A Short History Of The Sonnet

03/18/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Seeing as how it's sonnet season, I thought it would be a good time to look at what might be the most popular and enduring form in English poetry. Now, I figure that some of you are suffering from a little Valentine's Day overload, and the last thing you want to read today is "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways," (which is actually from a sonnet by Christina Rossetti) so I'll try avoid effusive sentimentality. But that shouldn't be too difficult as the form has come a long, long way.

The sonnet does traditionally celebrate love--albeit a very specific type: courtly (of the royal court) and unrequited. The poet (at that time, almost always a man) would use a sonnet to pine for a woman he could not have. It originated in Italy where it was popularized by Dante and Petrarch among others. Two English poets, Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, The Earl of Surrey effectively brought the form to the English language with their translations of Petrarch in the mid-16th Century. The sonnet immediately took root, though poets tinkered with the form's internal structure.

A good example of an early sonnet is the 71st in Sir Philip Sidney's famous sequence Astrophel and Stella (published in 1591). In it, Astrophel (from the Greek for "Star Lover") pines for Stella (Latin for "star"). You'll notice the over-the-top praise, which is typical, but the poem also has a remarkable human moment at the end.

 Who will in fairest book of Nature know
How virtue may best lodg'd in beauty be,
Let him but learn of Love to read in thee,
     Stella, those fair lines which true goodness show:
     There shall he find all vices overthrow,
Not by rude force, but sweetest sovereignty
Of reason, from whose light those night-birds fly;
     That inward sun in thine eyes shineth so.
And not content to be Perfection's heir
     Thyself, dost strive all minds that way to move:
Who mark in thee what is in thee most fair:
     So while thy beauty draws the heart to love,
As fast thy virtue bends that love to good:
But, ah! Desire still cries, Give me some food.

Give me some food! It reads like a 16th century cookie monster.

Shortly after Sidney wrote his sonnets, Shakespeare was mastering them, and, at times, standing the form on its head. In his sonnet 130, he makes a point of eschewing hyperbole because his love doesn't need to be lied to, and, by extension, he doesn't need such language to write a great love poem.

My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips' red:
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask'd, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak,--yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go,
My mistress when she walks, treads on the ground;
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.

By the early 1600s, poets were already exploring new sonnet themes. John Donne used the sonnet to explore faith and doubt in his Holy Sonnets. His sonnet 14 eroticizes his religious devotion.

Batter my heart, three-person'd God ; for you
As yet but knock ; breathe, shine, and seek to mend ;
That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp'd town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but O, to no end.
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betroth'd unto your enemy ;
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

Weirdly steamy, huh? And as ties to sonnet conventions loosened over the years, poets used the form for just about anything. William Wordsworth wrote hundreds of sonnets on the history of the English church. Shelley wrote sonnets on politics and the frailty of pride. Yeats' great sonnet "Leda and the Swan" vividly describes the impregnation of Leda by Zeus in the form of a swan (it's a little weird). Robert Frost--who stands out as a 20th century master of the form--wrote many sonnets that have little to do with love.

Contemporary poets have let loose to such a degree that sonnets are now hardly recognizable aside from their length--still 14 lines. Still, they will often at least give a nod to the sonnet's traditional themes. "Shawl" by Albert Goldbarth is a good example, alluding to love (or, more specifically, desire) before going elsewhere.

Eight hours by bus, and night
was on them. He could see himself now
in the window, see his head there with the country
running through it like a long thought made of steel and wheat.
Darkness outside; darkness in the bus--as if the sea
were dark and the belly of the whale were dark to match it.
He was twenty: of course his eyes returned, repeatedly,
to the knee of the woman two rows up: positioned so
occasional headlights struck it into life.
But more reliable was the book; he was discovering himself
to be among the tribe that reads. Now his, the only
overhead turned on. Now nothing else existed:
only him, and the book, and the light thrown over his shoulders
as luxuriously as a cashmere shawl.

In effect, it's "How do I love thee...oh, nevermind." And that may be exactly what you want the day after Valentine's Day.