing its last decade. Then, sonneteering became an imperious and universal habit, a conventional recreation, a modish artifice of gallantry and compliment. No poetic aspirant between 1590 and 1600 failed to try his skill on this poetic instrument. During those ten years, more sonnets were penned in England than in any other decade.

The harvest of Elizabethan sonneteering is a strange medley of splendour and dulness. The workers in the field included Sidney, Spenser and Shakespeare, who, in varying degrees, invested this poetic form with unquestionable beauty. Shakespeare, above all, breathed into the sonnet a lyric melody and a meditative energy which no writer of any country has surpassed. It is the value attaching to the sonneteering efforts of this great trio of Elizabethan poets, and to some rare and isolated triumphs of their contemporaries, Daniel, Drayton and Constable, which lends to the Elizabethan sonnet aesthetic interest. The profuse experiments of other Elizabethans lack critical importance and add nothing to the lasting fruits of poetic achievement. Few in the crowded rank and file of Elizabethan sonneteers reached high levels of poetic performance. Fewer still were capable of sustained flight in the loftiest regions of poetry. Most of the fertile producers betrayed a crudeness and a clumsiness of thought and language which invited and justified ridicule.

None the less does the average Elizabethan sonnet illustrate the temper of the time. It bears graphic witness to the Elizabethan tendency to borrow from foreign literary effort. Even the greatest of Elizabethan sonneteers did not disdain occasional transcription of the language and sentiment of popular French or Italian poetry. The rank and file almost entirely depended for inspiration on their foreign reading. The full story of the Elizabethan sonnet is, for the most part, a suggestive chapter in the literary records of plagiarism, a testimony to the frequency of communication between literary Englishmen and literary Frenchmen and Italians, an illustration of the community of literary feeling which linked the three nations to one another.

The influence which Wyatt and Surrey, the English pioneers of the sonnet, exerted on the Elizabethan sonneteers is shadowy and indeterminate. Their experiments, as has been seen, were first published posthumously in 1557 in Tottel’s Miscellany, which included verse from many other pens. The sixty sonnets contained in Tottel’s volume—for the most part primitive reflections of Petrarch—represent, so far as is known, all the English sonneteering work which was in being when queen Elizabeth’s reign opened.

George Gascoigne, in his treatise on poetic composition, which appeared as early as 1575, accurately described the normal construction of the sonnet in sixteenth century England when he wrote:

  • Sonnets are of fouretene lynes, every line conteyning tenne syllables. The firste twelve do ryme in staves of foure lines by crosse meetre, and the last two ryming togither do conclude the whole.
  • Though Tottel’s Miscellany was reprinted seven times between 1557 and 1584, and acquired general popularity, little endeavour was made during those seven and twenty years to emulate its sonneteering experiments. In the earliest poetic miscellanies which followed Tottel’s Miscellany, sonnets are rare. Only three quatorzains figure in The Paradyse of Daynty Devises, 1576. Of these, only one pays any regard to metrical rules. The two others are carelessly formed of seven riming couplets, and the lines are not of ten but of twelve or fourteen syllables. In the succeeding miscellany, A Gorgious Gallery of Gallant Inventions, 1578, the quatorzains number no more than four.

    Despite Wyatt and Surrey’s efforts, it was by slow degrees that the sonnet came to be recognised in Elizabethan England as a definite species of verse inviting compliance with fixed metrical laws. George Gascoigne, although he himself made some fifteen experiments in the true quatorzain, accurately diagnosed contemporary practice when he noted, in 1575, how “some thinke that all Poemes (being short) may be called Sonets, as in deede it is a diminutive worde derived of Sonare.” This view held its ground more stubbornly than is often recognised. When Clement Robinson, in 1584, published his Handefull of pleasant delites, he described the volume as containing “sundrie new sonets” with “everie sonet orderly pointed to its proper tune,” and he headed many of his poems with such titles as “A proper sonet,” or “A sorrowful sonet.” Yet Robinson’s sonnets are all lyric poems of varied length, usually in four- or six-lined stanzas. No sonnet in the technical sense came from his pen. The tradition of this inaccurate nomenclature survived, indeed, to a far later generation; and writers like Thomas Lodge and Nicholas Breton, who made many experiments in the true sonnet form, had no hesitation in applying the term to lyric efforts of varied metre and in stanzas of varied length, which bore no relation to the quatorzain. As late as 1604, Nicholas Breton brought out a miscellany of poetry under the general title, The Passionate Shepheard; the second part bore the designation “Sundry sweet sonnets and passionated Poems,” each of which is separately headed “Sonet I,” and so forth; but two only of the poems are quatorzains and those in rambling lines of fourteen syllables. Breton’s “Sonet I” is in thirty-four stanzas of four lines each, with one stanza of six lines. His “Sonet II” is in thirty-two stanzas of six lines each. The long continued misuse of the word illustrates the reluctance of the Elizabethans to accept the sonnet’s distinctive principles.