By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The sonnet form has been used by many poets in many languages since it was invented in the Middle Ages. It really arrived in English literature during the reign of Henry VIII in the sixteenth century, when poets such as Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, introduced it at court.
Since then, poets have found new ways to use it to say what they want to say – it’s been a love poem, an elegy, a nature poem, an argument, a poem of remembrance, and much else. Here are ten of the finest sonnets in all of English literature, from the sixteenth century to the present day. Follow the title of each poem to read it.
1. Sir Thomas Wyatt, ‘Whoso List to Hunt‘.
Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind,
But as for me, hélas, I may no more.
The vain travail hath wearied me so sore,
I am of them that farthest cometh behind.
Yet may I by no means my wearied mind
Draw from the deer, but as she fleeth afore
Fainting I follow …
One of the oldest sonnets in the English language, written in the 1530s and published in the 1550s, ‘Whoso List to Hunt’ is also one of the very best. Its use of rhyme is masterly, and the background to the poem – Wyatt’s former friendship (romance?) with Anne Boleyn, now married to King Henry VIII – is as fascinating as the language Wyatt employs.
2. Sir Philip Sidney, Sonnet 1 from Astrophil and Stella.
Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show,
That she, dear she, might take some pleasure of my pain,—
Pleasure might cause her read, reading might make her know,
Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain,—
I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe …
Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella was one of the first sonnet sequences written in English, and was composed in the early 1580s, shortly after Penelope Devereux married Robert Rich. Penelope had initially been offered to Sidney as his wife, but Sidney turned her down; now she is someone else’s, he realises how much he likes her.
This opening sonnet sets up the aim of Astrophil and Stella (literally, ‘star-lover and star’), but does so in an innovative fashion: using twelve-syllable lines (otherwise known as alexandrines) rather than ten-syllable lines.
3. William Shakespeare, Sonnet 29.
When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate …
In English literature, ‘Shakespeare’ is more or less synonymous with ‘sonnet’. This is one of his most popular, though not as famous as the much-quoted Sonnet 18 (‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’).
In this sonnet, William Shakespeare tells his beloved that whenever he feels overlooked or disregarded by his fellow man, remembering his lover makes everything all right again. You can read our pick of Shakespeare’s Sonnets here.
4. John Donne, ‘Death, Be Not Proud‘.
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 with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie …
Along with Shakespeare the other great sonneteer of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries was John Donne. In this sonnet, one of Donne’s best-loved ‘Holy Sonnets’, Death is personified as a male braggart, like a soldier boasting of all the men he’s slain.
5. William Wordsworth, ‘Composed upon Westminster Bridge‘.
Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning …
This poem is a Petrarchan or Italian sonnet, arranged into an octave and a sestet (although unlike some Petrarchan sonnets, Wordsworth does not have a blank line dividing the eighth and ninth lines), rhyming abbaabba and cdcdcd (the abba abba rhyme scheme in the first eight lines is the giveaway that this is a Petrarchan sonnet).
The first eight lines praise the beauty of London in the early morning light, as the poet stands on Westminster Bridge admiring the surrounding buildings.
6. John Keats, ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer‘.
Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold …
Composed when Keats was just 20 years of age, this is one of his most widely anthologised sonnets. The poem focuses on Keats’s initial encounter with an English translation of Homer’s poetry by George Chapman (c. 1559-1634), likening the experience to that of an astronomer discovering a new planet or an explorer sighting an unknown land.
Keats could not appreciate Homer because he cannot read Greek. So he cannot read Homer’s words. That is, until he encounters George Chapman’s English translation of Homer, at which point the world of the ancient Greek poet is suddenly and magically opened up to him.
The final six-line unit (or sestet) of the poem then likens the poet’s experience of ‘discovering’ Homer to the discovery of a new planet (sure enough, the planet Uranus had been discovered by William Herschel in 1781) and to a Spanish conquistador’s sighting of the Pacific ocean. (This is the sort of thing a Metaphysical Poet like John Donne had done in his poetry in the early seventeenth century.)
7. Christina Rossetti, ‘Remember‘.
Remember me when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the silent land;
When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay …
Written by Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) when she was still a teenager, ‘Remember’ is a sonnet about mourning and remembrance. It was written in 1849 but not published until 1862 when it appeared in Rossetti’s first volume, Goblin Market and Other Poems.
In the sonnet, Rossetti requests that the addressee of the poem remember her after she has died, but she goes on to add that it would be better for her loved one to forget her and be happy than to remember her and be sad. It is this second part of the poem’s ‘argument’ that saves it from being overly sentimental.
8. Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘The Windhover‘.
I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind …
Hopkins’s most distinctive feature is the ‘sprung rhythm’ he employs in his poetry, which means the rhythm and metre of his poems are often unpredictable and irregular, in order to capture human speech more faithfully.
This means that his sonnets, although they comprise the standard fourteen lines, often have many more than ten syllables in a line – as is the case in this classic sonnet about a kestrel in flight. The poem is dedicated ‘To Christ Our Lord’, and Hopkins likens the majesty of the bird to the grace of God.
9. Edna St. Vincent Millay, ‘I, Being Born a Woman and Distressed‘.
This poem, first published in 1932, is notable for its frank expression of female desire: a Petrarchan sonnet that turns the male idea of courtly love on its head, it describes the poet’s physical attraction to somebody, rather than an intellectual connection with them. You can find more classic sonnets by women here.
10. Tony Harrison, ‘Illuminations I‘.
Following Victorian poet George Meredith’s innovation of the 16-line sonnet, Tony Harrison wrote a sonnet sequence in which many of the poems utilise this extended form.
‘Illuminations I’ is one of the most accomplished and moving examples, though Harrison wrote many poignant and well-crafted sonnets, especially about his parents. (Stephen Spender described them as being the kind of poetry he’d been waiting his whole life to read.)
This poem sees the poet recalling family holidays to Blackpool (hence ‘Illuminations’ – though the title resonates with deeper meanings too), during which the young poet-to-be would be too busy playing the arcade games to spend time with his father.
Now the poet, middle-aged and mourning the death of his father, has a new, touching perspective on things. The final line is especially good for the way it renovates two old cliches, instilling them with new poignancy. Scroll down the webpage on the link provided above to read the poem.
Discover more interesting things about the sonnet in our post about the history of the sonnet form here. And if you’d like to read more sonnets, we’d recommend this excellent anthology: The Penguin Book of the Sonnet: 500 Years of a Classic Tradition in English. For an analysis of how the sonnet form works, check out our commentary on Percy Shelley’s classic Romantic poem ‘Ozymandias’ and our analysis of the war sonnet ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.