English Romantic sonnets

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A draft of Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley

Sonnets were written by many of the Romantic poets, including William Wordsworth, who wrote 523 sonnets, John Keats with 67 sonnets, Samuel Taylor Coleridge with 48, and Percy Bysshe Shelley with 18.[1]

Revival

The sonnet has been a popular literary form since its creation. The sonnets of Dante, Petrarch, Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare and John Milton all influenced the Romantics. The biggest direct influence was Milton, who wrote fewer than 30 sonnets himself.[2] In the 17th century Milton kept the sonnet form alive while also taking liberty with it. He expanded the subject matter of the sonnet away from just the typical love poem by writing about ideas, events, history, and contemporary issues..[3] This helped pave the way for the Romantics to take even greater liberties with the sonnet. Like Milton, the Romantics wrote relatively few love sonnets. Topics of the sonnet in the Romantic Era include love, politics, nature, friendship, art, history, religion, life and death.[4] In fact some of the Romantic poets even wrote sonnets about sonnets. Wordsworth’s Scorn not the Sonnet is an example of this. Keats also wrote about sonnets, most notably in On the Sonnet (1819), which like Wordsworth's poem defends the form in content and by using it himself.[5]

During the late 17th century and early 18th century the sonnet fell out of favor. Many sonnets were still being produced but were not as popular.[3] Revival began with poets like Thomas Edwards and Charlotte Turner Smith before later including the other Romantics such as Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats and Shelley.[6]

Milton especially had a strong influence on Wordsworth after he first heard Milton's sonnets read out loud to him. Of sonnets he said, “Rather [I] like to employ them occasionally, tho’ I have done it much less in proportion than my great Masters, especially Milton”.[7] Although Wordsworth wrote hundreds of sonnets in his career, he saw himself in Milton's shadow. Wordsworth loved the sonnet form because once the simple rules were mastered he could take as much liberty as he wanted to explore topics of interest. He believed that poets should write sonnets to add variety to their work and keep them out of the trap of routine.[8]

The sonnet form humbled many of the Romantics who are usually noted for their strong “I” assertion in lyric narratives. Coleridge too felt unsure of himself saying, “The sonnet has ever been a favourite species of composition with me; but I am conscious that I have not succeeded in it".[7]

Nature

Although the Romantics wrote sonnets about whatever they chose, the most common subject was still nature. Petrarch wrote many sonnets including descriptions of nature, as well as Shakespeare, but their use of nature was often to complement love and emotions or draw analogies to their lovers.[9] Milton moved away from nature and it is missing from many of his sonnets. The Romantics however were so taken up with nature that it is the main subject of many of their sonnets.[10] Many of the sonnets and poems of the era describe the calm, beauty, power or sublimity of nature. Understanding, appreciation, exploring, or worshipping, the Romantics were always at work to try to draw themselves closer to nature. Nature is often personified to show the closeness in the relationship to humans and nature. In other poems a reverse kind of personification happens, and man takes on the qualities of nature. For instance, Keats’s The Human Seasons, shows man’s life classified using the change of the seasons to explain the stages of human life.[11]

Form

The two classic forms that the Romantics used the most were the Petrarchan sonnet and the Shakespearean sonnet. The Petrarchan or Italian form usually follows a rhyme scheme of abba abba cde cde. The poem is usually divided into two sections with the first eight lines, an octave, and the last six, a sestet. There is usually a turn in the poem around line nine.[4] The Shakespearean form has a rhyme scheme of abab cdcd efef gg. The end rhyming couplet is often used to turn the idea that has been building through the poem.

The Romantics played with these forms. Since the general topic and focus of the sonnet shifted in this era, it makes sense that the form would also change to mirror the content.

A sonnet like Shelley’s Ozymandias uses neither a complete Shakespearian nor Petrarchan rhyme scheme.[12] The pattern of ab ab ac dc ed ef ef, is no less a sonnet than those of conventional patterns. The movement away from set structures could be to mirror the feelings of detachment in the poem.[13]

Charlotte Turner Smith was one of the first Romantics to bring back the use of the sonnet. She is remarkable for her experimentation with forms. In new ways she often combined Petrarchan and Shakespearean forms, picking and choosing the best features of both. She used convention as her starting point only to totally leave it in the dust.[14] Her poem, Sonnet LVI, The Captive Escaped in the Wilds of America, has end lines that turn the whole poem in a new direction using mostly near rhymes. Another poem, Sonnet LXXVII To the Insect of the Gossamer, uses a Petrachan break to shift from nature to the poet as the spider.[citation needed]

The ode seems like a much more likely form for the Romantics, which can be highly irregular and adapted in many ways to the speaker and subject. The irregularity and rapid shifts were often used to convey rapid changes in thoughts and emotions.[15] The sonnet form gave the Romantic poets the best of both worlds. A poem like Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind contains violent shifts in reflecting the blowing wind, but it is packed in neat clean sections made up of sonnets. The Romantics prove with this that they can master the ways of their predecessors that they so admire and still move on to something new. The form of the sonnet helps Shelley to contain something that is uncontainable. Following the form of Dante in his Divine Comedy, Shelley uses a unique Terza Rima pattern to create a flow of structure like the flow of the wind and contain the poem so there is a sense of closure at the end.[16]

References

  1. Bhattacharyya, Arunodoy (1976). The Sonnet and the Major English Romantic Poets. Firma KLM Private Limited. p. 1.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. Bhattacharyya, Arunodoy (1976). The Sonnet and the Major English Romantic Poets. Firma KLM Private Limited. p. 5.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. 3.0 3.1 Kallich, Martin; Gray, Jack; Rodney, Robert, eds. (1973). "Preface". A Book of the Sonnet. New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. 4.0 4.1 Feldman, Paula; Robinson, Daniel, eds. (1999). A Century of Sonnets. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 4. ISBN 0-19-511561-9.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Kumar, Nand (1992). Romantic Poetry. New Delhi: Sarup & Sons. p. 10. ISBN 81-85431-11-6. Unknown parameter |trans_title= ignored (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. Feldman, Paula; Robinson, Daniel, eds. (1999). A Century of Sonnets. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 3. ISBN 0-19-511561-9.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. 7.0 7.1 Bhattacharyya, Arunodoy (1976). The Sonnet and the Major English Romantic Poets. Firma KLM Private Limited. p. 8.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. Bhattacharyya, Arunodoy (1976). The Sonnet and the Major English Romantic Poets. Firma KLM Private Limited. p. 32.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. Bhattacharyya, Arunodoy (1976). The Sonnet and the Major English Romantic Poets. Firma KLM Private Limited. p. 39.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. Levin, Phillis, ed. (2001). The Penguin Book of the Sonnet. New York: Penguin Books. p. xiv. Unknown parameter |trans_title= ignored (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. Bhattacharyya, Arunodoy (1976). The Sonnet and the Major English Romantic Poets. Firma KLM Private Limited. p. 43.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. Gupta, Sen (1978). "Some Sonnets of Shelley". In Hogg, Dr. James (ed.). Studies in the Romantics. Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik, Universität Salzburg. p. 55.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. Gupta, Sen (1978). "Some Sonnets of Shelley". In Hogg, Dr. James (ed.). Studies in the Romantics. Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik, Universität Salzburg. p. 56.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. Feldman, Paula; Robinson, Daniel, eds. (1999). A Century of Sonnets. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 11. ISBN 0-19-511561-9.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. Wu, Duncan, ed. (1994). Romanticism. Cambridge: Blackwell. p. 165. ISBN 0-631-19196-8. Unknown parameter |trans_title= ignored (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. Greenblatt, Stephen, ed. (2006). The Norton Anthology of English Literature. D The Romantic Period (8th ed.). New York: W.W. Norton & Company. p. 773. ISBN 978-0-393-92720-7.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>