The English Sonnet —The Sonnets Of Shakespeare -- By: Theodore W. Hunt

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 067:268 (Oct 1910)
Article: The English Sonnet —The Sonnets Of Shakespeare
Author: Theodore W. Hunt


The English Sonnet —The Sonnets Of Shakespeare

Professor Theodore W. Hunt

One of the later and best of English sonneteers thus writes upon the excellence of the sonnet: —

“Scorn not the Sonnet; Critic, you have frowned.
Mindless of its just honours; with this key
Shakespeare unlocked his heart; the melody
Of this small lute gave ease to Petrarch’s wound;
A thousand times this pipe did Tasso sound;
Camöens soothed with it an exile’s grief;
The Sonnet glittered a gay myrtle leaf
Amid the cypress with which Dante crowned
His visionary brow: a glow-worm lamp,
It cheered mild Spenser, called from Faery-land
To struggle through dark ways; and, when a damp
Fell round the path of Milton, in his hand
The Thing became a trumpet; whence he blew
Soul-animating strains — alas, too few!”

These lines and the additional sonnets which Wordsworth wrote are sufficient to indicate his personal and literary estimate of their value and the high place they sustain in developing English verse. Involving all known poetic forms, the epic, dramatic, lyric, descriptive, and didactic; expressing all the varied feelings of the human heart, and related historically to the consecutive growth of English and Continental Letters, they not only make a claim on the attention of the literary student, but well repay that attention by the manner in which they minister to literary art and taste. The origin and earliest history of the English sonnet takes us back to the

twelfth century of Italian Letters, in the territory of Provence, and to the long list of Italian sonneteers — Dante, Petrarch, Alfieri, Tasso, Ariosto, and Boccaccio, some of whom, as Petrarch, did no better work than in this sphere, and all of whom, even Dante, intensified thereby the interest and profit of their work as poets. The sonnet was thus at home in Italy, and Italy’s greatest poets were equally at home in its composition and interpretation. It was but natural, therefore, that in the reign of Henry the Eighth, at the opening of the sixteenth century, when Italian literature was in high repute in Europe and was exerting unwonted influence in English verse, the Sonnets of Petrarch and his contemporaries should come into prominence in England and directly modify the poetic product of the most notable authors of the time. This they did, and the impression is particularly noticeable in the poetry of Wyat and Surrey. In fact, the oldest sonnet in English is a translation of one of Petrarch’s by Wyat — his co-worker (Surrey), however, excelling him in this particular form. Critics have naturally called attention to the fact that we have...

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