Early English Sonnets

Originating in Italy in the 12th and 13th centuries, the sonnet has since become the most popular and enduring form of English verse. English poets of almost every era have followed and adapted the sonnet to produce some of their best and worst work. The best known Italian sonneteers were Dante and Petrarch. Of the two, Petrarch proved most influential on the sonnet's subsequent history, bequeathing his predominant theme of secular love as well as the form itself to subsequent poets.

The first English sonneteer, Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542) learned of the form during travels in Spain and Italy. He is more widely known for his other lyrics but wrote 32 sonnets in the form that has come to be known as the Petrarchan sonnet. There has been debate as to whether Wyatt's iambic pentameter was ingeniously varied or simply clumsy. It is helpful to keep in mind when reading Wyatt that he was exploring new literary territory and that the accenting of syllables in English has changed since his time.

A friend of Wyatt, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (1517-1547) shares credit for introducing the sonnet to English. Surrey's work deviates somewhat more both thematically and structurally from Petrarch's conventions and represents a more complete "taming" of the sonnet into the English language. He introduced what came to be known as the English or Elizabethan sonnet form.

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