The Sonnet from Wyatt to Shakespeare
F. T. PRINCE
THE sum total of sonnets in English from the sixteenth century to the present day, including those in 'Shakespearian' form or otherwise irregular, would be but a fraction of those in Italian or French. Sonnets in the strict Italian form would be but a small proportion of the English total, a fraction of a fraction; and of these some of the most remarkable, those of Milton and Hopkins, rely on great freedom of modulation. It is clear that the extreme facility of the form in Italian is only equalled by its difficulty in English.
Rhyme in Italian is so abundant, the genius of the language is so musical and expressive, that this intricate form proved capable of almost endless employment from its invention in the thirteenth century. By the late sixteenth century, there existed an enormous mass of Italian sonnets of all kinds, amorous, didactic, satiric, occasional. Minor poets or personalities with little artistic power had found the form convenient for dozens of purposes. Occasionally an original talent would give it a new twist: Burchiello would invent the nonsense sonnet, Della Casa would develop the 'heroic'; Campanella would render it metaphysical, Marino lascivious. English poets would not know of many of these experiments, and would not be capable of evaluating them if they did. But their own experiments would be helped, later in the century, by the glowing successes of the sonnet-form in France; the poetry of the Pléiade is as much a part of the background of Sidney, Daniel, and Shakespeare, as the sonnet in Italy.
The Petrarchan tradition to which such invidious references are often made by English critics was thus only one stream in the great flow of sonnets in Italy. We may admit that it was also the most important, being that part of the sonnet tradition which had most literary purpose and most interest of content. Is it necessary to say plainly that Petrarch was a very great poet? It may be stated, whether necessary or not, since