Silvia Bordoni (University of Nottingham)
This essay focuses on the importance of Petrarch and the Petrarchan poetical tradition in the Romantic revival of
the sonnet, which dominated British poetry in the last decades of the eighteenth century. All the major Romantic
poets, among whom many women writers, participated in the critical debate concerning the stylistic aspects of the
sonnet. An analysis of some sonnet collections published at the end of the eighteenth century reveals how the re-
vival of this form was intimately connected with the Petrarchan tradition and, at the same time, the emergence of
women’s poetry. Charlotte Smith’s, Mary Robinson’s, and Anna Seward’s poetical and critical contributions to
establish the ‘sonnet’s claim’ is an important example of how women exploited and manipulated the Petrarchan
tradition in order to assert their own poetical authority. Similarly, the best-selling poetry of the Della Cruscans uses
Petrarch and his imagery to popularize new modes of love and erotic poetry, while their sonnets, and particularly
Mary Robinson’s, demonstrate how the Petrarchan tradition undergoes an important process of eroticization and
feminization in late eighteenth-century British culture.
The Romantic revival of the sonnet was a massive literary phenomenon which covered almost a century of poetic production. The sonnet became one of the favourite forms for Romantic authors, and all the major poets participated in the critical debate concerning the pattern and stylistic aspects of the sonnet, a debate which spread rapidly in the last decades of the eighteenth century, and continued until the beginning of the Victorian Age. Thomas Gray’s sonnet ‘On the Death of Mr. Richard West’, composed in 1742 but published posthumously in 1775, was the first to re-popularize the form, followed by Thomas Warton’s sonnets and, later, Charlotte Smith’s Elegiac Sonnets (1784), the first sonnet sequence of the Romantic period. The revival was initially marked by the desire to adapt the form to a modern sensibility, and soon generated a debate over the importance of the original Petrarchan structure as the dominant and most legitimate one. Stuart Curran observes how the sonnets which initiated the revival were ‘sonnets of sensibility’, and how the original form was ‘bended, stretched, reshaped, and rethought’ over a century of experimentations.1 The more modern content of the sonnet, however, was constructed around the ‘sweet and indissoluble union between the intellectual and the material world’, a polarity that also characterizes the Petrarchan tradition.2 In this way, the Petrarchan form of the sonnet was incorporated into, and renovated by, the Romantics’ production of sonnets, thus establishing an important continuity between the poetic tradition of fourteenth-century Italy and Romantic
1 Stuart Curran, Poetic Form and British Romanticism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), p. 29.
2 Stuart Curran, Poetic Form and British Romanticism, p. 37.