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Some Remarks on the Sonnet

Historically, the sonnet has continually proven itself to be an immensely versatile means of poetic expression, capable of transcending its confining restraints through an overriding structural harmony, coupled paradoxically with a surprising variety of formal manipulation, allowing poets to convey much in little (multum in parvo). Development and poetic unity is expressed in the sonnets of John Milton, William Wordsworth and Elizabeth Barrett Browning through logical argumentation, where dichotomies between transience and permanence, organic and manufactured, and the spiritual and the corporal are manifested in either bipartite structure (Petrarchan), tripartite structure (Shakespearean) or through an amalgamation of both forms. Varying conceptions of the standards and laws which define the sonnet’s supposedly restrictive fourteen-line form have been offered; John Fuller posits a structurally conservative conformity to the ‘true lineaments’ and ‘rules’ of the genre, which must be ‘jealously preserve[d]’. However Michael D. Hurley’s example of ‘wide variations in practice’ of the sonnet present in medieval Italy, highlights the sonnet’s potential for formal restructuring, which provides a key sense of development and change. The sonnet’s short length also forces a concentration of poetic intention, where the structure allows a conflict to be successfully examined and a conclusion reached, contributing to the sonnet’s ‘pervading sense of intense unity’, as prioritised by Wordsworth.

Milton’s sonnets stand in contrast to his lofty, ambitious style displayed in his magnum opus, Paradise Lost, through a focus on private introspection, giving an intimate glimpse of a moment of intense personal emotion, captured effectively through subtle variations of the form. Hazlitt’s characterisation of the sonnet as an ‘involuntary aspiration born and dying in the same moment’ can be effectively applied to Milton’s sonnets, which document extemporized expressions of the transience and fleetingness of life’s experiences manifested with a deeply personal emotional resonance; indeed, the ‘importance he gives’ to the ‘personal’ is the ‘essential Miltonic contribution’ to the sonnet according to John Fuller. Milton’s Sonnet XXIII manifests the poet’s conflict between the incomprehensibility of loss, and the attempt to justify this loss through faith. The sonnet provides the framework for the poet to reconcile his doubtful dream-like vision and his physical blindness with the reality of loss; both themes are poignantly connected from the opening line: ‘Methought I saw’ (line 1). Milton’s allusions to the classical story of ‘Alcestis’ (line 2) and the ‘Old Law’ (line 6) of Leviticus, emphasise a problematic relationship between husband and wife, which develops towards a spiritual connection achieved through Christian salvation. Milton has explored this progression from classical to biblical allusion in Paradise Lost, emphasising the sonnet’s vast capacity for epic qualities, while allowing Milton to exercise a ‘controlled pleonasm’, which F.T Prince argues ‘achieve[s] a constant, impressive fullness of statement’ in few lines, and thus ultimately contributes to the sonnet’s ‘impression of final unity’ by distracting from the form’s obvious internal divisions into quatrains and couplets.

Both the metre and rhyme of the poem coalesce to convey Milton’s devastation at the finality of loss, which is documented most strikingly in line three, with almost every syllable being accented, producing a stilted rhythm akin to a funeral march, and the poet’s hope for a continuation of life are reflected in the enjambment as opposed to end stopped lines. By employing only four different rhyming sounds, emphasis is drawn to the vowel rhymes –a and –i, creating a lingering effect on the reader, thus conveying the poet’s attempts to hold onto an effervescent image that cannot be recalled. This unequal relationship between husband and wife is later developed by allusion to the Old Law (referring specifically to Leviticus 12:2), where the husband is separated from his ‘ceremonially unclean’ wife. Echoes of the spondee ‘by force’ (line 4) are heard in the following spondee ‘Old Law’ (line 6), prompting the reader to question the force by which these impersonal, outdated laws are imposed to divide man and wife, reinforced by the jarring dactylic-trochaic rhythm of ‘purification’ (line 6) which upsets the settled iambic metre. Ultimately, in the argument develops to encapsulate the Christian motif of light and promised salvation, manifested in the superlative ‘so clear’ (line 12) and the ‘goodness’ which ‘shined’ (line 11) from her person, set up to contrast to the ‘pale and faint’ (line 4) classical figure of Alcestis. Milton inherits the remnants of the Italian Petrarchan rhyme scheme, which comingles with the English Shakespearean tripartite structure, conveying the sonnet’s self-reflexive nature of the sonnet. Thus, by placing the turn (volta) on line thirteen as opposed to the traditional ninth line, Milton subverts the readers expectations of the Petrarchan sonnet form, lulling the reader into the dream-like vision before suddenly disrupting the previous enjambment with an end stopped line and continual caesuras, conveying the poet’s doubt and uncertainty towards his vision, and his final succumbing to an all-consuming loss.

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Wordsworth inherits the legacy of the sonnet left by Milton, who imbued in his sonnets a ‘dignified simplicity and majestic harmony’, allowing for a potent introspection of the self as it undergoes a powerfully personal, emotionally transforming experience. However, at the heart of Wordsworth’s sonnets is a paradox between attempts to reconcile poetry as a ‘spontaneous overflow of feelings’ captured in extemporaneous detail, while also laboriously ‘recollect[ing]’ emotion ‘in tranquillity’, in order to successfully compose a sonnet which adheres to Wordsworth’s characterisation of the form as an organic, natural and unified ‘drop of dew’. Wordsworth’s Petrarchan sonnet, Composed upon Westminster Bridge immediately subverts the readers preconceptions regarding the romantic poet through its praise of an urban city; in The Prelude, Wordsworth rejects of the lifeless metropolitan existence brought about by the oppressive ‘prison’ of the ‘City’s walls’, whereas the poet’s awed praise of the ‘majesty’ (line 3) and ‘beauty’ (line 5) of the ‘City’ of London starkly contrasts this. Cleaneth Brook highlights this ‘paradoxical situation’ for the poet, in which the city has ‘earned its right to be considered organic, not merely mechanical’ and thus ‘part of nature’, thus the poem gains its power from the ‘sense of awed surprise’ resulting from this personal revelation, as opposed to its ‘well-worn comparisons’ and ‘flat writing’. However, the beauty of the city is tempered and contested, developing the romantic poet’s understandable personal conflict towards conceiving a naturalised yet urban landscape. Wordsworth characterises the city as ‘wear[ing]…the beauty of the morning’ like a ‘garment’ (lines 4-5), indicating a superficiality and a layer of façade to the description, with repeated negative superlatives and ‘smokeless air’ (line 8) framing the beauty of the city as figured in terms of ‘its characteristic ugliness momentarily suspended’ (Hurley), rather than self-sufficiently radiating its beauty. Within the poem is a perspectival development from abstract characterisations of ‘earth’ and the ‘soul’ (lines 1-2), which move towards more tangible realisations as the poet arrives in the sensory perceptions of the present; this ‘collapse into intense radical subjectivity’ gives rise to what Jennifer Ann Wagner has termed ‘a kind of monumentalism’ through its expansive mapping of the human imagination. Wordsworth thus challenges the ‘limits of the mental space’ imposed on the sonneteer with the ‘all-encompassing expansiveness of poetic vision’, embodied in the repeated assertion ‘never did’, emphasising the immediacy of the present moment by ‘gathering all previous moments into this single revelatory one’. The sestet’s development towards emotional and spiritual clarity, which climaxes in the exclamation ‘Dear God!’ (line 13) parallels the aforementioned development of perspective within the octet, thus establishing a profound unity which Wordsworth prioritised in the form.

Browning’s sonnets significantly recasts the perspective of the narrator from a female outlook, challenging the form’s association of poetic voice with dominant male viewpoints. Specifically, in Sonnet 43 from Sonnets From The Portuguese, Browning explores the consolidation of past sorrows with present happiness, and female exaltations of love through manipulation of form metre and rhyme. The sonnet develops seamlessly from octet to sestet through the persistent anaphora ‘I love thee’ giving the poem an emotional intensity that would otherwise have been disrupted by an obvious turn (volta) midway through. This emotive power is emphasised metrically through the use of breathy ‘th’ syllables such as the anaphoric ‘thee’, which gives the poem a eroticised pronunciation, which is particularly shocking coming from a female perspective in sexually conservative Victorian England. The rima chiusa rhyme scheme (abba) provides a repetition of similar sounds, emphasising the passionate internal couplet, while also subtly reminding the reader of the isolation and grief previously experienced through the outside rhyme disrupting the couplet’s internal unity. These manipulations have given rise to criticism towards Browning, namely accusations of ‘faulty verse technique’ and ‘insincerity’; however, as Jerome Mazzaro postulates, it is this ‘unreconciled refinement of language usage’ which prefigures that ‘seperat[ion] of thought and feeling’ in Eliot’s “dissociation of sensibility”. Thus, through rejecting the form’s ‘mechanism of sensibility which could devour any kind of experience’, Browning’s sonnet offers a more intimate representation of a development of the mind’s imperfect and potent thought processes, which psychologists such as William James have termed the “divided self”, despite sometimes coming at the expense of the sonnet’s unified structure. By merging intense religious ecstasy (‘ideal Grace’, line 4) with the necessities of satiating terrestrial wants at the ‘level of everyday’s’ (line 5), Browning conveys a liberation for the female poet to truly express her inmost and genuine desires: according to Mazzaro, this subversive use of the sonnet represents both a ‘release from religious preconceptions […] and from social expectations’ of women.


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The sonnet is an inherently self-conscious and meta-textual form, with sonneteer’s being acutely aware of their deliberate development of the tradition that precedes them, thus giving rise to what Fuller identifies as the ‘fascination with the idea’ of the sonnet taking ‘precedence over its legitimate use’. F.T. Prince usefully identifies the corpus of early Italian sonnets written under strict restrictions as giving rise to the perceived ‘distressingly mechanistic quality’ of the sonnets’, which perpetuates ‘fixed modes of expression […] of thought and feeling’. Thus, such ‘remorseless exploitation of the sonnet’ is directly related to the ‘unwritten laws[…] it imposes on the writer’, and a desire to liberate one’s voice from emotional constraints. Wordsworth’s Scorn Not the Sonnet counters contemporary nineteenth century criticisms of the form’s artificiality and lack of emotion through citing the form’s use as a vehicle for communicating intense emotions, specifically Shakespeare, who ‘unlocked his heart’ (line 3) with the form. In citing Shakespeare, Petrarch and Spenser, the poet emphasises their individual appropriation and the potential for developing the form to suit their intentions, establishing the Shakespearian, Italian and Spenserian sonnet respectively. Even within the poem, Wordsworth subverts characterisations of the sonnet as restrictive by using an unconventional, undefined rhyme scheme (abba acca dede ff) and intertextually paying homage to Milton’s iconic enjambment at the thirteenth line volta rather than clearly emphasising the turn. Thus, it is clear that the sonnet’s ability for such vast development of poetic expression has been made possibly precisely because of strikingly effective manipulations of structure against the assumed norm.


Browning’s use of the sonnet draws attention to the rejected female voice in the form, where a desire to establish a strong female poetic voice manifest themselves in subversive rejections of conventionality. The incorporation of techniques popularised by both Milton and Wordsworth (namely the enjambment of octaves, uneven caesuras and lofty diction), distinguishes her from the ‘ordinary impotencies and prettinesses’ she attributed to former female sonneteers, perhaps opting for a more potent, ‘manly style’ (which Wordsworth identified in Milton), which at times makes Browning a victim of tradition, rendering the female voice passive. Indeed, Sonnet 1 stands in marked opposition to the self-assured assertiveness of Sonnet 43, with the speaker being drawn ‘backward by the hair’ (line 11) and dominated by the figure’s ‘mastery’ (line 12). ‘Love’ (line 14), the final word of the poem, imperfectly rhymes with ‘strove’ (line 12) and ‘move’ (line 10) as Browning exploits the jarring lack of unity usually attributed to the sonnet form, creating a lack of closure that manifests the poet’s unnerving scepticism towards the significance of close relationship love and death for the female poet. In light of this, the speakers triumphant assertion that she shall love her muse ‘better after death’ (line 14) in Sonnet 43 becomes intertextually coloured with unsettling connotations of the link between female love and mortality. The central paradox at the heart of Petrarchan subjectivity is a conflict of agency and autonomy; as Mary B Moore identifies, Browning employs ambiguity to blur the distinction between ‘subject and object’, meaning she is both the ‘thinker-of and the thought-about’, complicating poetic voice further to convey the surrounding implications of a woman inheriting a tradition in which she has been regarded as an object. Ultimately, it is Mazzaro’s proposition of Browning’s novelty in her departure from tradition which readers find most compelling; it is ‘unrealistic’ for such emotive poetic development to occur ‘at pre-set and regular intervals’, and thus the sonnet by necessity must engage in manipulation to give rise to development and change.

To conclude, the sonnet form is undoubtedly an expansive and potent form, that enables the poet to encapsulate both personally captivating experiences alongside vast themes and conflicts. Through a shared assumption in the sonnet’s tradition of the unwritten rules of each form, each formal innovation is a compelling divergence from the norm which can be exploited to subvert reader’s assumptions and thus give weight to moments of intense emotion. Despite the vast amount of departure from the “accepted” conventions of the sonnet, its relatively short length and the sonneteer’s understanding of the overriding unity as one of its fundamental precepts enable the form to both encapsulate development and change while expressing coherence at the fundamental, structural level.



Primary Texts

Strand, Mark and Eavan Boland, eds. The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001)

Secondary Texts

Brooks, Cleanth, The Well-wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry (London: Dennis Dobson, 1949)

Danielson, Dennis, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Milton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999)

Roche, Thomas P. Jr., Petrarch and the English sonnet sequences (New York: AMS Press, 1989)

Prince, F. T., The Italian Element in Milton’s Verse (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1954)

Fuller, John, The Sonnet (London: Methuen, 1972)

Donaldson, Sandra, Critical Essays on Elizabeth Barrett Browning (New York: G.K. Hall & co., 1999)

Ricks, Christopher, Milton’s Grand Style (Oxford, Clarendon Press 1963)

Hurley, Michael D. and Michael O’Neill, Poetic Form: An Introduction (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012)

Wagner, Jennifer Ann, A Moment’s Monument: Revisionary Poetics and the Nineteenth-Century English Sonnet (London: Associated University Presses, 1996)

Moore, Mary B., Desiring Voices: Women Sonneteers and Petrarchism (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2000)

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