British and Irish Literature Sonnet and Sonnet Sequence
by
John Roe
  • LAST MODIFIED: 20 September 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0083

Introduction

Although our brief here is to concentrate on the fortunes and achievements of the sonnet (and sonnet sequences) in Renaissance England, it is necessary to look first to its antecedents abroad, particularly in Italy. Giacomo da Lentini is credited with being the first poet to write the fourteen-line sonnet, but it was his Italian compatriot Francesco Petrarca (or Petrarch) who became its most celebrated and inspiring practitioner. Petrarch famously perfected the art of the sequence, though the description “sonnet sequence” is slightly inaccurate. Petrarch interspersed his famous Canzoniere (loosely translated as song book) with other lyric forms, principally the canzone, but with the sestina and ballata also. However, 317 of the 366 poems making up the collection are sonnets, and they develop the theme of Petrarch’s love for Laura. The name sonnet gives no indication as to its form or appearance. It means simply “little sound” or “song” (sonetto) in Italian. Why fourteen lines? It is not just a question of the number of lines; it is also a matter of their length and order. In English, the line length is ten syllables in iambic pentameter, corresponding to the Italian hendecasyllabic (eleven-syllable) form. Petrarch’s predilection for fourteen lines makes perfect sense if you think how a short poem may best be divided into two parts. The exact division of 7/7 is in fact an unwieldy combination: seven lines give limited flexibility, whereas eight lines divide neatly into two quatrains; equally, six lines divide into two tercets. We may further distinguish between the shape and ordering of the Petrarchan and the Shakespearean sonnet. (Although Shakespeare made his version famous, he did not in fact invent it; that was largely Surrey’s doing.) In Petrarch, these rhyme abba abba in the octave and variously as cde cde or cde dce, and so on, in the sestet. The Shakespearean order is of three quatrains of varying rhyme followed by a final couplet. In other words, the sestet is disguised in the Shakespearean sonnet form. The Petrarchan sonnet maintains an interesting division between the octave and the sestet, and usually the sestet develops or varies a statement made in the octave. The transitional point between the two, that is, the move from line 8 to line 9, is known as the volta or turn. Although the Shakespearean sonnet does not maintain so obvious a formal division between octave and sestet, nonetheless the same kind of transitional move may be observed.

Journals

Some of the major authors covered here have their own journals, which are further scholarly resources. For example, three prominent publications are devoted exclusively to Shakespeare: Shakespeare Quarterly, Shakespeare Survey, and Shakespeare Studies. All aspects of the works receive critical attention, and articles on the sonnets appear often. Milton Quarterly and Milton Studies perform a similar function for Milton, as do Sidney Journal and Spenser Studies for their authors. The George Herbert Journal and the John Donne Journal may also be mentioned in this context.

Databases and Reference Resources

A number of English sonnet collections or sequences have not received a modern printing. Fortunately, all of these can be viewed through various resources, the principal one being Early English Books Online (EEBO). An excellent online resource for further, extensive search of scholarly bibliographies on all aspects of the Renaissance is Iter: Gateway to the Middle Ages and Renaissance.

Petrarch

A number of studies establish the importance and originality of Petrarch in terms of the sonnet. Although Dante had written sonnets before him, in the Vita Nuova, for example, Dante’s comparative disinclination for the form registered itself in his De Vulgari Eloquentia (On Vernacular Eloquence), where he tends to belittle it. Petrarch’s enthusiastic embrace of the sonnet made him effectively the prime mover. Once established as an important literary form, the sonnet moved quickly from its Italian base, showing an astonishing degree of activity in Spain, France, Portugal, England, and Scotland. Below are listed various editions and studies, some dealing directly with Petrarch and his formation and others with his influence abroad, particularly in England. Emphasis falls both on the nature and significance of the sonnet and on its transmission from Italian. These editions comprise not only Petrarch but also the works of significant predecessors. Accordingly, Lentini 1915 is an Italian text (with English introduction) of the work of the man who started it all. Cerielli 2003 devotes itself to Stilnovista poets, while Contini 1960 compiles a comprehensive anthology, including poets of the Sicilian School. Both are in Italian. Dante 2009 is a good English compilation, including many of his sonnets. As for Petrarch himself, Petrarca 1996 gives an authoritative text of the Canzoniere, while Petrarch 1976 reliably translates the whole sequence into modern English prose. The selection Petrarch 2002b is in English in very readable verse form, while Petrarch 2002a gives the whole Canzoniere, also in English verse.

Studies

Although Guillaume Colletet, in his 1658 treatise, boasted that France was the sonnet’s true place of origin, most commentators hold with Italy. Wilkins 1951 includes the author’s famous and seminal essay “The Invention of the Sonnet,” Kleinhenz 1986 goes back before Petrarch to the earliest examples of the form. Fussell 1965 provides helpful analyses of sonnet structure. Forster 1969 is a good exercise in comparative literature, following the sonnet on a broad voyage through Europe. Fuller 1972 helpfully compares Italian and English sonnet structures, and Roche 1989 gives a detailed survey of Petrarchan influence on the Elizabethans. Spiller 1992 is a valuable contribution both on the origins of the sonnet and on its English practitioners. Kennedy 2003 views Petrarchism across Europe as a site for nationalistic concerns.

  • Forster, Leonard. The Icy Fire: Five Studies in European Petrarchism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1969.

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    A welcome and still relevant exercise in comparative literature, this volume begins with Petrarch himself and then extends its view across Europe, including the Low Countries and Scandinavia. One of the first to consider the social uses and application of the Petrarchan mode.

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  • Fuller, John. The Sonnet. London: Methuen, 1972.

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    A short, well-written (by a poet) study that compares the structure of the Italian sonnet with the English or Shakespearean form. The many examples are mainly of English poets, with the theme taken up to modern times.

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  • Fussell, Paul, Jr. “Structural Principles: The Example of the Sonnet.” In Poetic Meter and Poetic Form. By Paul Fussell Jr., 113–133. New York: Random House, 1965.

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    A good, concise explanation of the sonnet form.

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  • Kennedy, William. The Site of Petrarchism: Early Modern National Sentiment in Italy, France, and England. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.

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    Looks at the intricacies of national concerns in the various Continental commentaries on Petrarch. In England, a major focus is the Sidneys, including Lady Mary Wroth (see Milton and Lady Mary Wroth). May be read with the author’s Authorizing Petrarch (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1994), which includes a chapter on Spenser’s Amoretti.

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  • Kleinhenz, Christopher. The Early Italian Sonnet: The First Century (1220–1321). Lecce, Italy: Milella, 1986.

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    Essential account of the sonnet’s earliest practitioners. Surveys operations in a general way and gives a good, detailed analysis of the sonnet’s unity of form. Shows how the linking device between the sonnet’s octave and sestet derives from the Provençal canso.

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  • Roche, Thomas, Jr. Petrarch and the English Sonnet Sequences. New York: AMS, 1989.

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    A fine, comparative study that takes in poets from Sidney to Shakespeare. Has a tendency to emphasize moral reflectiveness over passionate sincerity, and sees sonnet writing as carrying its own cautions against excess. Also strongly wedded to numerological concerns. (See also Religious Sonnets.)

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  • Spiller, Michael. The Development of the Sonnet. London and New York: Routledge, 1992.

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    Although mainly on the sonnet in Britain, it has a good opening section on Petrarch and the Italian sonnet, including the Sicilian School and the dolce stil novo. Very helpful for students without knowledge of Italian.

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  • Wilkins, E. H. The Making of the Canzoniere, and Other Petrarchan Studies. Rome: Edizione di Storia e Letteraria, 1951.

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    Includes a careful, indeed magisterial, analysis of the recensions of the great lyric sequence. Includes the essay “The Invention of the Sonnet,” which assesses the role of Giacomo da Lentini’s sonnet structure.

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England

The Renaissance came late to England, and the various appearances of the sonnet throughout the 16th century testify in part to the unevenness of its progress. We might divide the century into three parts, the first being the period of the court of Henry VIII, which saw the activity of two leading practitioners of the sonnet, Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey. The next period is mid-century, presided over by Mary Tudor, a time of relentless political and religious censorship, which did little to encourage literary productivity. However, Tottel’s Miscellany appeared late in Mary’s reign. This anthology contained a number of sonnets and lyrics, including many by Wyatt and Surrey, and pointed the way for the age of Elizabeth. An early English female sonneteer Anne Lok (or Locke) emerges in this period. The final period is consequently the Elizabethan, which saw the great flowering of all forms of literary activity, including of course the sonnet, and more particularly the sonnet sequence, bringing the century to a close with the most amazing and intense burst of creativity in the form in the final decade.

Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey

Sir Thomas Wyatt was the first to write sonnets in England. As a consequence of diplomatic missions to France (1526) and Italy (1527), he was exposed to the poetry of Petrarch and his followers. In the English court, Surrey was immediately responsive to Wyatt’s example. Notably, both Surrey and Wyatt translated Petrarch, and they remain the two most eminent poets to have translated a significant number of his sonnets. They did not, however, emulate the Petrarchan sonnet sequence. Surrey and Wyatt have both been well served by editors. Surrey and Wyatt 1815–1816 champions Surrey for his reform and improvement of English poetic style. Surrey 1920 is the standard, full edition, while Surrey 1964 sets the poet nicely in context with a helpful commentary. Wyatt has benefited from a good deal of research on manuscript compilations. Wyatt 1949 has the special advantage of preserving original spelling, while Wyatt 1969 carries a full background apparatus especially in connection with Petrarchan translations, though it is not always textually accurate. Of more recent editions, Wyatt 1978 is particularly good, though it substitutes poetic categories for the original manuscript order of the poems. Wyatt 1975 is very serviceable.

  • Surrey, Henry Howard, Earl of. The Poems of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey. Edited by F. M. Padelford. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1920.

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    A complete edition of the poetry in early modern spelling with a lengthy, informative introduction, though a little out of date on the questions of early Tudor meter and Surrey’s biography.

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  • Surrey, Henry Howard, Earl of. Poems. Edited by Emrys Jones. Oxford: Clarendon, 1964.

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    A very good, almost complete edition of the poetry, which retains the spelling of 16th-century manuscripts; a short introduction and useful explanatory notes. Includes the Italian texts of sonnets of Petrarch translated by Surrey.

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  • Surrey, Henry Howard, Earl of, and Wyatt, Sir Thomas. Works of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey and of Sir Thomas Wyatt. 2 quarto vols. Edited by G. F. Nott. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1815–1816.

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    An early, major 19th-century edition. Includes both Wyatt and Surrey, but with a decided bias towards the latter on the grounds of his stylistic refinement.

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  • Wyatt, Sir Thomas. Collected Poems of Sir Thomas Wyatt. Edited by Kenneth Muir. The Muses Library. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1949.

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    An excellent, scholarly edition, based on manuscript readings, that preserves the original spelling. A short helpful introduction with critical comments starting with Wyatt’s contemporaries (in verse) through to the modern era. No commentary.

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  • Wyatt, Sir Thomas. Collected Poems of Sir Thomas Wyatt. Edited by Kenneth Muir and Patricia Thomson. Liverpool, UK: Liverpool University Press, 1969.

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    Most valuable for its very full and helpful commentary, which absorbs the work of previous scholars. The text is marred by numerous errors.

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  • Wyatt, Sir Thomas. Collected Poems. Edited by Joost Daalder. London: Oxford University Press, 1975.

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    A good, well-edited text, transcribed into modern English, following Muir’s (see Wyatt format by reproducing the order of the poems in the manuscripts. Succinct foot-of-page annotation.

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  • Wyatt, Sir Thomas. Complete Poems. Edited by R. A. Rebholz. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1978.

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    Modernized spelling with good introduction and notes. The poems are grouped according to genre (“Sonnets,” “Epigrams,” “Canzoni,” etc.) rather than following the order of the manuscripts. A highly accessible edition; the notes are particularly good at teasing out abstruse references in the poetry.

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Studies

No doubt because of his greater dramatic appeal, Wyatt tends to beget more critical attention than his famous contemporary. Nonetheless, Surrey has been well served recently by Sessions 1999, who maps out significant relationships, including those of sonnets to circumstances. Heale 1998 surveys both poets and shows how in each case slight-seeming lyrics may bear weighty significance. Dasenbrock 1988 measures Wyatt against Petrarch, while Powell 2009 goes deeply into the manuscripts and their contextual implications. Foley 1999 brings various critical methods together in treating of Wyatt, while Shulman 2011, concisely, and Brigden 2012, in greater detail, contribute fine biographical interpretations. Southall 1964 shrewdly assesses the relationship of poetry and politics in Wyatt.

Richard Tottel and the Mid-Century

Tottel’s Miscellany, or “Tottel,” first printed the poetry of Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, in 1557. The 16th-century title is Songes and Sonettes, “Miscellany” being a 19th-century editorial substitution for the longer title. Most strikingly, Tottel changed the meter of Wyatt and made it more euphonious, an act of treachery that nonetheless helped Wyatt’s reputation. Rollins 1965 is the modern edition to which all others are indebted. Holton and MacFaul 2011 draws upon it effectively and is in compact, convenient form. Songes and Sonettes 1970 is a handy facsimile without notes. Googe 1989, Howell 1570, and Gascoigne 2000, following Tottel, all produce their poems in miscellany fashion with sonnets mingling with other forms. The until-recently unsung heroine of this period is Anne Lok (referred to by some modern scholars as Anne Vaughan Lock[e]), who published a translation of sermons by Calvin and appended a sequence of religious sonnets thought to be her own (Lok 1560). Lok 1999 is a good modern edition with a helpful set of references.

  • Gascoigne, George. A Hundredth Sundrie Flowres. Edited by George W. Pigman III. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

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    Extremely well edited with a full and helpful annotation. The sonnets are buried amidst the morass of other works, though Gascoigne lays claim to two small sequences of three and seven sonnets.

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  • Googe, Barnabe. Eclogues, epitaphs, and sonnets. Edited by Judith M. Kennedy. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1989.

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    A welcome and definitive edition with helpful introduction and commentary. Sets Googe nicely in context.

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  • Holton, Amanda and Tom MacFaul, eds. Tottel’s Miscellany. London: Penguin Classics, 2011.

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    A good edition of Tottel based on the magisterial Rollins edition (Rollins 1965), and incorporating recent scholarship. Helpful on the miscellany’s intertextual aspects, prints translations of some Latin and Italian originals, and notes cross-referencing to and by contemporary poets.

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  • Howell, Thomas. Newe Sonets and Pretie Pamphlets. London, 1570.

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    A collection by a retainer of the Sidney family. “Pamphlet” here means poem, with the emphasis on “love poem.”

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  • Lok, Anne. “A Meditation of a Penitent Sinner.” In Sermons of John Calvin, upon the Songe That Ezechias Made. By John Calvin; translated by Anne Lok. London, 1560.

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    Following the sermons, Lok writes a sequence of twenty-six sonnets, of fairly distinguished quality on the theme of the penitential 51st Psalm. Unfortunately, by placing them modestly toward the end of her book, she prevented them from gaining notice until much later than her date of publication.

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  • Lok, Anne. Collected Works of Anne Vaughan Lock. Edited by Susan M. Felch. Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies 185. Tempe: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies/Renaissance English Text Society, 1999.

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    A very well edited collection, with good explanatory notes, and a helpful list of biblical references.

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  • Rollins, Hyder E., ed. Tottel’s Miscellany (1557–1587). Rev. ed. 2 vols. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965.

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    A superb edition, to which all subsequent scholarship remains indebted. Rollins collects all the necessary information on the editions of Tottel that followed the original 1557 one and gives a complete, scrupulously accurate textual collation.

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  • Songes and Sonettes, Written by the Right Honorable Lorde Henry Haward Late Earle of Surrey, and Other. Menston, UK: Scolar Press, 1970.

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    An accessible facsimile reproduction in the celebrated Scolar Press series. The gothic script reproduces moderately well but is in places hard on the eye. Tottel or his editor adds descriptive titles to the poems. Note that Tottel’s Miscellany is not the original title. Originally published in 1557.

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Studies

The reputation of mid-century sonnet writers has not fared well; they received a particular drubbing at the hands of Lewis 1954, though they have benefited recently from good editions and attempts, such as Hunter 1970 (arguing against Lewis), Heale 2003, and Shrank 2008 (adopting a humanist line), to put them in a better light. Going 1954 notes that only the mid-century seems to have employed the expression “sonnet sequence.” The term sonnet is flexible at this point; not all sonnets are yet in fourteen-line pentameter. Hudson 1933 rescues sonnets by Gascoigne suffering from broken lines. Like Susan M. Felch, the editor of Lok 1999 (cited under Richard Tottel and the Mid-Century), Michael Spiller (Spiller 1997) regards Lok’s as the first sonnet sequence in English.

Sir Philip Sidney and Thomas Watson

We look to Sir Philip Sidney (published in 1591) as the first influential English writer of a Petrarchan sonnet sequence, though in publication terms the lesser-known Thomas Watson (1582) predates him. Sidney in fact wrote his sequence in 1580 or 1581, but it remained in manuscript for a decade. Watson’s Hekatompathia is an act of homage to Petrarch but is written as a sequence of eighteen-line sonnets, demonstrating that even so late the fourteen-line sonnet was not yet regarded as the inevitable or invariable form. Watson is said to have translated Petrarch’s Canzoniere into Latin (though only two poems appear to have survived). Little modern attention has been paid to a poet who now exists as a footnote to his greater contemporaries, although some effort has recently been made to change that. All that most students would want to know about Astrophil and Stella is contained in the brilliant edition of Ringler (Sidney 1962). Sidney’s sonnets would have been circulating in the early 1580s in manuscript. The 1591 publication (Sidney 1970) is what we would now call a pirated text and was superseded by the publication of his works by his sister, the Countess of Pembroke (Sidney 1598), when the correct order was restored and eleven songs, which the 1591 edition had placed at the end, were given their proper position in the sequence. Sidney 1973 and Sidney 1994 are serviceable editions of his poetry. The Apology for Poetry, his prose treatise (Sidney 2002), needs to be read in conjunction with the sonnets. Watson’s collection has benefited from two recent editions (Watson 1996 and Watson 2003); the former details Continental influence, while the latter makes a strong case for Watson’s originality.

  • Sidney, Sir Philip. The Countesse of Pembroke’s Arcadia, Written by Sir Philip Sidney Knight—Now the Third Time Published, with Sundry New Additions of the Same Author. London, 1598.

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    First collected edition of Sidney’s writings. The “sundry new additions” refer to Astrophil and Stella and Certain Sonnets, the copy for which was supplied by the countess, Sidney’s sister. It is a much more accurate text than the 1591 version.

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  • Sidney, Sir Philip. The Poems of Sir Philip Sidney. Edited by W. A. Ringler Jr. Oxford: Clarendon, 1962.

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    A superb edition, containing lengthy biographical and contextual descriptions, with an authoritative study of the various manuscripts. The poems are presented in original spelling. Informative on Certain Sonnets and poems from the Arcadia; provides all of Sidney’s translations of the Psalms (not in sonnet form).

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  • Sidney, Sir Philip. Astrophil and Stella. Menston, UK: Scolar Press, 1970.

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    Facsimile of the 1591 pirated edition. Published by Thomas Newman with a feisty introduction from Sidney’s freebooting contemporary, Thomas Nashe. This edition, full of errors, places the “Songs” (ten of the eleven) at the end and labels them as sonnets. Newman includes possibly stolen or somehow appropriated sonnets by Samuel Daniel. The volume contains commendatory sonnets, a genre in itself.

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  • Sidney, Sir Philip. Selected Poems. Edited by Katherine Duncan-Jones. Oxford: Clarendon, 1973.

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    Modern spelling. Includes all of Astrophil and Stella in an almost error-free edition, plus twenty-two of Sidney’s Certain Sonnets (a separate collection of poems in various forms and meters, including translations).

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  • Sidney, Sir Philip. Selected Poems. Edited by Catherine Bates. London: Penguin Classics, 1994.

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    Well-edited, modern spelling, with comprehensive, nicely judged annotation. Most valuable for Astrophil and Stella.

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  • Sidney, Sir Philip. An Apology for Poetry (or The Defence of Poesy). 3d ed. Edited by Geoffrey Shepherd. Revised and expanded by R. W. Maslen. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2002.

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    An excellent edition of the Apology, with full and informative annotation. Indispensable for thinking about Sidney’s conception of poetry and his intentions in the sonnets.

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  • Watson, Thomas. The Complete Works of Thomas Watson (1566–1592). 2 vols. Edited by Dana F. Sutton. Lewiston, NY: Mellen, 1996.

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    Painstakingly identifies French, Italian, and neo-Latin sources.

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  • Watson, Thomas. English Poems. Edited by Albert Chatterley. Norwich, UK: Marion Hopkins, 2003.

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    Unfortunately confined to a limited edition; helpfully annotated, with a good knowledge of sources; treats Watson with more regard than he normally receives.

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Studies

Sidney has inspired almost as much attention as Petrarch among English-speaking commentators on the sonnet. His life has brought forth numerous Lives, of which Duncan-Jones 1991 is as good and dependable as any. Woodcock 2010 analyzes the sonnet sequence in a slightly biographical vein and suggests connections between the poetry and various family members. Kalstone 1965 handily reviews the debt to Petrarch, while Bates 2007 begins with an account of masochism in Astrophil and Stella. Heninger 1988 effectively applies Aristotelian theories of imitation to both Sidney and Edmund Spenser. Klein 1998 gives a different Petrarchan emphasis, this time a Protestant one. Woudhuysen 1996 investigates the nature and fortunes of Sidneyan manuscripts. Clucas 2007 makes a strong bid for Watson to be taken more seriously, again arguing from a Petrarchan perspective. Individual articles are too numerous to list, but the Sidney Journal (cited under Journals) is a good resource.

The Golden Age after Sidney

Whatever the merits of Thomas Newman’s 1591 pirated text of Astrophil and Stella, there is no doubt that it launched the sonnet vogue in England. The 1590s was the great decade of sonnet activity; more sequences appeared at this time than at any other before or since. Some of these were intensely personally felt but others, Samuel Daniel preeminently, saw sonnet writing as the way to patronage. The Countess of Pembroke was in receipt of sonnets from more than one author (while some poets sought more than one patron), and it was clear that her role was that of a Laura whose required “mercy” was to confer monetary reward or social connectedness. It is no coincidence that this decade saw the burgeoning of the greatest period of drama this culture has ever experienced. Literary activity was intense on several fronts, and contrary to earlier impressions that the theatre displaced the page, it is now conjectured that the two more likely informed one another. This argument has been put forward in particular with regard to Shakespeare (see Individual Essays). Certainly sonnet writing kept pace with stage activity in this decade. Poets such as Henry Constable, Daniel, and Michael Drayton took sonnet writing so seriously as to commit most of their careers to it, revising their collections over several years (many in the case of Drayton).

Collections

Since the end of the 19th century a number of variously helpful anthologies have appeared, some without annotation but containing valuable copies of texts, while others have provided helpful commentaries, especially on lesser-known authors. In certain cases these anthologies represent the only modern printing of the poets concerned. Bullen 1903 prints the Ganymede sonnets of Richard Barnfield; Crow 1896 includes in four volumes better known authors in an attractive format. Lee 1904 remains valuable for printing lesser-known sonneteers in full; they include Richard Linche, William Percy, Robert Tofte, and Thomas Watson’s The Tears of Fancie, or Love Disdained. Klein 1984 supplements Lee’s anthology nicely. Lever 1974 is worth consulting for its commentary, while Evans 1994 is the most useful of modern anthologies.

  • Bullen, A. H., ed. Some Longer Elizabethan Poems. London: Archibald Constable, 1903.

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    Valuable mainly for its collection of Richard Barnfield’s Ganymede sonnets.

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  • Crow, Martha Foote, ed. Elizabethan Sonnet Cycles. 4 vols. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner, 1896.

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    Something of a collector’s item. More valuable for its handsomely produced format than for the slightly romanticized accounts of the poets. Contains Samuel Daniel, Giles Fletcher, Thomas Lodge, Henry Constable, Michael Drayton, Fulke Greville, Bartholomew Griffin, and William Smith.

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  • Evans, Maurice, ed. Elizabethan Sonnets. Revised by Roy Booth. London: Dent, 1994.

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    A recent collection of sonnet sequences, extremely serviceable with a fine introduction. Follows the tradition of sensibly omitting Shakespeare. Booth has added Lady Mary Wroth’s Pamphilia to Amphilanthus (1621) in full. Very helpful annotation.

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  • Klein, Holger, ed. English and Scottish Sonnet Sequences of the Renaissance. 2 vols. Hildesheim, West Germany: Georg Olms Verlag, 1984.

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    A facsimile edition of original printed texts and, as a result, not the easiest of reading. Nonetheless a welcome corollary to Lee 1904, making good the deficit of certain authors (e.g., John Soowthern, Richard Barnfield, Sir John Davies) and of course bringing attention to Scottish poets who came south with King James (William Alexander and David Murray). Very good on Continental echoes and borrowings.

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  • Lee, Sir Sidney, ed. Elizabethan Sonnets. 2 vols. London: Archibald Constable, 1904.

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    One of the first modern collections of sonnet sequences, slightly revised from Edward Arber’s edition in the English Garner (8 vols., 1877–1890); the introduction stresses connections with the Continent. Omits Shakespeare to make space for others, including the feverish Barnabe Barnes and a range of minor sonneteers, some of whom who are hard to find in print elsewhere.

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  • Lever, J. W., ed. Sonnets of the English Renaissance. London: Athlone, 1974.

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    Good annotation but frustratingly short on selections, partly because Shakespeare takes up space. Superseded by Evans 1994. Very informative commentary.

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Single Authors

Many of the Elizabethan sonnet writers have received the distinction of separate modern editions. As scholarship continues, manuscripts unexpectedly come to light. In the 20th century, two such poetic collections became known for the first time (Alabaster 1959 and Sidney 1984). Barnes 1971 reflects not only a quarrel with orthodox Petrarchism but also and correspondingly a cultivation of Latin authors. Barnfield 1990 is of special interest to queer studies, while the more conventional Constable 1960 reveals particular textual complexity. Daniel is handsomely served by Grosart’s still-useful Victorian edition (Daniel 1885–1896), which has recently been reprinted digitally, and Drayton 1961 is available in a similar multivolume text. Fletcher 1964 shows the influence of Renaissance Latin poetry on the Elizabethan sonnet.

  • Alabaster, William. The Sonnets of William Alabaster. Edited by G. M. Story and Helen Gardner. Oxford: Clarendon, 1959.

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    His sonnets only came to light in the 20th century. The editors give a good account of the discovery and text, and examine the nature of Alabaster’s Catholic sensibility. These holy sonnets stand as interesting comparison with those of John Donne, though of course they are not nearly so powerful. Explores such devices as emblem circles, Christ as the vine, man as microcosm. (See Religious Sonnets.)

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  • Barnes, Barnabe. Parthenophil and Parthenophe: A Critical Edition. Edited by Victor A. Doyno, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1971.

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    Weird and wonderful is the only way to describe Barnes’s sequence which, a little like Petrarch and Sidney, varies the form from the sonnet, going for the grand slam of a triple sestina among other things. By contrast, Doyno’s editing is temperate and informative, demonstrating the relevance of the classical tradition to Barnes’s poetry.

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  • Barnfield, Richard. Complete Poems. Edited by George Klawitter. Selinsgrove, PA: Susquehanna University Press, 1990.

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    An important edition for Renaissance queer studies; discusses Barnfield’s homosexuality.

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  • Constable, Henry. The Poems of Henry Constable. Edited by Joan Grundy. Liverpool, UK: Liverpool University Press, 1960.

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    Complicated textual history in two editions of Diana (1592 and 1594), but Grundy goes back to manuscript sources and convincingly establishes the greater authenticity of 1592.

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  • Daniel, Samuel. The Complete Works in Verse and Prose of Samuel Daniel. 5 vols. Edited by A. B. Grosart. London: Hazell, Watson and Viney, 1885–1896.

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    Still the most comprehensive edition of Daniel’s works. Volume 1 containing the sonnets was published in 1885; edited in the high Victorian fashion. Grosart makes it a point of principle to retain original spelling. Reprint in Cornell University Digital Library collections, 2009.

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  • Drayton, Michael. The Works of Michael Drayton. 5 vols. Edited by J. William Hebel. Oxford: Blackwell for the Shakespeare Head Press, 1961.

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    A complete edition with full commentary and textual collation. Drayton persevered in rewriting and adding to his sonnets, bringing out his last revision in 1619.

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  • Fletcher, Giles, the Elder. The English Works of Giles Fletcher the Elder. Edited by Lloyd E. Berry. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1964.

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    An informative edition that shows how Renaissance Latin poetry played an influential part in the author’s creation. Fletcher, an unadventurous, competent sonneteer, was probably writing to please his patroness, Lady Molineux.

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  • Sidney, Robert. The Poems of Robert Sidney. Edited by P. J. Croft. Oxford: Clarendon, 1984.

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    Philip’s younger brother. The manuscript became known only about in the 1970s. Edited in exemplary fashion. Croft considers textual problems and circumstances of manuscript survival, and he annotates in detail.

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Studies

Inevitably, detailed studies of poets who fall outside the category of the great sonnet writers are hard to find. Any number of critics will interpret “sonnet sequence” as meaning Sidney, Spenser, and Shakespeare, with perhaps Daniel and Drayton faithfully bringing up the rear; far fewer will have time for the likes of Griffin, Fletcher, or Barnes. This is true of Lever 1974, which regards the sonnet as a poor second to the drama of the period. Studies of influence, especially Continental influence, at least give a broad picture. John 1964 is a standard work that helpfully detects changes of interest from Petrarchism to the Ovidian and Anacreontic; Pearson 1966 follows a similar path and adds helpful assessments of the poets collected in Sidney Lee’s anthology (Lee 1904, cited under Collections). Scott 1929 gives a full account of the intervening French influence that began to have a shaping effect on the poetry written from the 1580s onwards. Scott is followed most effectively in this by Prescott 1978. Dubrow 1995, a broad study, includes an excellent chapter on some of the lesser authors. Marotti 1982 offers an alternative to the solitary lyric voice by emphasizing the social significance of sonnet writing; Neely 1978 contrasts Elizabethan sequences with the structures of Dante and Petrarch.

  • Dubrow, Heather. Echoes of Desire: English Petrarchism and Its Counterdiscourses. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995.

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    An overall fine study of the embedding of and resistance to Petrarchism in England. The chapter “Friendly Fire” includes an assessment of some of the poets mentioned in this section.

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  • John, Lisle C. The Elizabethan Sonnet Sequences.New York: Russell & Russell, 1964.

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    An early comprehensive study of conventions, with very helpful placing of kinds of influence, including accounts of French poets such as Philippe Desportes and Maurice Scève. Originally published in 1938 (New York: Columbia University Press).

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  • Lever, J. W. The Elizabethan Love Sonnet. London: Methuen, 1974.

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    Originally published in 1956, this work is somewhat outmoded in overall approach but delivers a lucid and informative summary. Includes an account of the minor sonneteers whose expression he regards as decadent.

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  • Marotti, Arthur, F. “‘Love Is Not Love’: Elizabethan Sonnet Sequences and the Social Order.” English Literary History 49 (1982): 396–428.

    DOI: 10.2307/2872989Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    One of the first essays to insist that attention be placed on the social background and its implications rather than on lyricism as such. Treats the main sonnet writers but with observations on lesser figures.

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  • Neely, Carol Thomas. “The Structure of English Renaissance Sonnet Sequences.” English Literary History 45 (1978): 359–389.

    DOI: 10.2307/2872643Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Distinguishes the Italian sonnet writers (Dante and Petrarch) from their English followers. The Italian tendency is to spiritualize, whereas the English way is to become more secular. Some attention to minor sonneteers.

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  • Pearson, Lu Emily. Elizabethan Love Conventions. London: Allen & Unwin, 1966.

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    A straightforward listing of the characteristics of Petrarchan sonnet convention, with a rare analysis of some lesser figures. Originally published in 1933. Reissued in 2011 (Whitefish, MT: Literary Licensing).

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  • Prescott, Anne Lake. French Poets and the English Renaissance: Studies in Fame and Transformation. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1978.

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    Indispensable for anyone concerned with echoes of Joachim Du Bellay, Clément Marot, Pierre de Ronsard, and Philippe Desportes in the English poets. Interesting final chapter on the different sort of reception Guillaume de Salluste Du Bartas had in England.

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  • Scott, Janet G. Les sonnets Elizabéthains: Les sources et l’apport personnel. Paris: Librairie Ancienne Honoré Champion, 1929.

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    Still a good resource for those interested in the French effect on the Elizabethans. Detailed accounts of the “borrowings” of Thomas Lodge, et al.

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Edmund Spenser

In 1591, the year that witnessed the surreptitious printing of Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella, Spenser published a volume called Complaints, which included some of his earliest sonnets, appearing first in a collection called Theatre for Worldlings (1569). He is of course best known as a sonneteer for Amoretti (1595). Two good recent editions of his shorter poems, Spenser 1989 and Spenser 1999, give full accounts of the circumstances and significance of the various publications. Spenser also demonstrates the influence of French sonnet writing, as two of his early sequences are translations from Joachim Du Bellay and Clément Marot (see Scott 1929, cited under Studies). Hieatt 1983 pursues the Du Bellay connection into unexpected areas. Numerous studies of Amoretti have appeared. Braden 2003 helpfully covers recent scholarship; Warkentin 1990, though slightly earlier, gives a comprehensive survey. Fleming 2001 interestingly relates the sonnet sequence to the political writings on Ireland; Gibbs 1990 and Johnson 1990 both give full-scale analyses. The annual publication Spenser Studies (see Journals) provides many resources.

  • Braden, Gordon. “Humble Pride and the Petrarchan Happy Ending.” Spenser Studies 18 (2003): 123–142.

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    On the Amoretti: How female pride may be reconciled with the lover’s hopes. Helpfully surveys essential recent scholarship.

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  • Fleming, James. “A View from the Bridge: Ireland and Violence in Spenser’s Amoretti.” Spenser Studies 15 (2001): 135–164.

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    Finds uncanny parallels between the language of the sonnets and passages in Spenser’s colonial report, A View of the Present State of Ireland.

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  • Gibbs, Donna. Spenser’s “Amoretti”: A Critical Study. Aldershot, UK: Scolar Press, 1990.

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    Emphasizes in the sequence not the usual idea of the education of a lover but the increasing confidence and intimacy he enjoys in his address to and thoughts about the mistress.

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  • Hieatt, A. Kent. “The Genesis of Shakespeare’s Sonnets: Spenser’s Ruines of Rome: by Bellay.” PMLA 98 (1983): 800–814.

    DOI: 10.2307/462260Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    An unusual and provocative attempt to establish Du Bellay, via Spenser, as the source for the theme of the ruin and renewal of Shakespeare’s Young Man.

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  • Johnson, William C. Spenser’s Amoretti: Analogies of Love. London and Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1990.

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    A thorough, detailed poem-by-poem account of the sequence, which applies medieval analogical method to demonstrate the range and complexity of vision.

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  • Spenser, Edmund. The Yale Edition of the Shorter Poems of Edmund Spenser. Edited by William A. Oram, Einar Bjorvand, Ronald Bond, Thomas H. Cain, Alexander Dunlop, and Richard Schell. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989.

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    Six editors involved. Each gives a brief, useful introduction to the work in question, showing interrelatedness of texts. Includes Amoretti and Visions sonnets. Pertinent, concise commentary at the foot of each page.

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  • Spenser, Edmund. Edmund Spenser: The Shorter Poems. Edited by Richard A. McCabe. London: Penguin Classics, 1999.

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    A thoroughly annotated, helpful edition of all the shorter poems, including the Amoretti and the various sonnet Visions. Informative on historical background and on questions such as Neoplatonism. The introduction tends to see Spenser as more troublesome and disaffected than he probably was.

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  • Warkentin, Germaine. “Amoretti, Epithalamion.” In The Spenser Encyclopaedia. Edited by A. C. Hamilton, 81–100. London: Routledge, 1990.

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    An excellent account of the sonnet sequence and the marriage poem and their relationship to each other. Draws economically on a vast amount of scholarship in the field.

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William Shakespeare

It is a commonplace to say that Shakespeare’s Sonnets (1609) are at once the most original, problematic, and controversial of the entire Elizabethan period. Readers who read no other sonnets nonetheless read these. The volumes of criticism they have inspired is immeasurable, and we can only record a smattering here. The Sonnets raise any number of questions, both of an internal and external nature. Publication history alone presents some of these. They did not appear until 1609, a date well after the vast majority of them were surely written. They do not appear with a fulsome dedication page on the part of the author, as in the case of the two narrative poems published in 1593 and 1594. Unlike “Venus and Adonis” or “The Rape of Lucrece,” they are not well edited. They do not smack very much of Petrarchan influence beyond the obvious fourteen-line form, though they are not as anti-Petrarchan as is sometimes believed on the basis of Sonnet 130. They still concern themselves with questions of an idealized love, though one might ask of what kind. What is particularly curious is their division into two parts, addressing now a young man and then a woman, rather than speaking adoringly to a single mistress. Biography impinges. Are the sonnets addressed to real, historical persons, or are the young man and the “dark lady” (not words that Shakespeare ever uses in the sequence) mere fictions, as in his stage dramas? What modern readers may find most compelling is their realization of love and sexuality: they bring a degree of insight and a depth of experience that no poet then or since has been able to match. As might be expected, Shakespeare’s Sonnets have generated enormous interest among commentators and scholars, and a number of important editions have appeared since World War II. Those recently produced by the larger publishing houses (Arden, Cambridge, Oxford) supersede earlier ones from the same presses. Rollins (Shakespeare 1944) comprehensively surveys scholarship up to that point; Booth (Shakespeare 1977) glosses in a post-Empsonian fashion. Kerrigan (Shakespeare 1986) raises the standard of sharp, judicious commentary; Evans (Shakespeare 1996) gives very reliable glosses with a historically alert collation. Duncan-Jones (Shakespeare 1997b) pursues the question of biographical connectedness, while Vendler (Shakespeare 1997a) gives sensitive, close readings of each sonnet. Orgel (Shakespeare 2001) is another good, close annotator, while Burrow (Shakespeare 2002) affords a judiciously balanced, informed survey. Atkins (Shakespeare 2007) adopts Rollins’s model and includes annotation from editions post-1944.

  • Shakespeare, William. Shakespeare’s Sonnets. A New Variorum Edition. 2 vols. Edited by Hyder E. Rollins. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1944.

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    A magisterial edition that comprehensively surveys the scholarship on the Sonnets since editions began to appear in 18th century. Full and scrupulous attention to textual readings, variants, and editorial choices.

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  • Shakespeare, William. Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Edited by Stephen Booth. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1977.

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    Gives a facsimile of the 1609 edition on page facing modern text. Perhaps overly annotative as a result of being committed to the Empsonian view that plural, virtually unlimited meanings can be held simultaneously. Commentary, at rear of volume, is book-length (400 pages).

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  • Shakespeare, William. The Sonnets and “A Lover’s Complaint.” Edited by John Kerrigan. London: Penguin, 1986.

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    Distinguished partly by insisting on the relationship of the “complaint” poem to the Sonnets rather than seeing them as arbitrarily joined in the same volume. Penetrating, intelligent commentary; very detailed, though not as lengthy as Booth’s edition (see Shakespeare 1977).

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  • Shakespeare, William. The Sonnets. Edited by G. Blakemore Evans. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

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    Comprehensive annotation with a full, historical collation. Especially alert to echoes from other contemporary works, including the Geneva Bible and the classics. Draws discriminatingly on previous editors.

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  • Shakespeare, William. The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Edited by Helen Vendler. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997a.

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    Not an edition in the orthodox sense, as it gives scant attention to scholarship and context. But a detailed and often inspired reading of each individual sonnet, with an analytical approach that effectively demonstrates the subtleties of Shakespeare’s sonnet structure.

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  • Shakespeare, William. Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Edited by Katherine Duncan-Jones. The Arden Shakespeare, Third Series. London: Thomas Nelson, 1997b.

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    Includes “A Lover’s Complaint” in accordance with Arden tradition, but like Kerrigan 1986, believes in the poem’s relationship to the Sonnets. Helpful commentary with a slight numerological bias. In a rare recent instance of pursuing biographical connections, makes a strong bid for William Herbert as the “young man” of the Sonnets.

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  • Shakespeare, William. The Sonnets. Edited by Stephen Orgel, with an introduction by John Hollander. New York: Penguin, 2001.

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    Exemplary editing, with informative commentary. A valuable addition is John Hollander’s introduction, written with a poet’s ear for special peculiarities of sound, rhythm, and diction.

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  • Shakespeare, William. Complete Sonnets and Poems. Edited by Colin Burrow. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

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    Remarkably, includes not only the sonnets but all of Shakespeare’s poetry, including the two great narrative works. Informative and discriminating, with a very helpful introduction.

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  • Shakespeare, William. Shakespeare’s Sonnets: With Three Hundred Years of Commentary. Edited by Carl D. Atkins. Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2007.

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    Interestingly resumes the tradition of Rollins’s Variorum edition and helpfully gives a digest (with assessment) of some of the annotation from the seventeen editions of the Sonnets since Shakespeare 1944.

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Monographs and Anthologies

Because there are so many important, interesting studies of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, they are being grouped in two categories, books and essays. Each of the two following sections, then, reflects similar concerns pursued at greater or lesser length. Full-length studies aim at an overall picture, with particular emphases, as in Leishman 1961, which measures the Sonnets against classical and Continental example. Dubrow 1987 shows how the terms of rhetoric apply to individual psychology, whereas Fineman 1986 goes further in psychoanalytic investigation to chart the dawning of subjectivity in the poems. Schalkwyk 2002, writing somewhat against Fineman 1986, emphasizes the performative nature of the sonnets. Questions of gender are raised markedly by various studies or collections. Pequigney 1985 asserts the homosexuality of Shakespeare in the Sonnets, while Martin 2010 is interesting on the ethics of love in the Sonnets. Two valuable collections are Schiffer 1999 and Schoenfeldt 2007, which contain a cross-section of recent critical perspectives.

Individual Essays

The multiple interests generated by the Sonnets include the following: authorization of publication, the order of composition, the arrangement of the sequence, and themes and preoccupations. It has usually been assumed that the text was surreptitiously obtained by the printer Thomas Thorpe and printed without Shakespeare’s consent; Duncan-Jones 1983 argues the contrary. Jackson 2001 strengthens the argument for dating composition of various sonnets over an increasingly wide span of time. Dubrow 1996 questions whether sonnets ascribed to the Young Man or Dark Lady need be in their proper place. De Grazia 1994 challenges modern assumptions about what contemporaries may have thought about gendering and sexuality. Cheney 2001 seeks to bring the poetry of Shakespeare as a whole into a more prominent place in the canon. Roe 2002 traces connections between the Sonnets and the Psalms, while Roberts 2003 looks at early modern examples of actual recorded readings of the Sonnets. Wright 1999 takes an unusual but instructive view of the relationship of speech and silence in the poetry.

  • Cheney, Patrick. “‘O Let My Books Be . . . Dumb Presages’: Poetry and Theatre in Shakespeare’s Sonnets.” Shakespeare Quarterly 52 (2001): 222–254.

    DOI: 10.1353/shq.2001.0022Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Argues persuasively for a closer interconnection of stage and poetry in Shakespeare; sees Shakespeare as emulating an ancient Ovidian tradition of twin authorship, though Ovid was author of only a single lost play.

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  • De Grazia, Margreta. “The Scandal of Shakespeare’s Sonnets.” Shakespeare Survey 46 (1994): 35–49.

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    Boldly challenges the notion that the 17th century worried about gender and sexuality, basing her argument on John Benson’s Poems: Written by Wil Shakespeare (1640), whose three pronoun changes do not constitute a serious attempt at changing the Young Man’s sex. The argument remains controversial.

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  • Dubrow, Heather. “‘Incertainties Now Crown Themselves Assured”: The Politics of Plotting Shakespeare’s Sonnets.” Shakespeare Quarterly 47 (1996): 291–305.

    DOI: 10.2307/2871379Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Interestingly and plausibly argues that sonnets may have slipped out of the supposed order, some Dark Lady sonnets really belonging to the Young Man group. The effect is to challenge our normal notions of narrative sequence.

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  • Duncan-Jones, Katherine. “Was the 1609 Shakespeare’s Sonnets Really Unauthorized?” Review of English Studies 34 (1983): 157–171.

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    Attempts significantly to overturn popular theories of piracy in arguing for Shakespeare’s probable consent to publication. Connects A Lover’s Complaint, published in the 1609 Quarto, organically to the Sonnets.

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  • Jackson, MacDonald P. “Vocabulary and Chronology: The Case of Shakespeare’s Sonnets.” Review of English Studies 52 (2001): 59–75.

    DOI: 10.1093/res/52.205.59Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A careful dating of the Sonnets by the most reliable researcher in the field, using rare-word vocabulary and making connections with the plays. Interestingly, confirms that the Dark Lady sequence was written at an earlier stage than its place in the order indicates.

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  • Roberts, Sasha. “Textual Transmission and the Transformation of Desire: The Sonnets, A Lover’s Complaint, and The Passionate Pilgrim.” In Reading Shakespeare’s Poems in Early Modern England. By Sasha Roberts, 143–190. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

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    A stimulating argument on the afterlife of the Sonnets; evidence derived from numerous manuscripts shows how readers freely reimagine and redefine feelings and relationships in the poetry.

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  • Roe, John. “Shakespeare, Sonnets, and the 51st Psalm.” In Studies in Literature and Culture in Honour of Professor Irena Janicka-Świderska. Edited by Maria Edelson, 197–206. Lodz, Poland: University of Lodz Press, 2002.

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    Examines references to the Penitential Psalms in Hamlet, Macbeth, and the Sonnets, and sees Sonnet 129 as Shakespeare’s version of Psalm 51.

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  • Wright, George T. “The Silent Speech of Shakespeare’s Sonnets.” In Shakespeare’s Sonnets: Critical Essays. Edited by James Schiffer, 135–158. New York: Garland, 1999.

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    An absorbing quasi-meditation on the relationship of speech and silence in lyric poetry, with the Sonnets as a particular, fascinating example. Runs counter to reading the sonnet as a piece of declamation, while at the same time refusing to subscribe to theories of subjectivity.

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Religious Sonnets

Despite the fact that the first Elizabethan sonnet sequence, that of Anne Lok (see Richard Tottel and the Mid-Century), was religious in character, the great majority of sonnets were more secular than holy, the erotic nature of love lyrics taking precedence over the spiritual. There were notable exceptions, Anne’s son Henry Lok being one (Lok 1593). Spenser’s Amoretti (see Edmund Spenser) is another. To these may be added William Alabaster and Barnabe Barnes (Barnes 1595), the latter of whom did something of a religious volte-face after his first highly sensual sequence (for this and for Alabaster, see the Golden Age after Sidney). Like Anne Lok, Nicholas Breton produced a small number of sonnets in the form of a spiritual exercise (Breton 1602). It is sometimes argued that James I’s reign, with its more austere moral climate, brought an end to Petrarchan frivolity, though this is perhaps too simplistic an account of the change. What we find is that, after the great decade of the 1590s, sonnet writing tapers off rapidly. Doubtless the presence of a female monarch, along with prominent female patrons such as the Countess of Pembroke, made for an easier identification between the sonnet mistress and a powerful worldly woman. Yet as we see from these few examples, a more spiritual kind of poetry was being written, if not ostentatiously so, under Elizabeth; and the countess, who completed her brother Philip Sidney’s translation of the Psalms, was religiously inclined. Sir Walter Ralegh, not a notable sonneteer, kept a spiritual perspective in view in those poems that can be safely attributed to him. The picture is not easy to judge with any great clarity. John Donne (Donne 2005) wrote his Holy Sonnets and La Corona at some point after most, but perhaps not all, his Songs and Sonets (a collection remarkable for containing no sonnets). George Herbert (Herbert 2007) threaded his magnificent seventeen sonnets throughout The Temple. Fulke Greville’s claim to be a religious poet gathers some force at the conclusion of his sequence Caelica (Greville 1939), while Henry Constable’s Catholic faith is recorded in his religious sequence (Constable 1960). Much valuable commentary is contained in the editions of the poets.

  • Barnes, Barnabe. A Divine Centurie of Spirituall Sonnets. London: John Windet, 1595.

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    Barnes recanted following his extravagant love sequence Parthenophil and Parthenophe and produced this somber meditation. No modern edition.

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  • Breton, Nicholas. The Soules Harmony. London: Randoll Bearkes, 1602.

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    A set of spiritual exercises in thirteen sonnets and a poem of four six-line stanzas. No modern edition.

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  • Constable, Henry. The Poems of Henry Constable. Edited by Joan Grundy. Liverpool, UK: Liverpool University Press, 1960.

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    With Diana (see the Golden Age after Sidney), includes the Spirituall Sonnettes To the honour of God and hys Sayntes, a clearly Catholic title. The editor argues for the superiority of these sonnets over the secular love poems. A good edition with helpful commentary.

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  • Donne, John. The Holy Sonnets. Vol. 7, Part 1 of The Variorum Edition of the Poetry of John Donne. Edited by Gary A. Stringer. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005.

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    By far the fullest available commentary on all aspects of The Holy Sonnets. Includes helpful references to other Renaissance religious sonnet writers. Covers all published criticism, with useful summaries.

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  • Drummond, William, of Hawthornden. Poems and Prose. Edited by Robert H. MacDonald. Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1976.

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    A good edition that sets out the background to Drummond’s various collections. His first, which traces a familiar Petrarchan love pattern, is followed by the religious sequence, Flowres of Sion, in which sonnets are interspersed with madrigals; the editor judges it superior to the love sequence

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  • Greville, Fulke. Poems and Dramas of Fulke Greville, 1st Lord Brooke. 2 vols. Edited by Geoffrey Bullough. Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1939.

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    A full edition of all Greville’s poetry, including Caelica, which contains 41 sonnets out of 109 poems devoted to various forms. Greville’s credentials as a sincerely religious poet have been questioned, but the final section of the sequence is resonantly Christian in character.

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  • Herbert, George. The English Poems of George Herbert. Edited by Helen Wilcox. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

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    Herbert, an experimenter with lyric forms, is not regarded particularly as a sonneteer, but the seventeen sonnets in The Temple are too important to exclude. Wilcox is unsurpassed for her fullness of commentary. Includes a helpful index of Biblical references.

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  • Lok, Henry. Sundry Christian Passions Contained in Two Hundred Sonnets. London: Richard Field, 1593.

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    This publication appeared in the same year as Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis and from the same printer, an indication of how the secular and the spiritual lay quite easily together. No modern edition.

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Studies

While there are boundless studies of strong poets such as Donne and Herbert, the critical material on religious sonnets outside the editions of them is quite restricted. Martz 1962 is a useful starting point, suggesting the effect of Catholic meditative exercises, as conducted by Loyola and St François de Sales, on Donne and Herbert. Levy 1972 cautions against taking the religious faith of a poet such as Greville too seriously. Lewalski 1979 both complements and counters Martz by emphasizing Protestant practice, a concern that Klein 1998 further develops. Roche 1989 has a suggestive chapter on religious sonnet sequences. Wilcox 2011 gives an extremely helpful, comprehensive analysis of major and minor sonnet writers.

  • Klein, Lisa M. The Exemplary Sidney and the Elizabethan Sonneteer. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1998.

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    Considers Elizabethan poetry from the viewpoint of Protestant expression, with Sidney leading the way; includes a chapter on Greville. See also Sir Philip Sidney and Thomas Watson: Studies.

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  • Levy, F. J. “Fulke Greville: The Courtier as Philosophic Poet.” Modern Language Quarterly 33 (1972): 433–448.

    DOI: 10.1215/00267929-33-4-433Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A review article that shows skepticism of the religious concerns of Greville, regarding him more as a man committed to lifelong secular interests.

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  • Lewalski, Barbara Kiefer. Protestant Poetics and the Seventeenth-Century Religious Lyric. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1979.

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    A variation on, if not in direct opposition to, Martz 1962. Instead of Loyola and Sales, St. Paul, Luther, and Calvin are the principal models of meditation; Emblem books are cited as a characteristic English devotional mode. Very little on sonnets overall and shows more concern with the later 17th century, but analyzes some of Donne’s Holy Sonnets.

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  • Martz, Louis Lohr. The Poetry of Meditation: A Study in English Religious Literature of the Seventeenth Century. Rev. ed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1962.

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    A seminal study of religious expression in late Renaissance poetry, with important chapters on Donne and Herbert. Not specifically concerned with sonnet writing.

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  • Roche, Thomas P., Jr. Petrarch and the English Sonnet Sequences. New York: AMS, 1989.

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    A study that, perhaps more than any other, pursues the English progress of Petrarch in spiritual terms. Charity and cupidity are seen not in opposition but as counterparts of each other. Too wedded to numerology but contains a helpful chapter on the religious sonnet sequence, with assessments of Anne and Henry Lok, Barnes, Breton, and Constable.

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  • Wilcox, Helen. “Sacred Desire, Forms of Belief: The Religious Sonnet in Early Modern Britain.” In The Cambridge Companion to the Sonnet. Edited by A. D. Cousins and Peter Howarth, 145–165. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1017/CCOL9780521514675Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The perfect essay for this section. Discusses all the religious poets covered in the list of editions, with informed comments on each of them. Offers interesting general observation that religious sonnet writers tend to move from not addressing God initially to making a direct plea to Him at last.

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John Milton and Lady Mary Wroth

Two quite different literary figures bring the Renaissance sonnet more or less to a close. Lady Mary Wroth’s Pamphilia to Amphilanthus (1621) is a late sonnet sequence and, after Anne Lok, only the second one by a Renaissance Englishwoman to have achieved print. Wroth 1983 and Wroth 1996 are two editions that give details of background and influence. Debate as to how good a poet Wroth was has given way more recently to discussions of what complexity of mind or cultural imperative her poetry reveals. For example, Jones 1990 covers a wide sweep of European female poets and tests their ideological situation, while Distiller 2008 investigates gender questions in a characteristically psychoanalytical, Lacanian study. John Milton did not write a sequence but, like George Herbert, is the author of a number of celebrated sonnets that divide along religious and republican lines. Milton 1966 is a comprehensive edition, while Milton 1955 gives an accurate textual commentary. Milton 1971 prints the sonnets with his other shorter poems and gives very detailed annotation. Milton is significant in various ways, being the only English Renaissance poet to have composed and printed sonnets in Italian. He is also an important stylistic innovator, varying the Petrarchan form (which rhyme scheme he prefers to the Shakespearean one) by sometimes running the octave on into the sestet without a clear break. When the volta occurs, it does so often following a caesura in a line other than the ninth. The effect is to give the sonnet an unexpected surge or momentum and shows willingness to experiment with syntactic structure that looks forward to his epic poetry. For the Italian influence on his English sonnet form, see Prince 1954. Milton Studies and Milton Quarterly (both cited under Journals) frequently carry essays on the sonnets of Milton.

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