During the Elizabethan era, a special type of lyric which enjoyed great vogue was the sonnet which on its introduction from Italy by Wyatt and Surrey at once established itself among the recognized form of English poetry.

Thomas Wyatt, a young courtier of the court of Henry VIII, visited Italy in 1527 and deeply influenced by Petrarch, for the vogue of Petrarch was as its height at the time. His amazing mastery over verse technique, his humanism, and his expression of courtly love in his sonnets, fired the imagination of Wyatt and made him a great and memorable pioneer.

It was Wyatt, who divided the sonnet into two parts, the octave of eight lines, and the sestet of six lines, with a pause or ensure after the eighth line. It is the Petrarchan form of the sonnet that Wyatt follows. His use of this measure is often rigid and awkward, and he entirely fails to capture the warm, sensuous color and delicate music of the Italian poet. Wyatt’s true ability and skill is revealed not by the sonnet but by a number of exquisite songs and lyrics that he has left behind.

Surrey was the younger contemporary and disciple of Wyatt. He never seems to have visited Italy himself: it was through his friend that the Italian influence reached him and fired his imagination. Surrey was a far greater artist than Wyatt and a more remarkable poet. Surrey also wrote sonnets in which he expressed his entirely imaginative love for Geraldine or Lady Elizabeth Fitzgerald.

The elegiac note is natural to him, but his lover’s plaints and sighs mingle with exquisite nature-passages. His sonnets have great artistic merits. Though he follows the Petrarchan convention of courtly love, he does not follow the Petrarchan model of the sonnet. He divides his sonnets into three quatrains, with a couplet at the end, and thus he is the first to use that form of the sonnet which came to be called Shakespearean from the great dramatist’s use of it.

Wyatt imported the sonnet from Italy and Surrey invented the English form of the sonnet. Their songs and sonnets were published together in Tottel’s Miscellany in 1556. However, the technical peculiarity of the sonnet was not realized in the earlier years of Elizabeth’s reign. The word “sonnet” was used indifferently for any short lyric. The sonnet properly remained forgotten and neglected until the publication in 1594 of Sidney’s sonnet sequence, called Astrophel and Stella.

They express Sidney’s passion for Penelope, who was by that time the wife of Lord Rich. Their outstanding quality is their sincerity. “They are the first direct expression,” says Mairs, ‘fin English literature of an intimate and personal experience, struck off in the white of heat passion.” The one sure proof of their sincerity is that they were never intended for publication.

The publication of Astrophel and Stella at once caught the imagination of the people and gave rise to the vogue of the sonnet. Everybody tried his hand at it, mostly to express his love for some imagined mistress.

This accounts for the artificiality of most of the Elizabethan sonnets. Sonnets were written merely because it was the fashion to write sonnets, and because the poets had some really felt passion to express. They merely echo the sighs and love-pangs of Petrarch and the Petrarchans.

However, sincerity is also the keynote of Spenser’s Amoretti (an Italian name) a collection of about 88 sonnets. They express Spenser’s love and courtship of Elizabeth Boyle, the lady who became his wife shortly afterward. It is in these sonnets alone that Spenser expresses his genuine feeling without recourse to allegory.

While the sonnets of Sidney and Spenser form the very core of their poetic work, Shakespeare’s sonnet was written in movements snatched from work for the theatre. His 154 sonnets were first published in 1609, and as Wordsworth has put it, it was with this key that the poet unlocked his heart. It is in the sonnets alone that the poet directly expresses his feelings.

Besides their sincerity of tone, they have literary qualities of the highest order. They touch perfection in their phraseology, in their perfect blending of sense and sound, in their versification, Shakespeare’s sonnet-sequence is, “the casket which encloses the most precious pearls of Elizabethan lyricism, some of them unsurpassed by any lyricist.” Shakespeare divides his sonnets into three Quatrians or stanzas of four lines each and a concluding, couplet.

A study of the Elizabethan sonnet reveals the following common features :

  1. They appear in sequences and not singly.
  2. They are generally written merely because it is the fashion to write sonnets. Most of them are artificial.
  3. The Petrarchan convention is generally followed, and often the conventional phraseology of Petrarch is used. The lady is always shown as cold and cruel, and the lover frequently on the point of death.
  4. There is imitation, often even translation, of foreign models, more especially French and Italian.
  5. There is often a mingling of the conventional and the independent, the original and the imitated.
  6. The English form of the sonnet is generally used after Sidney.
  7. Their theme is always love, generally for a married lady. This lady in most cases is merely the creation of the poet’s imagination.
  8. They are characterized by an excess of imagination. The poet is of imagination all compact, flies high on the wings of imagination, and sees, “Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt.”
  9. The best Elizabethan Sonnet is extremely musical. It is characterized by the perfection of form. But the rank and file of the sonneteers are crude, clumsy, artificial and unnatural, and excite laughter rather than admiration.