The Sonnet

Its Characteristics and History

(Part 4)

William Sharp

From Sonnets of This Century

The first English sonnets were composed by Sir Thomas Wyat (1503-1542), and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (c. 1517-1547); and the first appearance of any in book form was in the rare publication briefly known as Tottle's Miscellany, whose full title is "Songs and Sonettes written by the ryght honourable lorde Henry Howard late earle of Surrey, and other." These accomplished young noblemen had resided in Italy, and, themselves delighting in Italian poetic literature--especially Petrarca's work--hastened, on their return to their own country, to acclimatise the new poetic vehicle which had become so famous in the hands of two of Italy's greatest writers. Their efforts, with a new and difficult medium and a language which was still only approaching that state in which Spenser and Marlowe and Shakespeare found it, were only very partially successful, and, as we now know, their sonnets owed most of what was excellent in them to Italian sources. The remarkable thing about them is that they all end with rhymed-couplets, an arrangement distinctly opposed to any with which they were acquainted in another language. On the other hand, it must be noted (this point should be remembered a little later when we come to discuss Mr. Caine's theory) that Wyat's are otherwise mostly on the Italian model. Surrey, again, evidently found his task over-difficult of satisfactory performance, and so constantly experimented with a fourteen-line sonnet-mould--like a musician who, arriving in his own land, finds his countrymen's ears not easily attuned to the instrument he brings with him from abroad, and so tries again and again to find some way of making his novel mandolin or lute-sounds attractive to ears accustomed to the harsher strains of fife or windpipe. Thus we find him composing on the two-rhyme-throughout system; linking the three elegiac quatrains and a couplet; and otherwise feeling his way--evidently coming ultimately to the conclusion that the three quatrains and the couplet constituted the form best suited to the English language. This may concisely be set forth in the following formula:--

A--B--A--B C--D--C--D E--F--E--F G--G

A much more original and more potent poetic nature next endeavoured to find meet expression in the sonnet. Spenser, that great metricist and genuine poet, nowithstanding all his power in verse, was unable to acclimatise the new vehicle, the importance and beauty of which he undoubtedly fully recognised. Having tried the effect of a fourteen-line poem in well-modulated blank verse, he found that he was dissatisfied with the result; equally dissatisfied was he with the quatrains-and-couplet mould of Wyat and Surrey: and so at last, after continuous experiments, he produced a modification of both the English and the Italian form, retaining something of the rhyme-iteration of the latter along with the couplet-ending of the former: or perhaps he simply adopted this structure from a similar Italian experiment, discerning through translation its seeming appropriateness. That he considered this the best possible mould of the sonnet for the English poet is evident from the fact that in this structure he composed his famous love sonnets, the Amoretti. The Spenserian sonnet may be regarded as representing that transitional stage of development which a tropical plant experiences when introduced into a temperate clime. In this case the actual graft proved short-lived, but the lesson was not lost upon cultivators, in whose hands manifold seed lay ready for germination. Spenser's method was to interlace the quatrains by using the last rhyme-sound of each as the key-note of the next--b2, for example, if I may use a musical comparison, constituting the dominant of b3 and b5, as of course c2 of c3 and c5--and then to clinch those by an independent rhyme-couplet. It will more easily be understood by this formula:--


But this form pleased the ear neither of his contemporaries nor of his successors: it was suited for gentle tenderness, for a lover's half-assumed langour--but in it neither Dante on the one hand, nor Shakespeare nor Milton on the other, would have found that rhythmical freedom, or rather that amplitude in confinement, which they obtained in the structures they adopted. After Spenser there set in the flood of Elizabethan sonneteering, which culminated in the Shakespearian sonnets. Before mentioning Shakespeare and his immediate forerunners, however, an interesting feature should be noted. This is a fine sonnet foreshadowing what is now called the Miltonic mould, by that great Englishman, Sir Walter Raleigh: though structurally of the Surrey type, it has the Miltonic characteristic of unbroken continuity between octave and sestet. It may be added that the author of Paradise Lost modelled his well-known lines on his dead wife on this sonnet by Raleigh.

What is styled the Shakespearian sonnet is so called only out of deference to the great poet who made such noble use of it: in the same way as Petrarca is accredited with the structural form bearing his name. As "the sweete laureate of Italie" had predecessors in Guittone d'Arezzo and Amalricchi, so Shakespeare found that the English sonnet--as it should be called--having been inefficiently handled by Surrey, discarded by Spenser, taken up and beautified by Sir Philip Sidney (who seemed unable to definitely decide as to what form to adopt), was at last made thoroughly ready for his use by Daniel and Drayton. To show how the so-called Shakespearian sonnet was led up to and how it actually existed in its maturity prior to the splendid poems of the young player-poet, a sonnet by each of these admirable writers may be quoted. But previous thereto it may again be made clear that the English or Shakespearian sonnet is distinctly different from the normal Italian type. Unlike the latter, it is not divided into two systems--though a pause corresponding to that enforced by the separation of octave and sestet is very frequently observed. Instead of having octave and sestet, the Shakespearian sonnet is made up of three elegiac quatrains clinched by a rhymed couplet with a new sound; and, generally, it presents the motive as it were in a transparent sphere, instead of as a cameo with two sides. As regards swiftness of motion, its gain upon the Spenserian, to which it is so closely allied, is great.

Referring, in a chapter dealing with the sonnets of Rossetti, to the two archetypal forms, I wrote some four years ago that "The Shakespearian sonnet is like a red-hot bar being moulded upon a forge till--in the closing couplet--it receives the final clinching blow from the heavy hammer: while the Petrarcan, on the other hand, is like a wind gathering in volume and dying away again immediately on attaining a culminating force." The anterior simile is the happier: for the second I should now be inclined to substitute--the Petrarcan sonnet is like an oratorio, where the musical divisions are distinct, and where the close is a grand swell, the culmination of the foregoing harmonies. Petrarca himself, in one of his numerous marginalia to his sonnets, remarked that the end should invariably be more harmonious than the beginning, i.e., should be dominantly borne-in upon the reader.

In selecting the "Sleep" of Samuel Daniel, I do so not because it is in the true Shakespearian type (as is Drayton's)--though he wrote mostly in the latter mould--but because in this example is shown the final transition from an octave of two rhymes to the English archetype as already formulated. It must not be overlooked, however, that he used and used well the Shakespearian form.


Care-charmer Sleep, son of the sable Night,
Brother to Death, in silent darkness born,
Relieve my anguish, and restore the light;
With dark forgetting of my care return,
And let the day be time enough to mourn
The shipwreck of my ill-adventured youth;
Let waking eyes suffice to wail their scorn,
Without the torment of the night's untruth.
Cease, dreams, the images of day-desires,
To model forth the passions of the morrow;
Never let rising Sun approve you liars,
To add more grief to aggravate my sorrow;
Still let me sleep, embracing clouds in vain;
And never wake to feel the day's disdain.

The sonnet by Michael Drayton which I shall next quote is not only the finest of Elizabethan sonets by writers other than Shakespeare, but in condensed passion is equalled only by one or two of those of the great master, and is surpassed by none, either of his or of any later poet:--


Since there's no help, come, let us kiss and part,--
Nay, I have done, you get no more of me;
And I am glad, yea, glad with all my heart,
That thus so cleanly I myself can free:
Shake hands for ever, cancel all our vow.
And when we meet at any time again,
Be it not seen in either of our brows
That we one jot of former love retain.
Now at the last gasp of Love's latest breath,
When, his pulse failing, Passion speechless lies,
When Faith is kneeling by his bed of death,
And Innocence is closing up his eyes,--
Now, if thou would'st, when all have given him over,
From death to life thou might'st him yet recover!

But it was in Shakespeare's hands that this form of sonnet first became immutably established in our literature. These magnificent poems--magnificent notwithstanding many minor flaws--must always hold their high place, not only as the personal record of the greatest of our poets, but for the sake of their own consummate beauty and intellectual force. I may repeat the words I wrote in the Introductory Essay to my edition of his Songs and Sonnets--"It is because this great master over the passions and follies and heroisms of man has at least once dropped the veil of impersonality that we are so fascinated by the sonnets. Here the musician who has otherwise played for all generations of humanity, pipes a solitary tune of his own life, its love, its devotion, its fervour, its prophetic exaltation, its passion, its despair, its exceeding bitterness. Veritably we are here face to face with 'a splendour amid glooms.'"

Rossetti, the greatest master of sonnet-music posterior to the "starre of poets," declared while expressing his unbounded admiration for Shakespeare's sonnets that "conception--fundamental brain-work--is what makes the difference in all art. . . A Shakespearian sonnet is better than the most perfect in form because Shakespeare wrote it." Again, the opinion of so acute a critic and genuine a poet as Mr. Theodore Watts may here be appropriately quoted:--"The quest of the Shakespearian form is not," he writes in his article on "The Sonnet" in the Encyclopædia Britannica, "like that of the sonnet of octave and sestet sonority, and, so to speak, metrical counterpoint, but sweetness; and the sweetest of all possible arrangements in English versification is a succession of decasyllabic quatrains in alternate rhymes knit together, and clinched by a couplet--a couplet coming not too far from the initial verse, so as to lose its binding power, and yet not so near the initial verse that the ring of epigram disturbs "the linked sweetness long drawn out" of this movement, but sufficiently near to shed its influence over the poem back to the initial verse." This is admirably expressed, and true so far as it goes; but to a far wider scope than "sweetness" does the Shakespearian sonnet reach. Having already given a good example of sonnets cast in this mould, it is not necessary to quote another by the chief master of the English sonnet: still I may give one of the latters greatest, perhaps the greatest of Shakespeare's or any other, which will not only serve as a supreme example of the type, but will demonstrate a capability of impressiveness unsurpassed by any sonnet of Dante or Milton:--

The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,
Enjoy'd no sooner but despisèd straight,
Past reason hunted, and no sooner had
Past reason hated, as a swallow'd bait
On purpose laid to make the taker mad;
Mad in pursuit and in possession so;
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.
All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.