By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The sonnet form is one of the oldest and most popular poetic forms in European literature, having been invented in the thirteenth century and used since by poets as varied as Petrarch, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Christina Rossetti, Tony Harrison, Carol Ann Duffy, and Simon Armitage.
Below, we offer ten of the finest examples of the sonnet form as it’s been practised in literature, especially English literature – although we begin with an Italian example.
Petrarch, ‘O Joyous, Blossoming, Ever-Blessed Flowers!’.
Although he didn’t invent the sonnet form – that mantle goes to a thirteenth-century Sicilian poet named Giacomo da Lentini – Petrarch was the first person to leave a real mark on the form and showcase its wonderful possibilities.
Writing in the fourteenth century, Petrarch establishes a number of the key features that would be associated with the sonnet during the Renaissance: the ideals of courtly love, the unattainable and semi-divine woman (Petrarch’s muse was a woman named Laura, perhaps named for the laurels that were a symbol of poetic achievement), and the ‘look but don’t touch’ attitude of the poet.
O joyous, blossoming, ever-blessed flowers!
’Mid which my pensive queen her footstep sets;
O plain, that hold’st her words for amulets
And keep’st her footsteps in thy leafy bowers!
O trees, with earliest green of springtime hours,
And all spring’s pale and tender violets!
O grove, so dark the proud sun only lets
His blithe rays gild the outskirts of thy towers!
O pleasant country-side! O limpid stream,
That mirrorest her sweet face, her eyes so clear,
And of their living light canst catch the beam!
I envy thee her presence pure and dear.
There is no rock so senseless but I deem
It burns with passion that to mine is near.
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 …
Like many poems by Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-42), ‘Whoso List to Hunt’ – one of the earliest sonnets written in English – is a loose reworking of a poem by the Italian poet Petrarch. But Wyatt may have been drawing on very personal romantic experience when he penned this poem, which sees him ‘taking himself out of the running’ when it comes to pursuing a beautiful woman.
The woman, it has been suggested, is Anne Boleyn, now involved with no lesser a person than the King, Henry VIII. This is one of Wyatt’s best-known poems – and one of the finest.
Note the rhyming couplet with which Wyatt concludes his poem – an English innovation applied to the Italian sonnet form, and one which would become a feature of the English or Shakespearean sonnet form (of which more in a moment).
Sir Philip Sidney, ‘Loving in Truth’.
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 …
As Wyatt’s example of the sonnet shows, no sooner had the English adopted this Italian poetry form than they set about tinkering with it. Here, Sir Philip Sidney, the author of the first substantial sonnet sequence in the English language, opens his cycle Astrophil and Stella (written c. 1582) with a sonnet written in alexandrines, or twelve-syllable lines. The poem is, fittingly enough, about sitting down to write a sonnet sequence.
William Shakespeare, ‘A Woman’s Face, with Nature’s Own Hand Painted’.
A woman’s face, with Nature’s own hand painted,
Hast thou, the master mistress of my passion;
A woman’s gentle heart, but not acquainted
With shifting change, as is false women’s fashion …
Shakespeare and the sonnet form are almost synonymous in English, although the Bard didn’t invent the sonnet form that bears his name: that was Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (c. 1517-47), who came up with the idea of using the rhyme scheme ababcdcdefefgg which Shakespeare uses in this poem. Sonnet 20 by William Shakespeare is one of the more famous early poems in the Sonnets, after Sonnet 18.
Its opening line, ‘A woman’s face, with Nature’s own hand painted’, immediately establishes the sonnet’s theme: Shakespeare is discussing the effeminate beauty of the Fair Youth, the male addressee of these early sonnets. Note the use of ‘feminine’ line endings (i.e. the last syllable is a weak stress) at the end of each line, reflecting the effeminate appearance of the Fair Youth.
Lady Mary Wroth, ‘Night, Welcome Art Thou to my Minde Distrest’.
The sixteenth century was the great century for the sonnet sequence in English literature; Anne Locke’s A Meditation of a Penitent Sinner from the 1560s 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.
This 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 …
John Keats, ‘Bright Star’.
Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art—
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors …
This Romantic example of the sonnet form uses the brief form of the sonnet to muse upon the fragility and inconstancy of human life. It doesn’t actually have a title, and instead is known by its first line, ‘Bright star! Would I were stedfast as thou art’, and sees Keats comparing his own condition with that of a star ‘stedfast’ in the night sky.
Keats copied the finished version of the sonnet into a volume of The Poetical Works of William Shakespeare, placing his poem opposite Shakespeare’s A Lover’s Complaint. The first two words of the sonnet were used as the title of the 2009 biopic about Keats’s life, Bright Star, starring Ben Whishaw as Keats.
George Meredith, ‘What Are We First? First Animals, and Next’.
What are we first? First, animals; and next
Intelligences at a leap; on whom
Pale lies the distant shadow of the tomb,
And all that draweth on the tomb for text …
George Meredith (1828-1906) pioneered a new form of sonnet, which now bears his name: the sixteen-line Meredithian sonnet, which he used for his Victorian sonnet sequence Modern Love (1862).
The sequence charts the breakdown of Meredith’s marriage (his wife was the daughter of the novelist Thomas Love Peacock), although in the sonnet we’ve chosen above, he reflects on deeper evolutionary questions, just three years after the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.
Christina Rossetti, ‘In an Artist’s Studio’.
One face looks out from all his canvases,
One selfsame figure sits or walks or leans:
We found her hidden just behind those screens,
That mirror gave back all her loveliness …
This sonnet is about the male artist’s tendency to objectify his female sitters or ‘models’ for his paintings and sculptures; indeed, in one interpretation, the woman is merely a passive object on which the artist projects his fantasies and ‘dreams’. No particular artist is intended; Rossetti is speaking in general terms about the male artist and the female model.
However, it is worth noting that Christina Rossetti’s brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, was a painter.
The poem is an interesting example of the Petrarchan sonnet form, because that form – so often associated with male poets objectifying female beauty – is here given a twist, in being used by a female poet to comment on the male gaze.
Tony Harrison, ‘On Not Being Milton’.
Although he didn’t make this list, John Milton wrote many classic examples of the sonnet form in the seventeenth century.
Here, though, Harrison follows George Meredith in writing an extended, sixteen-line sonnet: in this unusual example of the sonnet form, Harrison reflects on being born a working-class northern English boy – with an upbringing very different from Milton’s London childhood and education at Cambridge – and might be regarded as his attempt to get back to his ‘roots’.
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.