The Sonnet

When did the sonnet appear in England? 
What transformations did it undergo? 
What are the analogies and the differences existing between the Italian sonnet and the English one? 

Find out in the following article.


The sonnet is believed to have appeared in Italy around the 13th century. Michelangelo, Tasso, Ariosto, Dante and Petrarch all wrote sonnets. At first, any lyric pertaining to romantic love was called 'sonnet'.

Before Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542), only the writers of popular songs expressed personal feelings in the simple and brief form of a lyric. Sir Thomas Wyatt was probably the first English poet to consciously compose poetry for this purpose. He imported Italian and French forms of poems to England. From his travels, he brought new poetic patterns that Dante and Petrarch had already made famous in Italy. He composed a total of 32 sonnets, among which 17 were direct adaptations of Petrarch's sonnets, following the traditional Italian structure of an octave with the rhyme scheme abbaabba, followed by a sestet with the rhyme scheme cddcdd. Additionally, Wyatt innovated by crafting the final three sonnets in a unique form consisting of three quatrains and a couplet, with the rhyme scheme ababababcc. This particular sonnet form, used by Wyatt, would later be adopted by Shakespeare.

Not much later Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (1517-1547) wrote 15/16 sonnets, ten of which present the "Shakespearean" rhyme scheme.

This new literary trend soon took root.


All sonnets fall commonly into two main types:

the Italian type  is composed of 14 lines, divided into an octave and a sestet. The octave introduces the leading theme, while the sestet is itself subdivided into 2 tercets. The first tercet prepares the leading idea of the octave for the conclusion in the second one. As mentioned above, the rhyming scheme is abba abba in the octave and cdd cdd or cdd ece or cdd ccd in the sestet.

the English forms of sonnet may be sorted out into two main classes:

- the Shakespearean sonnet: it consists of 3 quatrains, rhyming alternately, and a couplet (abab, cdcd, efef, gg);

- the Spenserian sonnet: it is composed of 3 quatrains and a couplet as well but the rhyming scheme is slightly different: abab, bcbc, cdcd, ee.

Famous English sonnets

In 1557 a collection of nearly 300 poems came out with the title Songes and Sonettes Written By the Ryght Honorable Lord Henry Howard, late Earle of Surrey, Thomas Wyatt the Elder and others, aka as the Tottel's Miscellany. The poems contained therein are mainly: 

 - poems that imitate Petrarch's poems;

- lyrics about love that introduce along with the sonnets a new code of 'courtly' love;

- satires, epistles and epigrams in which we can catch a glimpse of the influence of the classics.

The Tottel's Miscellany, considered as the beginning of the Elizabethan literature, was reprinted seven times after 1587.

Between 1591 and 1597 the sonnet became the leading genre. Shakespeare introduced three sonnets in Love Labour's Lost and two in Romeo and Juliet as well.

In 1591 Edmund Spenser published Astrophel and Stella, a collection of 108 sonnets, modelled on Petrarch and Ronsard's poetry, that revolve around the platonic courtship of a lady.

The collection Amoretti (1595) describes Spenser's courtship of Elizabeth Boyle, his wife-to-be.

Shakespeare's Sonnets appeared in 1594 and brought about new developments: some of the sonnets are addressed to a man and some others set a certain distance from the conventions of the genre.

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