Selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
The first named writer in world history was a woman, Enheduanna. The sonnet form was Italian in origin, of course, but a host of English poets have made it their own: Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, Keats, Auden, and many besides. But what is often overlooked is what female poets have done with the form. Indeed, the first ever sonnet sequence written in English was by a woman (see below). In this post we’ve gathered together ten of the greatest sonnets by female English poets.
1. Anne Locke, ‘My many sinnes in nomber are encreast’.
Any list of the best sonnets by English women poets that strives for comprehensive historical coverage should begin here, with the largely forgotten figure of Anne Locke (c. 1530-c. 1590). As we discuss in our book about obscure and forgotten books, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, Locke was not only the first Englishwoman to write a sonnet sequence, but the first English poet of either gender to do so. A Meditation of a Penitent Sinner, appended to a translation of John Calvin’s sermons which Locke published in 1560, was written two decades before Sir Philip Sidney wrote Astrophil and Stella, which is often named as the first English sonnet sequence.
As the title of Locke’s sonnet cycle reveals, her poems take sin and penitence as their predominant themes, and the following poem – given in the original spelling – shows that, although Locke was taking her cue from Psalm 51 in these sonnets, she was a fine poet who made masterly use of the relatively recent arrival in English poetry, the sonnet. What’s even more remarkable is that this is a Shakespearean sonnet, with the same rhyme scheme (ababcdcdefefgg) that Shakespeare would use over thirty years later.
My many sinnes in nomber are encreast,
With weight wherof in sea of depe despeire
My sinking soule is now so sore opprest,
That now in peril and in present fere,
I crye: susteine me, Lord, and Lord I pray,
With endlesse nomber of thy mercies take
The endlesse nomber of my sinnes away.
So by thy mercie, for thy mercies sake,
Rue on me, Lord, releue me with thy grace.
My sinne is cause that I so nede to haue
Thy mercies ayde in my so woefull case:
My synne is cause that scarce I dare to craue
Thy mercie manyfolde, which onely may
Releue my soule, and take my sinnes away.
Locke’s A Meditation of a Penitent Sinner was the first English sonnet sequence, but it was relatively short. Lady Mary Wroth (1587-c.1652) was the first Englishwoman to write a substantial sonnet sequence. Not only that, but she was admired by her contemporaries, including the hard-to-please Ben Jonson. It’s said that Jonson didn’t like sonnets – yet he liked hers. She was the grand-niece of Sir Philip Sidney (1554-86), who wrote the first long sonnet sequence in English (though as we’ve just seen, not the first ever sequence), and learnt much from him about the art of sonnet-writing, as this poem demonstrates.
The poem reflects the blackest moods of depression, with the speaker wishing to join with the night, since they both embody darkness and are natural partners for each other. The poem might be compared to Sidney’s own Sonnet 99 from Astrophil and Stella; it does, however, stand up on its own as a fine poem in its own right.
Night, welcome art thou to my minde distrest,
Darke, heauy, sad, yet not more sad then I:
Neuer could’st thou find fitter company
For thine owne humour, then I thus opprest.
If thou beest darke, my wrongs still vnredrest
Saw neuer light, nor smallest blisse can spye:
If heauy ioy from me too fast doth hie,
And care out-goes my hope of quiet rest.
Then now in friendship ioyne with haplesse me,
Who am as sad and darke as thou canst be,
Hating all pleasure or delight of lyfe,
Silence, and griefe, with thee I best doe loue.
And from you three I know I can not moue,
Then let vs liue companions without strife.
3. Charlotte Smith, ‘Sonnet on being Cautioned against Walking on a Headland’.
Is there a solitary wretch who hies
To the tall cliff, with starting pace or slow,
And, measuring, views with wild and hollow eyes
Its distance from the waves that chide below …
This poem is that rarest of things: a Gothic sonnet. This needn’t surprise when we bear in mind that the sonnet’s author, Charlotte Turner Smith (1749-1806) was associated with English Romanticism and was also a key figure in the revival of the English sonnet.
4. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, ‘Grief’.
I tell you, hopeless grief is passionless;
That only men incredulous of despair,
Half-taught in anguish, through the midnight air
Beat upward to God’s throne in loud access
Of shrieking and reproach …
Barrett Browning (1806-61) was probably the most famous Victorian female sonneteer – in fact, one of the most famous Victorian sonnet-writers of either gender. She even wrote a whole sonnet sequence, Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850), which – as we’ve revealed elsewhere – aren’t actually translated from Portuguese originals. (The title has an even more interesting origin.)
But Barrett Browning was still plain old Barrett when she wrote this sonnet in the early 1840s – her celebrated correspondence, and subsequent elopement, with Robert Browning was still to come. This poem is about the ways people deal with grief in different ways, and may have arisen out of Barrett’s own grief following the drowning of her favourite brother, Edward, in a sailing accident in 1840.
5. 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 …
In this sonnet, written when Rossetti was still a teenager, she requests that the addressee of the poem remember her after she has died. What gives the poem a twist is the concluding thought that it would be better for her loved one to forget her and be happy than to remember her if it makes her lover sad. It is this second part of the poem’s ‘argument’ that saves it from spilling over into mawkish sentimentality.
6. Emma Lazarus, ‘The New Colossus’.
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles …
Emma Lazarus is most famous for writing this one poem, ‘The New Colossus’, which adorns the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. Written in 1883, the poem helped to shape the popular idea of the Statue of Liberty as a welcoming mother, and of America as the great nation of immigrants. This view was helped by the fact that the Statue was the first great US landmark that immigrants arriving in the United States would see.
7. A. Mary F. Robinson, ‘Neurasthenia’.
I watch the happier people of the house
Come in and out, and talk, and go their ways;
I sit and gaze at them; I cannot rouse
My heavy mind to share their busy days …
Agnes Mary Francis Robinson (1857-1944), also known as Agnes-Marie-François Darmesteter and approximately seven thousand other names during the course of her life, grew up with literature virtually in her blood: the family home was a salon frequented by William Morris and Arthur Symons, along with many leading Victorian artists. Robinson’s poetry is little-read now, which is a shame, as this fine sonnet attests.
Although its title announces its subject as neurasthenia, Robinson’s evocation of what it’s like to feel cut off from the world around you by psychological and neurological illness chimes with many sufferers’ descriptions of the blackest moods experienced during depression.
8. Elizabeth Daryush, ‘Children of Wealth in Your Warm Nursery’.
The daughter of UK Poet Laureate Robert Bridges, Daryush (1887-1977) wrote many sonnets. This is one of her finest, in our opinion – a poem which, as the first line suggests, addresses children living a comfortable existence in a big house observing the hardships of winter from behind the safety of the windowpane.
9. Edna St. Vincent Millay, ‘Time Does Not Bring Relief: You All Have Lied’.
This sonnet by the US poet Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950) is a poem of mourning, which responds to all those comforters who say that grief gets easier with time by saying, ‘Oh no it doesn’t – not in this case, anyway’. It’s about remembering a lost loved one wherever one turns – even when one finds oneself in a place devoid of associations with that loved one.
10. Carol Ann Duffy, ‘Prayer’.
The English sonnet has been around since the mid-sixteenth century, when Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (c. 1517-47) invented it as a variation on the Italian form. And it’s still being used by contemporary poets, as ‘Prayer’ demonstrates. Fittingly, the poem is about something ancient and traditional which we have lost in the largely secular materialist modern world we inhabit: faithful devotions and rituals of all kinds. The poem’s closing couplet – that staple of the English sonnet form – refers to the BBC radio Shipping Forecast.
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.