The development of the sonnet form was originally made as a love poem by the Renaissance Italian poet, Francesco Petrarch.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.