Invented in Italy in the thirteenth century, the sonnet was brought to a high form of development in the fourteenth century by Francesco Petrarch (1304–74), Italian poet and humanist best remembered now for his sonnets dedicated to an idealized lady named Laura glimpsed in a church, and with whom he fell in love at first sight, or so the legend goes. Laura’s true identity is unknown; supposedly, she married someone else and, being ideally virtuous as well as beautiful, was permanently unavailable. There’s no evidence Petrarch ever talked to her.
The uses Petrach made of the conventions of courtly love for a beautiful, unattainable lady became known as “Petrarchan conventions.” Some of these are that love is excruciatingly painful; the angelically beautiful and virtuous lady is cruel in rejecting the poet’s love; and love is a religion, the practice of which ennobles the lover. Christian and classical imagery coexist. The god of Love, Cupid, is unpredictable, powerful, and cruel. The eyes are the “windows to the soul,” and love usually begins at first sight. The poet is subject to extremes of feeling and internal conflict—the “war within the self.” Life is short and art, fortunately, is long. The poetry will outlive the poet.
Sir Thomas Wyatt (1502–42) and Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey (1517–47), are credited with introducing the Petrarchan model to England in the sixteenth century and adjusting the rhyme scheme and the meter to accommodate the English language. They, like Petrarch, use religious imagery and terms to convey the holiness and intensity of the lover’s passion for the unattainable love-object and make frequent allusions to both classical deities and Christian symbols.
This model exerted a strong influence on numerous English Renaissance poets: Spenser, Sidney, Sidney’s brilliant niece Mary Wroth, among others, and of course, Shakespeare himself. Writing sonnet sequences became popular among gentlemen, and these poems were often circulated in manuscript form, evidently including Shakespeare’s. Publication was not generally considered gentlemanly or ladylike.
Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets published in 1609 are a “collection” rather than a sequence, although there are some groupings that look like mini-sequences. And they are remarkably various: Shakespeare explores the same theme in different ways but never exactly repeats a pattern. He is keenly aware of Petrarchan conventions and often uses them, but just as often upends them, as in Sonnet 130. The cruel loved one in many of his sonnets is a young man, not a woman, and the “Dark Lady” of sonnets 127–152 is neither virtuous nor ideally beautiful. Shakespeare’s Sonnets represented a kind of apogée of the English sonnet-writing fashion, and, in fact, may have contributed to the vogue’s fading away, since no one could outdo him or even come close to matching his skill and versatility.
The sonnet has proved to be a remarkably durable and adaptable form—a “fixed form” that is, paradoxically, enormously flexible. Although no one has ever equaled Shakespeare’s sonnets, nearly every notable poet writing in English has had a go at a sonnet or two. Among the best-known British writers of sonnets are John Donne, Milton, Wordsworth, W.H. Auden, and Dylan Thomas.
The form survived the transatlantic crossing. Distinguished American practitioners include Robert Frost, Edna St. Vincent Millay, John Crowe Ransom, as well as significant African-American and Caribbean-American poets, such as James Weldon Johnson, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Countee Cullen, Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Hayden, Derek Walcott, Marilyn Nelson, and Claude McKay.
The sonnet can be a lens through which to look at poetry over the last 400 years.