Thomas Wyatt and the sonnet

wyattholbein[1]The sonnet, that originated in Europe, mainly Italy, has found amongst its doting practitioners the likes of Milton, Gray, Wordsworth, Elizabeth Browning, George Meredith and many others. The earl of surrey and other English experimenters in the sixteenth century developed the English sonnet that was different from the Petrarchan form in the aspect that while the former fell into three quatrains and a concluding couplet (a-b-a-b c-d-c-d e-f-e-f g-g), whereas the latter consisted of an octave and a sestet rhyming (a-b-b-a a-b-b-a c-d-e c-d-e) with slight variations in the concluding lines.

But who, at the very onset, introduced the beauty of the Italian sonnet to the English? It was Sir Thomas Wyatt the elder (1503-1542) who tried to imitate and translate the Petrarchan example and brought it to the notice of his contemporaries and their followers. He himself was one of the founders of the vogue in love poetry of the mistress being cold hearted and cruel. (How much of that was influenced by the flamboyant lifestyle of Henry VIII, the reigning monarch, is a part of a larger context. It is said that at one point of his life, Wyatt had been in love with Anne Boleyn, whom Henry VIII later married. This and the subsequent execution of Anne along with five men on accusation of adultery might have brought forth much of the helplessness and despair that is evident in those works that belong to the later part of his life.)

If we look at the period in literature that preceded the sixteenth century, it was hugely dominated by Chaucer. But apart from Chaucer’s immense influence, the period was barren of any considerable development of verse as a popular literary genre. In fact, none of Wyatt’s works were published during his lifetime. The first book to contain his poems was printed fifteen years after his death in Totten’s Miscellany Songs and Sonnets (1557). 97 among 271 poems in the book have been attributed to him though controversy still exists about the ownership of a few of them.

One main mark of individuality that Wyatt evolved to distinguish his sonneteer capabilities from Petrarch was the novelty of using a rhyming couplet in the end. He was also a master of the iambic pentameter. His sonnets are serious and reflective in tone and display rigidness in construction due to the very adherence to the classical format. Through the expression of his feelings on a range of matters that concerned his life, he added a personal note into the English poetry. Even though he did follow the classical method closely, he talked about his own experience which was new in the sixteenth century.


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