The Sonnet: Its Form and Nature
The word “Sonnet” is derived from the Greek word ‘Sonneto’, meaning, “a sound”. It is a short lyric of fourteen lines and the Italian poet Petrarch was the first to use this form of the lyric to express his love for his beloved Laura, and its use “became the mark of Petrarchan love-poetry all over Europe in the 16th century”. Petrarch had divided his sonnets into two parts, the octave of eight lines and the sestet of six lines, with a pause or ceasura after the eighth line. Sir Thomas Wyatt was the first to write sonnets in England. It is the Petrarchan form of the sonnet that Wyatt follows. His use of this measure is often rigid and awkward, and he entirely fails to capture the warm, sensuous colour and delicate music of the Italian poet.
The English Sonnet upto Milton
His great contemporary Earl of Surrey also wrote sonnets in which he expressed his entirely imaginative love for Geraldine or Lady Elizabeth Fitzgerald. The elegiac note is natural to him, but his lover’s plaints and sighs mingle with exquisite nature-passages. His sonnets have great artistic merits. Though he follows the Petrarchan convention of courtly love, he does not follow the Petrarchan model of the sonnet. He divides his sonnets into three quatrains, with a couplet at the end, and thus he is the first to use that form of the sonnet which came to be called Shakespearean from the great dramatist’s use of it.
However, the technical peculiarity of the sonnet was not realised in the earlier years of Elizabeth’s reign. The word “sonnet” was used indifferently for any short lyric. The sonnet proper remained forgotten and neglected till the publication in 1591 of Sidney’s sonnet-sequence called Astrophel and Stella. They express Sidney’s passion for Penelope, who was by that time the wife of Lord Rich. The publication of Astrophel and Stella at once caught the imagination of the people and gave rise to the vogue of the sonnet. Everybody tried his hand at it, mostly to express his love for some imagined mistress. This accounts for the artificiality of most of the Elizabethan sonnets. Sonnets were written merely because it was the fashion to write sonnets, and not because the poets had some really felt passion to express. They merely echo the sighs and love-pangs of Petrarch and the Petrarchans.
However, sincerity is also the key-note of Spenser’s Amoretti (an Italian name), a collection of about 88 sonnets. They express Spensers’s love and courtship of Elizabeth Boyle, the lady who became his wife shortly afterwards. It is in these sonnets alone that Spenser expresses his genuine feeling without recourse to allegory.
“In the first ranks of the works of the English Renaissance, Spenser’s sonnets come between those of Sidney and Shakespeare, from which they are different inform as in sentiment”—(Legouis).
While the Sonnets of Sidney and Spenser form the very core of their poetic work, Shakespeare’s sonnets were written in moments snatched from work for the theatre. His 154 sonnets were first published in 1609, and as Wordsworth has put it, it was with this key that the poet unlocked his heart. It is in the sonnets alone that the poet directly expresses his feeling. Besides their sincerity of tone, they have literary qualities of the highest order. They touch perfection in their phraseology, in their perfect blending of sense and sound, and in their versification. Shakespeare’s sonnet-sequence is, “the casket which encloses the most precious pearls of Elizabethan lyricism, some of them unsurpassed by any lyricist.” He divides his sonnets into three stanzas of four lines each followed by a concluding couplet.
Milton’s Sonnets: Occasional and Personal
In the post-Elizabethan era there is no great writer of sonnets till we come to Milton. As F. T. Prince points out, “the English passion for sonneteering died out in the early 17th century”, and
’s sonneteering represents practically afresh start. His was an individual undertaking unique in the Mid-seventeenth century. By his use of it Milton not only revived the sonnet form, but he also considerably enlarged and widened its scope. It may also be added here that all Milton’s sonnets are occasional and personal, on different topics, and so cannot be arranged in sequences like the Elizabethan sonnets. As Tillyard points out, “Even the most apparently generalized of them, that To The Nightingale, refers to the spring of a particular year. He laments that in earlier years it has been the ill-omened cuckoo he heard first, and begs the nightingale this year to favour him with early song. The rest are most obviously occasional, when the Assault Was Intended to the City or On His Blindness : or personal, To Mr. H. Lawes, On His Airs or To Mr. Lawrence. Rossetti called the sonnet “a moment’s monument”, and that phrase suits Milton’s sonnets very well; they treat of a present theme, and yet in their firmness and dignity they are monumental.” Milton
Two Periods of Milton’s English Sonnets
Milton’s English sonnets number twenty-three in all. Six of these belong to the period of
’s youth and immaturity, though even in them the hand of the master is visible. The rest were written during 1645—1658, the period in which Milton was largely busy in prose-writing. These later English sonnets are the most immediately personal of all Milton’s utterances, representing emotional moments in his later life, experiences, which find no adequate expression in his prose-writing in the publication of which he was during these years primarily engaged. We may believe also that they were, like the Psalms, prompted in part by a conscious desire in Milton to exercise himself in verse in preparation for the epic poem which he still intended—(Henford). Milton
Volumes have been written in discussion of Milton’s sonnets, but their definitive treatment has been the work of the late Mr. J. S. Smart, who has cleared away much error regarding their relation to literary tradition and has explained many obscure details of their meaning. He points out that Milton characteristically makes use of the form at a time when its vogue has already passed. His formal model is not the English sonnet, with its tendency to close with a couplet, but the Italian original which, on the whole, avoided such an ending. On the whole, Milton’s sonnets strike a new note of lofty dignity conformable to his epic personality and justifying Wordsworth’s description:
In his hands
The Thing became a trumpet; whence he blew
Soul-animating strains—alas, too few !
The Thing became a trumpet; whence he blew
Soul-animating strains—alas, too few !
Themes of Milton’s Sonnets
The sonnets are divisible into several groups on the basis of their themes. First, there is the group in which he touches on great public events and personalities: the sonnets to Cromwell, Vane, and Fairfax, and the one on the Late Massacre in Piedmont. Secondly, there is the group in which he expresses a more personal emotion— the sonnet On, His Being Arrived at the Age of Twenty-three, the two poems on His Blindness, and the one written in memory of his second wife—combine a poignant pathos with an earnest ethical and religious idealism. Thirdly, the addresses to Lawes, Skinner, Edward (not Henry) Lawrence, Lady Margaret Ley, and the unidentified virtuous young Lady of Sonnet IX, also the elegy for Mrs. Katharine Thomson, are pitched in lower key, but they are beautifully expressive of a genial friendliness and a warm glow of human sympathy quite at variance with the common impression of Milton as a harsh and austere Puritan. The two sonnets on the reception of his divorce pamphlets and the sonnet On the New Forces of Conscience under the Long Parliament are a revelation of the poet’s capacity for scathing denunciation. It may be noticed here that Milton has not a single sonnet on the love-theme, the conventional theme of the sonnet.
The whole group of sonnets is a perfect record of Milton’s unique personality in all its varying moods. The workmanship throughout is finished to the last degree and each poem, even the least of them, is a memorable and impressive work. Samuel Johnson’s disparagement of the sonnets—(“of the best it can only be said that they are not bad”)—is one of the strangest literary judgments on record. The history of their influence tells a very different story. It was Milton rather than the Elizabethans who set the style of the English sonnet at its revival toward the end of the eighteenth century. The importance of Milton’s sonnets as the chief inspiring; force and model of those of Wordsworth is well known.
It is clear from the above account that Milton widened consider-ably the scope of the sonnet. Previously the sonnet sang only of love and friendship, but Milton uses the form to express his deeply felt emotions on contemporary politics, religion, public figures of importance, womanhood, relationship of husband and wife, and such-personal matters as his blindness. Similarly, he introduces far reaching innovations in its technique. Following the Petrarchan tradition, he divides his sonnets into two parts—an ‘Octave’ of eight lines and a ‘Sestet’ of six lines. In the Petrarchan model, Octave and Sestet each has its own set of rhymes, which hold it together ; but each is also sub-divided, the octave into two quatrains, the sestet into two tercets (group of three lines). In the octave the usual arrangement of rhymes is abba abba (though abab abab and abab baba also occur). In the sestet two or three rhyme sounds are allowed, and their arrangement varies more widely than in the octave. The sentences fit into the divisions of the stanza, so that there is a pause at the end of each quatrain and tercet, and a more marked pause between octave and sestet.
But Milton, while accepting Petrarch as the master of the form, adopted the stylistic innovations made by Petrarch’s Renaissance followers, Bembo, Delia Casa and Tasso. So his sentence structure became more complex, and the rhythm was slowed down, the syntax tended to overflow the two main and the two subsidiary divisions of the poem. Milton’s use of this new style in the Sonnets foreshadows the methods of his later blank verse, where we also find ‘the sense variously drawn out from one verse into another.’ The technical changes he takes over from the Renaissance Italians make what is necessarily a short poem into one that seems weighty and sustained ; pauses within the lines are added to those suggested by the rhymes, which are partly submerged by the flow of the sense. The sonnet becomes a single verse paragraph flowing through a sound-pattern made up of the four divisions marked by the rhymes.
Style and Diction
Milton’s style is heavy with meaning, but in spite of its weight and grandeur, often moves with almost headlong rapidity, without a full stop from beginning to end of the fourteen lines, and pausing within the lines more often than at the ends. The peculiar blending of the sublime and the familiar which he achieves is unique in the history of the English sonnet.