Sonnets and Sonnet SequencesThe Elizabethan age might be called the age of the sonnet, for it was during this period that this short, highly structured poetic form was introduced into England, and flourished.
The sonnet form originated in Italy, probably in the thirteenth century, and was used by two Italian masters, Dante and Petrach. Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, are credited with introducing and promoting the form in England early in the sixteenth century. It soon became fashionable in England to write love sonnets to a beloved – usually idealised – lady, after the manner of Petrarch’s sonnets to his mistress, Laura. As the sonnets accumulated, they became sequences, and in addition to expressing ardent emotions, began to sketch out a fragmentary narrative – of falling in love, pursuing the beloved, losing the beloved, finding the beloved, celebrating the beauty of the beloved. Nearly every poet of the Elizabethan period wrote a sonnet sequence to the lady he most admired: Sir Philip Sidney to Penelope Devereux in Astrophel and Stella; Edmund Spenser to Elizabeth Boyle in Amoretti; William Shakespeare to his mysterious “dark lady”.
In later English literature, the sonnet was to become a form useful for expressing a variety of themes, including social criticism, liberty, alienation; indeed, other themes were expressed in this form during the sixteenth century. But by and large, to the Elizabethan poet the sonnet proved best suited as a vehicle for expressing the immense range of emotions of love and passion.
Contributed by Gifford, Katya
5 June 2002