Development of English sonnet was one of the remarkable features of Elizabethan literature. The sonnet, a short lyric poem of 14 lines in iambic pentameter and first practiced by Italian Renaissance poet Petrarch, was brought to England by Sir Thomas Wyatt and Surrey. In 1557 they jointly published their anthology of sonnets Tottel’s Miscellany. Soon the sonnet writing became favorite among the Elizabethan poets. The Elizabethan sonneteers followed the structure and theme of the patriarchal sonnets. A Petrarchan sonnet was divided into two parts: octave and sestet. The first eight lines were grouped as octave and the rest six lines as sestet. The function of an octave is to introduce a subject and the function of the sestet is to develop draw it to a satisfactory end.
The theme of a Petrarchan sonnet was usually courtly love. The Elizabethan poets, at first, also used the sonnets for the courtly love poems. In courtly love poems the lover is dutiful, anxious, adoring, full of wanhope and of praises of his mistress couched in a series of conventionalized images. The mistress is proud, unreceptive, but, if the lover is to be believed, very desirable. Throughout the Elizabethan age poets imitated these Petrarchan moods of love, and used sonnets to express them. Sir Philip Sidney, another remarkable sonneteer of the age, jested at the fashion in his ‘Astrophel and Stella and yet half succumbed to it. Some of his sonnets however plead for realism.
The notable changes in sonnet writing mainly come through Shakespeare. Both in style and theme he was different from the previous sonnet writers. His sonnet, which was also of 14 lines, was however, divided into four parts: Three quatrains and a concluding couplet. The rhyme scheme of a Shakespearean soneet is abab, cdcd, efef, gg which is different form the previous sonnet rhyme. This rhyme was very suitable for English sonneteers as it allowed seven different rhymes.
The themes of Shakespearean sonnet are very different. Some of his sonnets are addressed not to a woman but to a young man, and they are in the terms of warmest affection. Others are written not with adoration but with an air of disillusioned passion to a dark lady. Shakespeare’s sonnets have led to a greater volume of controversy than any volume of verse in English literature. But they can be enjoyed without the tantalizing attempt to identify the personages, or to explain the dedication and circumstances of the actual publication.
The sonnet outlived the Elizabethan period. Milton, the greatest seventeenth century poet, used the sonnet, not however for amorous purposes, but to define moments of autobiography, and for brief, powerful comments on public events. To the sonnet Wordsworth returned to awaken England from lethargy, to condemn Nepoleon, and to record many of his own moods. Keats, who had studied Shakespeare and Milton to such purpose, discovered himself as a poet in his sonnet, ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer.’ In the nineteenth century Meredith in Modern love showed how a sixteen line variant could be made a vehicle of analysis, and D. G. Rossetti in ‘ The House of life came back, though with many changes, to the older way of Dante and Petrarch, employing this most perfect of all miniature verse forms for the expression of love.