The Development of the Sonnet: An Introduction

The Development of the Sonnet: An Introduction

The Development of the Sonnet: An Introduction

The Development of the Sonnet: An Introduction


Traces the development of the sonnet from its invention in the early Italian Renaissance to the time of John Milton, showing how the form has developed and acquired the capacity to express lyrically the nature of the desiring self.


The greatest sonneteer of them all, Francis Petrarch, looking back many years after the death of his beloved Laura upon what he had written with so much art and so much longing, said that

quant'io di lei parlai nè scrissi.

fu breve stilla d'infiniti abissi.

[Whatever I wrote of her was a small drop out of infinite depths….]

He meant to praise her, not his own sonnets; but spoke perhaps better than he knew, for the sonnet is at once small, and clearly formed, and capable of holding desires from the most tremendous depths. If it were not so, it would not have been used consistently and continuously by the poets of Europe from its invention in southern Italy about 1235, a hundred years before Petrarch saw his Laura, to the present day.

My own task has been to look at the sonnet in Renaissance Britain and, by concentrating upon those sonnet-writers who seem to have done most to extend its powers, show how the self and its desires were imaged. As for what came before, considerations of length and practical use to students of the form have urged me to make choices: Petrarch, of course, is massively and justly there, but as the history of the sonnet does not often take much notice of the century before him I have discussed the sonneteers of the thirteenth century at some length, with lots of examples, all translated, both because that is when the parameters of the sonnet were formed and because the Italian material is widely scattered and difficult to get at for those with little or no knowledge of the language. I have passed over many later sonneteers of great merit, such as the Italian women poets, Lorenzo dei Medici, Michelangelo and others, who are good but of less relevance to the British sonnet; and the excellent work of Walter Monch, Sidney Lee, Janet Scott, Gary Waller and others has made it possible for me to deal lightly with the French sonnet, knowing that sources and themes are accessible to the student elsewhere.

Sonnets are all alike in form; but they can be, and were, used to talk

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