British Foundations: Spring 2021

A breif history of sonnets

From BABL:

Developed first in thirteenth-century Italy and wildly popular in Renaissance Europe, the sonnet (or “little song”) became one of the most enduring forms of English verse. A lyric poem in fourteen lines, usually with ten or twelve syllables to a line, the standard sonnet follows one of several rhyme schemes. The most important are the Italian or “Petrarchan,” the English (often referred to as the “Shakespearean,” although it was Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, who first developed it), and the Spenserian. The Petrarchan form, introduced by the Italian writer Francesco Petrarch in the fourteenth century, has two parts: first comes the “octave” of eight lines, which usually sets forth some situation, argument, narrative, analogy, comment, wish, or other thought. This is followed by the “sestet,” six lines that often perform a volta, or turn, that gives some resolution, further elaboration, counter-argument, or other contrast to the octave. The rhyme scheme ordinarily is abba abba cde cde, are acceptable.

The English poets Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey first introduced the sonnet into English, translating some of Petrarch’s sonnets in the 1520s and 1530s and, in the case of Surrey, writing a few more in the Petrarchan manner. They were not published until 1557, but they circulated in manuscript. By the 1580s the popularity of the sonnet on the Continent led to its revival in England, and the posthumous publication in 1591 of Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella started a fashion for the form and for the sonnet sequence that blazed for a few years with extraordinary intensity. Shakespeare’s sonnets (some of which certainly, and many others probably, were written in the 1590s although Shakespeare may well have revised them before they were published, well after the fashion was over, in 1609) typically have four parts: three “quatrains” (a set of four lines) each rhyming abab cdcd efef and then a couplet rhyming gg. The quatrains may trace the development of an idea, state the same notion several times, or describe a situation from several angles—the possibilities of this flexible form are nearly endless. The couplet may be a logical conclusion, a further thought, or even a dramatic denial of what has come before. Edmund Spenser’s Amoretti (1595) have yet another scheme, a sort of compromise between the Petrarchan and the Shakespearean, interlocking its quatrains with the rhyme scheme abab bcbc cdcd concluding with a couplet ee.

Sir Thomas Wyatt (c. 1503-1542)

The text and notes (unless otherwise noted are from BABL)
For more texts, see Luminarium.


The long love that in my thought doth harbour
And in mine heart doth keep his residence
Into my face presseth with bold pretence
And therein campeth, spreading his banner.
She that me learneth to love and suffer
And will that my trust and lust’s negligence
Be reined by reason, shame, and reverence,
With his hardiness taketh displeasure.
Wherewithal unto the heart’s forest he fleeth,
Leaving his enterprise with pain and cry,
And there him hideth and not appeareth.
What may I do when my master feareth,
But in the field with him to live and die?
For good is the life ending faithfully.


The pillar perished is whereto I leant,
The strongest stay of mine unquiet mind;
The like of it no man again can find—
From east to west still seeking though he went—
To mine unhap,° for hap° away hath rent
Of all my joy the very bark and rind,
And I, alas, by chance am thus assigned
Dearly to mourn till death do it relent.°
But since that thus it is by destiny,
What can I more but have a woeful heart,
My pen in plaint,° my voice in woeful cry,
My mind in woe, my body full of smart,°
And I myself, myself always to hate
Till dreadful death do cease my doleful state?


Farewell, Love, and all thy laws forever.
Thy baited hooks shall tangle me no more.
Senec and Plato call me from thy lore
To perfect wealth my wit for to endeavour.
In blind error when I did persevere,
Thy sharp repulse, that pricketh ay so sore,
Hath taught me to set in trifles no store
And ’scape forth, since liberty is lever.°
Therefore, farewell. Go trouble younger hearts
And in me claim no more authority.
With idle youth go use thy property,
And thereon spend thy many brittle darts.
For hitherto, though I have lost all my time,
Me lusteth° no longer rotten boughs to climb.

Henry Howard, Early of Surrey (1517-1547)

Love, that doth reign and live within my thought,
And built his seat within my captive breast,
Clad in the arms wherein with me he fought,
Oft in my face he doth his banner rest.
But she that taught me love and suffer pain, 5
My doubtful hope and eke° my hot desire
With shamefast° look to shadow and refrain, modest
Her smiling grace converteth straight to ire.
And coward Love, then, to the heart apace
Taketh his flight, where he doth lurk and plain,
His purpose lost, and dare not show his face.
For my lord’s guilt thus faultless bide° I pain;
Yet from my lord shall not my foot remove:
Sweet is the death that takes end by love.

Alas! so all things now do hold their peace,
Heaven and earth disturbed in nothing.
The beasts, the air, the birds their song do cease;
The nightès chair the stars about doth bring;
Calm is the sea, the waves work less and less: 5
So am not I, whom love, alas, doth wring,
Bringing before my face the great increase
Of my desires, whereat I weep and sing
In joy and woe, as in a doubtful ease.
For my sweet thoughts sometime do pleasure bring, 10
But by and by the cause of my disease°
Gives me a pang that inwardly doth sting,
When that I think what grief it is again
To live and lack the thing should rid my pain.

  I NEVER saw my Lady lay apart
Her cornet black, in cold nor yet in heat,
Sith first she knew my grief was grown so great ;
Which other fancies driveth from my heart,
That to myself I do the thought reserve,
The which unawares did wound my woful breast ;
But on her face mine eyes might never rest.
Yet since she knew I did her love and serve,
Her golden tresses clad alway with black,
Her smiling looks that hid thus evermore,
And that restrains which I desire so sore.
So doth this cornet govern me alack !
     In summer, sun, in winter's breath, a frost ;
     Whereby the light of her fair looks I lost.


DIVERS thy death do diversely bemoan :
Some, that in presence of thy livelihed
Lurked, whose breasts envy with hate had swoln,
Yield Cæsar's tears upon Pompeius' head.
Some, that watched with the murd'rer's knife,
With eager thirst to drink thy guiltless blood,
Whose practice brake by happy end of life,
With envious tears to hear thy fame so good.
But I, that knew what harbour'd in that head ;
What virtues rare were tempered in that breast ;
Honour the place that such a jewel bred,
And kiss the ground whereas the corpse doth rest ;
     With vapour'd eyes : from whence such streams availe,
     As Pyramus did on Thisbe's breast bewail.

Translations from Francesco Petrarch's (1304-1374) Rime Sparse

The influence of Petrarch’s sonnet sequence,about his unfulfilled love for Laura, was immense, and provided European love poets with away to shape the erotic experience in terms of frustration, self-scrutiny, self-division, praise, and longing and to express this through elaborate metaphor, paradox, and an intense focus on detail.Whether the object of imitation, revision, or satire,Petrarch’s approach to love long remained the discourse against which and through which poets defined themselves when writing on love.

[to see the Florentine dialect from which they are translated, see this link]


I find no peace and all my war is done,
I fear and hope, I burn and freeze like ice;
I fly above the wind yet can I not arise;
And naught I have and all the world I season°
That looseth nor locketh holdeth me in prison
And holdeth me not, yet can I ’scape no wise,
Nor letteth me live nor die at my device.°
And yet of death it giveth none occasion.
Without eyen o I see and without tongue I plain;
I desire to perish, and yet I ask health; 10
I love another, and thus I hate myself;
I feed me in sorrow and laugh in all my pain;
Likewise displeaseth me both death and life:
And my delight  is causer of this strife.
—c. 1520s (Trans. Sir Thomas Wyatt)


Love, that doth reign and live within my thought
And built his seat° within my captive breast,
Clad in the arms wherein with me he fought
Oft in my face he doth his banner rest.
But she that taught me love and suffer pain, 5
My doubtful hope and eke° my hot desire
With shamefast° look to shadow° and refrain,°
Her smiling grace converteth straight to ire.
And coward Love then to the heart apace
Taketh his flight, where he doth lurk and plain;°
His purpose lost, and dare not show his face.
For my lord’s guilt thus faultless bide I pain,
Yet from my lord 3 shall not my foot remove:
Sweet is the death that taketh end by love.
—c. 1530s (Trans. Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey)


My galley chargèd with forgetfulness
Through sharp seas in winter nights doth pass
’Tween rock and rock; and eke° mine enemy, alas,
That is my lord,  steereth with cruelness;
And every oar a thought in readiness, 5
As though that death were light° in such a case.
An endless wind doth tear the sail apace
Of forcèd sighs and trusty fearfulness.
A rain of tears, a cloud of dark disdain,
Hath done the wearied cords° great hinderance,
Wreathèd with error and eke with ignorance
The stars be hid that led me to this pain;
Drownèd is reason that should me consort,
And I remain despairing of the port.
—c. 1520s (Trans. Sir Thomas Wyatt)


Whoso list° to hunt, I know where is a hind,°
But as for me, alas, I may° no more:
The vain travail° hath wearied me so sore
I am of them that farthest come behind.
Yet may I by no means my wearied mind 5
Draw from the deer: but, as she fleeth afore,
Fainting I follow. I leave off therefore,
Since in a net I seek to hold the wind.
Who list her hunt, I put him out of doubt,
As well as I may spend his time in vain. 10
And, graven with diamonds in letters plain,
There is written her fair neck round about:
“Noli me tangere,  for Caesar’s I am,
And wild for to hold, although I seem tame.”
—c. 1520s (Adapted by Sir Thomas Wyatt)

William Shakespeare (1564–1616)

British Library page on Shakespeare's Sonnets
from Romeo and Juliet (Act 1, Scene 5)

ROMEO . If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine,  the gentle fine is this,
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.
JULIET . Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints  have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.
ROMEO . Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?
JULIET . Aye, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer. 10
ROMEO . Oh then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do.
They pray. Grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.
JULIET . Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’
ROMEO . Then move not while my prayer’s effect I take.
[He kisses her]
—1597 (written c. 1595)


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