What Are Sonnets, Anyway? (Part One)

Sonnet. n.s. [sonnet, French; sonetto, Italian.]

1. A short poem consisting of fourteen lines, of which the rhymes are adjusted by a particular rule. It is not very suitable to the English language, and has not been used by any man of eminence since Milton.

–Samuel Johnson

“Not very suitable to the English language.”  Thus did the great lexicographer summarily dismiss the sonnet under cover of defining it.  Definition two is almost as crushing:  “A small poem.”  When Johnson wrote the definition in 1755, however, it would have seemed defensible.  After all, John Milton’s career had ended a century earlier, and few poets had used the form in the interim—and, as we shall see, it was no “man of eminence” who would revive the sonnet, either.

The sonnet had been a going concern for nearly two centuries in Milton’s time.  Beginning in the middle 16th Century, sonnets in English were written whole collections at a time.  Like the plots of Shakespeare’s plays, sonnet cycles were cultural imports from Italy.  Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, translated and adapted Petrarch’s Italian sonnets for English use, and the form caught on.  Great lights of literature such as Sir Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, and John Donne all contributed collections of sonnets which are still read today.  Some sonnet cycles, like Spenser’s, were bids for fame; others, like Shakespeare’s, probably were not intended for publication as a single cycle at all.  But the English Renaissance was an era of great projects, and the aspiring virtuoso could display considerable skill and patience in wrangling out a successful sonnet cycle.

Why, then, a century of silence after Milton’s few and scattered sonnets?  So many reasons have been suggested that it may be best to simply say, “We don’t really know.”  I find it hard to take seriously the notion some suggest, that Milton’s use of separated sonnets to express passionate responses to matters of war and politics, and to reconcile himself to personal suffering, was so shocking to the sensibilities of the English-speaking world as to require a century’s abstinence.  More plausibly, the dominant poetic voices of the Restoration may have seen fit to write as differently from the proud regicide as possible.  They certainly did so in their long verse narratives, which often echoed Milton even as they attempted to one-up his style.  Milton had insisted that rhyme was a decadent innovation in English long verse, and so had written Paradise Lost and his other great epics in blank verse.  Restoration poets such as John Dryden and Alexander Pope built their reputations in heroic verse, which requires that long poems be built up out of rhyming couplets—and that every line ending also be a phrase ending.  Few poets can write for long without turning heroic verse into an unbearable jangling, a point that Pope’s Essay on Criticism drives home with memorable wit.

My own conjecture, added to the heap of such historical second-guessing, is that this warfare over poetic form itself probably led to the neglect of the sonnet.  With Paradise Lost dominating the imagination of English poets, commanding their political opposition and their literary allegiance at once, there was little for the reputation-hungry poet to do but attempt the grand philosophical epic.  Milton’s own arguments against rhyme sharpen the question; Johnson’s dismissal of Milton’s sonnets is, ironically, based on his agreement with Milton that English is no fit language for tightly rhymed forms.  The epics and mock epics written in defiance of Milton’s writ over the next century and a half seemed instead to verify it, so thick were book-length concatenations of iambic pentameter couplets on the ground.