A Brief History of the Sonnet Form


AG: So..there are a couple of things we could do today. We started on… we went through Adonais – the immortality shot – the breath of immortality  is what we dealt with last time, and that led in to the immortal sonnets of William Shakespeare and the sonnet form. You’ve gone through sonnets, a lot of you, in Anne (Waldman)’s class – How many? – Did you cover the history of the sonnet at all?

Student: Briefly

AG: Briefly, oh well. I’ll do it fairly briefly.According to the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry.. and my own recollection, there were Italian sonnets and then (Sir Thomas) Wyatt, of all people, was the first one to introduce the sonnet into England, our friend Wyatt, whom we’ve read (and, actually, some of the things – “Whoso list to hunt, I know where there is an hind” – remember? – that was, I think, a sonnet, I seem to remember, that was one of the first sonnets. So he was the innovator. Samuel Daniel, whom we covered, had the Delia series called “Delia”, (Michael) Drayton had a series called “Idea” (we had one each of those, they’re in our book), (Edmund) Spenser’s “Amoretti”, Shakespeare (whom we’ll deal with, and we’ve already seen a couple of his). After Shakespeare, (John) Donne and his “Holy Sonnets” are great ones, famous ones – (“Batter my heart, three-person’d God..” – like really violent, interesting, religious sonnets called “Holy Sonnets”), (John) Milton wrote great sonnets (“Avenge, o Lord, thy slaughter’d saints..”) which we’ll pick up on later. Then there was some minor sonnets by Thomas Gray and other people, and then, the next big sonneteer, (William) Wordsworth (had fantastic, great, sonnets, (a) famous one ‘..On Westminster Bridge“, among others), (John) Keats had sonnets, and then..who? – Christina Rossetti (Rossetti sonnets, what are they called? the famous love.. “How do I love…” – “How do I love thee, let me count the ways..?}

Student: That’s Elizabeth Barrett Browning

AG: Browning. Okay. What did Christina Rossetti write? What sonnets? She had a whole pile, there in there (in the anthology), probably. (W.H.) Auden had the,.. in the twentieth-century, W.H.Auden wrote excellent sonnets. Dylan Thomas wrote fine sonnets (“Altarwise by Owl-Light”, very complicated surrealist ones). Then, (W,B) Yeats and E.E.Cummings were also sonnet specialists. (Then a lot of interesting Americans, like Marianne Moore wrote goofy sonnets that had no rhymes). That seems to be the main skeleton of the sonnet form. Do you know any other great sonneteers? Milton, Keats, Wordsworth, chronologically, those were the mountain peaks…

Student (Pat): You notice that in the “Ode to the West Wind”, the sonnet … I mean the stanza in that is really a fourteen-line,,, kind of a sonnet..

AG: Yeah..no..I never noticed that. Is each stanza about fourteen lines?

Student (Pat): It is fourteen lines, closing with a couplet. He uses terza rima internally instead of in quatrains

AG; Yeah, well, terza rima can be a sonnet. See, the whole point is.. “Sonnet” means ringing, like a bell, anyway. It’s a musical form. “Sonata”, remember? – but the root, the etymological root and the original use is like a little ringing, a short, short little ringing thing, a song of some kind. It doesn’t necessarily have to be like the Italian or Petrachan sonnet with the rhyme-schemes that they’ve got, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be an English Shakesperean sonnet, and it doesn’t have to be iambic pentameter (it can be hexameter – as we saw one with (Sir Philip) Sidney, Sidney’s sonnet was hexameter), and it can be a very narrow line of just a couple… It’s,.  you know, you make it up yourself. The basic thing is it’s a little ringing thing (and, of course, in modern times, modern poets do all sorts of things with the sonnets – cut-up sonnets (as you folks have done), unrhymed sonnets, sonnets with one word each (and I think I mentioned Jose Garcia Villa‘s sonnets with just dots!). So you can do whatever you want, but the.. the form has had a lot of metamorphoses over the years.

(But)) “..(Ode to the) West Wind”, I hadn’t noticed that, that’s really interesting (and there have been terza rima sonnets, besides Shelley’s – Shelley, of course, wrote great sonnets too – Keats and Shelley both – The Romantics were…Keats and Shelley and Wordsworth – “Ozymandias” – what is that? Shelley? – “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;/Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!” – Probably that little poem I read of Keatslike. “here’s my hand, I hold it before you,.”, that last thing, that probably started out to be a sonnet, but then.. That’s what’s so interesting about it. (It) started out to be some kind of… a long poem maybe, then, all of a sudden, he realized he’d done it – “here’s my hand, I hold it before you, all hairy, look at it now, I’m still alive, I’m not a corpse”.  And probably he realized he’d said it, and just left it there. I don’t suppose it rhymes. That’s free-verse probably

So, the homework assignment was to write a sonnet and we would look at some of Shakespeare’s sonnets.

[Audio for the above can be heard here, starting at approximately five-and-three-quarter minutes in and concluding at approximately eleven-and-a-half minutes in]

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