The development of the sonnet form was originally made as a love poem by the Renaissance Italian poet, Francesco Petrarch. It is always the case with immortal writers that they invent forms in response to their strong need to express ideas and emotions for which they cannot find an existing form.
Petrarch had an overwhelming need for a new way of expressing the various aspects of his love for his Laura. He adapted a medieval song form to his purpose and the sonnet was born. He squeezed everything he wanted to express on a particular single aspect of the love he felt into a fourteen-line structure that was very concentrated and in which the rhythm and rhyme and metaphorical pattern produced a significant amount of the meaning.
The sonnet became popular with poets and the Elizabethans took it up with great enthusiasm after it was introduced into English poetry by Wyatt and Surrey. The Elizabethan poets used it to woo their mistresses and to display their poetic skills. Notable among those poets were Edmund Spenser, Sir Philip Sidney and, of course, William Shakespeare.
Shakespeare was very conscious of his skill in writing sonnets and referred to it constantly in the sonnets themselves, although in a joking manner. He also referred ironically to his skills as poor, as part of his development of complex arguments. He seemed to understand, however, that his sonnets would last for as long as human beings were able to read.
The sonnet is still very much alive. John Donne, catching the spirit of the Jacobean age, with its taste for strong, logical, rational argument, found the sonnet perfect for his intellectual style, for his need to express his love for his wife, Anne, for his expression of religious passion, and for his reflections on death. As a result, the sonnet came to be the obvious form for short statements on the great emotional themes, like love, death, war, and religion. Poets use it to express their deepest feelings on those matters.
The Victorian Jesuit priest, Gerard Manley Hopkins, wrote several sonnets expressing the numerous facets of his Christian faith. The Victorians liked the sonnet as much as the Elizabethans did and other great practitioners were Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the Rossettis, and George Meredith.
The sonnet is still in use today for powerful short poetic statements about particular aspects of those great themes. It hasn’t changed all that much and the ‘Shakespearean’ sonnet is still recognisable in modern poetry. American poets noted for their sonnets include Longfellow, E. A. Robinson, Elinor Wylie, and Edna St. Vincent Millay. Read our favourite sonnet examples from a range of different poets.
Common questions about Shakespeare’s sonnets
What is a Shakespearean sonnet?
All sonnets have 14 lines and are written in iambic pentameter. The Shakespearean sonnet is divided into three four-line sections (called quatrains), followed by a two-line section (called a couplet). Each of Shakespeare’s sonnets expresses a single idea, but the division into three quatrains and one couplet allows the poet to switch the focus, dealing with a different aspect of the idea in each section.
How many sonnets did Shakespeare write?
Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets published in his ‘quarto’ in 1609, covering themes such as the passage of time, mortality, love, beauty, infidelity, and jealousy.
Who did Shakespeare dedicate his sonnets to?
The first 126 of Shakespeare’s sonnets are addressed to a young man, and the last 28 addressed to a woman – a mysterious ‘dark lady’.
What is Shakespeare’s most famous sonnet?
Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18, which starts “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” is possibly the most famous sonnet ever, and certainly one that has entered deeply into the consciousness of our culture.
Why is Sonnet 18 so famous?
Sonnet 18 is so famous for 2 reasons: Firstly it generally considered to be the perfection of the sonnet form, with its use of eloquent use of language. Secondly, it deals with a universal human fear – that one day we will die and be forgotten.
What is the most important theme in Shakespeare’s sonnets?
Through his 154 sonnets Shakespeare covers themes as diverse as the passage of time, mortality, love, beauty, infidelity, and jealousy.
What is iambic pentameter?
Iambic pentameter is a line of writing that consists of ten syllables in a specific pattern of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable, or a short syllable followed by a long syllable.