In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Sonnet

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • George Meredith
  • Augusta Webster
  • Gerard Manley Hopkins
  • Gender
  • Sexuality
  • Politics and Class
  • Religion
  • Culture
  • Form
  • Forelives and Afterlives

Victorian Literature Sonnet
Josie Billington
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 August 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 August 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0118


The sonnet was one of the most popular and significant poetic forms of the Victorian period. Most closely associated with the literary cultures of medieval Italy (Petrarch in particular) and the English Renaissance (Philip Sidney and William Shakespeare especially), the form enjoyed a rebirth in the late Romantic period, after two centuries of disuse, when it was championed and rejuvenated by William Wordsworth and Charlotte Smith. With the landmark publication of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese in 1850, the sonnet vogue was given new impetus in the Victorian period and became the site of some of the period’s most important poetic innovations. Chief among these was the revitalization of the Renaissance sonnet sequence, experimental examples of which abounded in the latter half of the 19th century. The enthusiasm for sonnet writing on a huge variety of human and cultural experience found its counterpart in an expanding critical literature on the form. The availability of the form to amateur and professional writers alike, and its susceptibility to the expression and treatment of miscellaneous subjects, led to concerted efforts to codify the sonnet. These favored the purity and correctness of the Petrarchan sonnet form and rhyme scheme (octave plus sestet) over the Shakespearean one (three quatrains plus a couplet). By the end of the century, sonnet fatigue had begun to set in, however, and the form fell into artistic and critical disfavor. For much of the 20th century, critical attention to the Victorian sonnet per se was largely subordinated to interest in the general poetic output of individual writers of the period. The sonnet experiments of particular practitioners began to come into critical focus in the final quarter of the last century, however, and, since the 1990s critics and scholars have been documenting the revival and modification of the sonnet genre in the Victorian era. This development was stimulated by the burgeoning attention given by feminist critics from the 1970s to the groundbreaking adaptation of the Renaissance love sonnet sequence by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. More recently, interest has spread to the sonnets of working-class and noncanonical writers, and to concern with the sonnet’s power not only to challenge literary and cultural gender stereotypes, but also to address Victorian sexual mores and double standards, as well as class issues.

General Overviews

The overviews cited in this section reflect both the growth and the direction of interest in the sonnet form, from the last quarter of the 20th century to the present. While Going 1976 broke new ground in seeking to give the first critical history of the sonnet, it is largely a history of the achievement of male poets in the form. This bias (though notably present again in Wagner 1996) has been redressed in recent years by works that concentrate on the sonnet writing of women poets exclusively (Billone 2007), and by works that consider the powerful appeal of the sonnet to male and female poets equally (Holmes 2005, Phelan 2005, van Remoortel 2011). Chapman 2002 and Campbell 2011 offer chapter-length overviews. Hughes 2010 and Cronin 2012 devote generous chapter subsections to the sonnet sequence.

  • Billone, Amy Christine. Little Songs: Women, Silence and the Nineteenth-Century Sonnet. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2007.

    Significant contribution to gendered readings of the genre, an important complement to the Wagner 1996 survey of exclusively male sonneteers in the period. In addition to chapters on Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Christina Rossetti, studies the work of less critically noticed female sonneteers—Maria Norris, Dora Greenwell, Michael Field, and Isabella J. Southern.

  • Campbell, Matthew. “The Victorian Sonnet.” In The Cambridge Companion to the Sonnet. Edited by A. D. Cousins and Peter Howarth, 204–224. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1017/CCOL9780521514675

    Argues that while the dramatic monologue was the great poetic innovation of the period, the exhuming of Renaissance models made the sonnet more narrative and dramatic. Covers the tangential contribution of Tennyson and Browning to the genre, alongside that of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Christina Rossetti, and George Meredith. Useful reference to recent criticism.

  • Chapman, Alison. “Sonnet and Sonnet Sequence.” In A Companion to Victorian Poetry. Edited by Richard Cronin, Alison Chapman, and Antony H. Harrison, 99–114. Oxford: Blackwell, 2002.

    DOI: 10.1111/b.9780631222071.2002.00009.x

    Outlines Wordsworth’s influence on the Victorian sonnet revival and the period’s emphasis on the purity and correctness of the Petrarchan form. Surveys major sequences of the period—Barrett Browning, C. Rossetti, D. G. Rossetti, and Meredith—and includes attention to the more overlooked work of Augusta Webster and Anglo-Indian poet Toru Dutt.

  • Cronin, Richard. Reading Victorian Poetry. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781444354997

    Devotes a significant section to the sonnet in Chapter 4, “Short Poems, Long Poems and the Victorian Sonnet Sequence” (pp. 98–113), looking especially at the work of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, George Meredith and the Rossettis. Argues that the sonnet sequence was unusually accommodating to Victorian self-consciousness and “double identity,” cultivating a private lyric voice within individual poems and entering a more public poetic tradition as a collection.

  • Going, William. Scanty Plot of Ground: Studies in the Victorian Sonnet. The Hague: Mouton, 1976.

    First critical work to attempt a history of the sonnet and sonnet sequence in the 19th century. Largely attends to male writers. Individual chapters on George Meredith, John Addington Symonds, and Matthew Arnold. Entire chapter devoted to “paucity” of sonnets in Robert Browning’s oeuvre, while Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s achievement in the genre, though acknowledged, has an introductory mention only. Notes that more than 250 sequences were written between 1800 and 1900, and provides a useful chronology of them.

  • Holmes, John. Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Late Victorian Sonnet Sequence: Sexuality, Belief and the Self. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2005.

    Exclusively concerned with the sonnet sequence, as the dominant form for complex self-exploration in the late Victorian period. Refers to more than fifty sonnet sequences, including the work of Theo Marzials, George Barlow, Wilfred Scawen Blunt, Augusta Gregory, Augusta Webster, Rosa Newmarch, John Addington Symonds, and Rupert Brooke.

  • Hughes, Linda K. The Cambridge Introduction to Victorian Poetry. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511780585

    In Part 1, “The Forms of Victorian Poetry,” a chapter on “Victorian Dialogues with Poetic Tradition” devotes a section to the sonnet (pp. 74–84), which surveys the main sonnet sequences by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, George Meredith, Christina Rossetti, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti both in relation to one another and in terms of their individual negotiations with the conventional gender roles and amatory and meditative traditions of the sonnet form.

  • Phelan, Joseph. The Nineteenth-Century Sonnet. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780230512627

    Comprehensive examination of the form in its various manifestations and development. Covers autobiographical, political, and devotional sonnets, and the amatory sonnet sequence. Concludes with a survey of fin-de-siècle sonnet writers, including Swinburne and less well-known poets—Theodore Watts-Dunton, Augusta Webster, and A. Mary F. Robinson.

  • van Remoortel, Marianne. Lives of the Sonnet, 1787–1895: Genre, Gender and Criticism. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2011.

    Important complement to Billone 2007, Wagner 1996, and Holmes 2005, in terms of range, gender balance, and historical coverage. Introductory chapters trace the rebirth and development of the sonnet form from the late 18th century, and the book includes chapters on the sonnet sequences of Barrett Browning, George Meredith, D. G. Rossetti, and Augusta Webster.

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

    First full modern survey of the significance of the genre to the period. Charts the “second life” of the sonnet as a post-Romantic (and specifically Wordsworthian) phenomenon. Separate chapters devoted to Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Hopkins. Rather controversially excludes female practitioners in the form.

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