The sonnet was popular among the Romantic poets. John Keats wrote many, including the celebrated ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’; Shelley gave us ‘Ozymandias’; and a pioneering female poet, Charlotte Turner Smith, was both a proto-Romantic poet and the person often credited with causing a revival of the sonnet among English poets. And then there’s William Wordsworth, who wrote a number of sonnets, of which ‘Scorn not the Sonnet’, whilst not the most famous, is perhaps the most self-referential, using the very form of the sonnet to defend it against its critics. Here is ‘Scorn not the Sonnet’, followed by some words of analysis.
Scorn not the Sonnet; Critic, you have frowned,
Mindless of its just honours; with this key
Shakespeare unlocked his heart; the melody
Of this small lute gave ease to Petrarch’s wound;
A thousand times this pipe did Tasso sound;
With it Camöens soothed an exile’s grief;
The Sonnet glittered a gay myrtle leaf
Amid the cypress with which Dante crowned
His visionary brow: a glow-worm lamp,
It cheered mild Spenser, called from Faery-land
To struggle through dark ways; and, when a damp
Fell round the path of Milton, in his hand
The Thing became a trumpet; whence he blew
Soul-animating strains—alas, too few!
In summary, ‘Scorn not the Sonnet’ offers us a potted history of the development of the sonnet form, with Wordsworth singing the praises of this short and tight poetic form. It’s almost like an essay, with its use of examples (Shakespeare, Petrarch, Spenser, Milton), its clear argument (the sonnet is being defended against its critics or detractors: ‘Critic, you have frowned…’), and its rousing and decisive conclusion in that final rhyming couplet (of which more in a moment).
Shakespeare ‘unlocked his heart’ with the ‘key’ of the sonnet because he used the sonnet form as a vehicle for exploring and analysing his own relationships – with the Fair Youth and the Dark Lady (see our pick of Shakespeare’s best sonnets for more). The ‘melody’ of the sonnet eased the ‘wound’ of unrequited love which afflicted Petrarch, the fourteenth-century Italian poet who did so much to popularise the sonnet form among the literary world. Continuing the musical theme, the sonnet is like a ‘pipe’ which (Torquato) Tasso, a sixteenth-century Italian poet, played (Tasso, in other words, wrote many sonnets). Camöens, or Luís Vaz de Camões, was another sixteenth-century practitioner of sonnet-writing, but Camöens was Portuguese, showing how many nations and languages embraced the sonnet form during the Renaissance. (Camöens was exiled from Lisbon in 1548; this is what Wordsworth is referring to when he mentions an ‘exile’s grief’.)
And so it continues, with Wordsworth mentioning Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), the ‘visionary’ poet more famous as the author of the Christian epic poem the Divine Comedy, as one who used the sonnet to good effect, as did Edmund Spenser (c. 1552-99), the Elizabethan poet also better-known for an epic poem, the unfinished The Faerie Queene. And finally, Wordsworth mentions John Milton (1608-74), returning to the musical instrument metaphor and describing Milton’s use of the sonnet as like that of a trumpeter blowing ‘Soul-animating strains’ on his trumpet (although Milton didn’t write all that many sonnets, hence the last words of Wordsworth’s sonnet).
A sonnet about a sonnet – that is, a poem which discusses the very form in which it is written – raises further questions and points of analysis. Which sonnet? Here, Wordsworth is writing a Petrarchan or Italian sonnet, abbaabbacdcdee. But there’s a slight twist: the final two lines of ‘Scorn not the Sonnet’ constitute a rhyming couplet (blew/few), and such a feature is not found in Petrarch’s own sonnet. It’s an English innovation. (It was Sir Thomas Wyatt who first used such a feature, when introducing the Italian sonnet to English readers.) Wordsworth’s ‘Scorn not the Sonnet’ thus represents a kind of hybrid of the two forms of sonnet: the Italian and English.
If you found our summary and analysis of ‘Scorn not the Sonnet’ useful, you might also enjoy our pick of Wordsworth’s best poems.