Elizabethan Sonnet Sequence Masters: Sir Thomas Wyatt, Earl of Surrey, Philip Sydney, Michael Drayton, Samuel Daniel, Edmund Spenser and William Shakespeare




Sonnet is considered by many a perfect flower in the garden of lyrical poetry. However, Sonnet in English literature is a foreign importation. The term sonnet has come from the Italian “Sonnetto” means a song. It originated in Italy. It is flourished in the master hands of Petrarch, Dante and Tasso. It is a short lyrical poem of fourteen lines, with a special arrangement for rhyme. It is complete in itself and expresses in condensed form one thing, one idea or one emotion. It is divided into two parts, the first eight lines form the octave with the rhyme scheme ‘abba’ , ‘abba’ , the last six lines from sestet , and they rhymed variously as ‘cdecde , cd , cd , cd , or cdedec’. The theme or emotion in most cases is love and its varied moods. And somewhere in the sonnet, mostly between octave and sestet, there remain a volta or jump of thought.

During the early 15th century, it peeps through the English shore. The great sonneteers of the Elizabethan era were Sir Thomas Wyatt, Earl of Surrey, Philip Sydney, Michael Drayton, Samuel Daniel, Edmund Spenser and William Shakespeare.




Sir Thomas Wyatt:-Sir Thomas Wyatt is the innovative Sonnet writer in English literature. His thirty one sonnets are noteworthy. They appeared in Tottel’s Miscellany published on 1557. Ten of these sonnets were the translation from Petrarch. Apart from couplet ending, which Wyatt introduced, it had a Petrarchan model. Even though following Petrarch’s models closely, he remains the pioneer in the realm of English literature in his own art of presentation and imagery.

Earl of Surrey:-Sir Thomas Wyatt was successfully followed by his contemporary and follower, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey. His poem appears along with Wyatt in Tottel’s Miscellany. They are chiefly lyrical and includes a few sonnets, the first of their kind composed in English or Shakespearian mode. This is an arrangement of three quatrains followed by a couplet (ab ab, cd cd, ef ef, gg). In development of English verse Surrey represents a matured metre which Shakespeare copied and know after him.




Philip Sydney:-The next remarkable name among the English Sonneteers is Sir Philip Sydney. He was successful in more than one branch of literature. In the development of English sonnet his finest achievement was his  Astrophel and Stella  which contains a series of 108 sonnets about his own frustrated love for Lady Penelope Rich, the daughter of the Earl of Essex. Like Wyatt his sonnets owe much to Petrarch and Ronsard in tone and style which places Sydney as the greatest Elizabethan sonneteer along  with Shakespeare. 

Michael Drayton:-Drayton, another sonneteer of Elizabethan age may claim some attention. He is really an inspired poet. Drayton reached the highest level of poetic feeling and expression in Idea a sonnet sequence. It is not known if his  Idea  represents one woman or several or more. The title was borrowed from an extensive sonnet sequence in French called ‘lidee by Claude the pontoux’.


Samuel Daniel:-Samuel Daniel is a sonneteer of great repute. His poems including sonnet series called Delia (1592) written in conventional manner. His style and versification are pure and correct; some of his best sonnet have occasionally real jewels of expression and continued the great tradition of Sydney, Spenser and Shakespeare.

Edmund Spenser:-Edmund Spenser, a great name is Elizabethan poetry, also attempted sonnets. His sonnet sequence Amoretti a collection of 88 Petrarchan sonnets celebrate the progress of his love to Elizabeth Boyle who becomes his life. The sonnets are unique in their purity of passion. His sonnets are exquisitely musical and lofty in feeling and thoughts. They tell the story of love with remorse which ends in final union. Majority of the sonnets are inspired by platonic idealism. Here, three quatrains are linked by an artistic arrangement of rhyme  followed by a couplet. The result is a harmonious whole.


William Shakespeare:-But the great name in English sonnet and English theater Shakespeare. One hundred and fifty four sonnets of Shakespeare stand out as the specimen of his art. The sonnets are unsurpassed for their loftiness, picturesque sequence , profundity  and melody. One hundred and twenty six only (126) sonnets are address to a young man of a rather uncertain identity(W.H) twenty six (26) sonnet are address to an unknown dark lady and remaining two are addressed to Cupid, the god of life. Shakespearean sonnets are somewhat different from the Elizabethan tradition for it's hidden drama. These sonnets are not merely about love but masculine friendship also. They are not unrealistic, and have not the sentimental adoration of the lady love. The lady in Shakespeare’s sonnet is dark, not beautiful, frail and cruel, not constant and kind.


The form used in Shakespearean sonnets was already invented by Earl of surrey. The fourteen lines of the Shakespeare sonnet are divided into four parts three quatrains and a concluding couplet. The quatrains say the subject and the couplet sums it up. In his sonnets three quatrains state the poetic argument and the couplet sum up his theme. There is again a pause after each   quatrain to keep the progress of the argument. There is also greater seven rhymes – (ab, ab, cd, cd, ef, ef, gg) as opposed to the five of the conventional Petrarchan sonnet.


Religious sonnet of John Donne:-Though later to appear, John Donne is not an ignorable name is the history of English sonnets. Like Shakespeare Donne’s sonnet have not following the beaten track of the Petrarchan sonnet. He was made his love sonnets quite, noble and original. His imagery and thought are quite extraordinary for his age or beyond that.

Conclusion:- The sweet stream of Elizabethan sonnets is itself an epic lyric enfolding and encompassing the full theatre of life. The players of these 14 line masters not only pave the way of dramatic poetry but also cemented the glory of Sonnet  as a genre that continued till date.


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