Does anyone have any idea how many sonnets were written in Europe between the period of 1530-1650?

How many people wrote sonnets?

Of course, all we have is the textual record, but from that, the great French bibliographer Hughes Vaganay estimates that “some 3000 writers produced about 200000 sonnets” (Spiller 83).  We don’t read those most of those sonnets, because, of them, only about 4000 are in English, and of those, the preponderance of them do not fit what we today think of as a sonnet.  Our definition of sonnets is influenced by the Romantics, (Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley), who saw sonnets as romantic anecdotes – snapshots, if you will.  The majority of sonnets in this period, though, were written for distinctly un-literary purposes – dedicatory poems at the beginnings of legal or theological texts, eulogies, and other occasional poems.  Indeed, at the beginning of the First Folio we have an example of one of these “un-literary” sonnets, by Hugh Holland.

Those hands, which you so clapped, go now, and wring
You Britain’s brave; for done are Shakespeare’s days.
His days are done, that made the dainty plays,
Which made the Globe of heav’n and earth to ring.
Dried is that vein, dried is the Thespian Spring,
Turned all to tears, and Phoebus clouds his rays.
That corpse, that coffin, now bestick[1] those bays,
Which crowned him poet first, then poets’ king.
If tragedies might any prologue have,
All those he made, would scarce make a one to this;
Where fame, now that he gone is to the grave
(Deaths public tiring-house),[2] the nuncius[3] is.
For though his line of life went soon about,
The life yet of his lines shall never out.


As you probably realized while reading it – it is a pretty poor poem.  The sentiment at the end of line 2 is repeated in line 3, almost word for word; the rhetoric is reliant on adage and classical sententiae (the grave, for example, being death’s public tiring house); even the volta between lines 8-9 is humble and forced.  The poem though is indicative of the majority of sonnets written in the period.  We study Shakespeare, Sidney and Donne, and by studying them, we ignore the fact that their poetry is in fact anomalous to the rest of the work being produced in the period, just as “Oryx and Crake” is anomalous given the nature of most SF being produced today.

That said, one could easily argue that Shakespeare’s sonnets, because they are not dedicatory or occasional poems, represent the inner life of an artist.  This would be a mistake though, again based on Romantic preconceptions of the sonnet form.  The sonnet is basically just a formal convention of rhyme scheme and line length, but these conventions are by no means fixed.  Surrey wrote in a Petrarchan Rhyme Scheme: ABBAABBA followed by either CDECDE or CDEDCE or CDECED or CDCDCD.  The French changed that scheme to be ABBAABBACCDEDE, placing the final quatrain after the couplet of the volta, which influenced Spencer, who created the ABABBCBCCDDCEE form.  Shakespeare worked with this to create the ABABCDCDEFEFGG scheme that we all know today, but he was not afraid to use Spencerian schemes, and to put those rhyme schemes in places where they are not expected.

Sonnet form.jpg

In Romeo and Juliet, 1.5, Shakespeare imbeds a sonnet in the dialogue – an easy to miss poem within a play that has so many internal rhymes.


 If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle fine is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.


Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.


Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?


Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.


O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do;
They pray, grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.


Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake.


Then move not, while my prayer’s effect I take.
Thus from my lips, by yours, my sin is purged.


Then have my lips the sin that they have took.


Sin from thy lips? O trespass sweetly urged!
Give me my sin again.


                                           You kiss by the book.

This is a sonnet of 18 lines, which breaks convention, but a convention that we recognize only retroactively, as during the period ‘sonnet’ had not been strictly defined, either by rhyme scheme or by length.  Further, up until this time, no sonnet had been written in English as a dialogue.  Surrey, Wyatt, Lock, Sidney, etc., all wrote from the point of view of a single desiring ego that looks beyond itself for its desired object.  Even the dedicatory and occasional sonnets of the period tended towards this point of view, deifying the author of the text in some way, such as Hugh Holland’s “King of Poets” line.  Here, Shakespeare introduces a second desiring ego into the sonnet – one whose very desire marks her as a failed neo-Platonic, Petrarchan model for the ‘proper’ beloved.


In this sonnet, Shakespeare seems to be rehearsing the format that many of his other sonnets will follow: the thesis/antithesis in the opening octave, the volta as the argument is complicated, here by Romeo pushing for the kiss, and then the couplet as R & J actually kiss.  The final quatrain in this sonnet is a continuation of the couplet, both thematically and dramaturgically, as the lovers continue to kiss, and is marked by the shared line “Give me my sin again/ You kiss by the book.”  With the exception of the final quatrain, the development of the argument of the sonnet is remarkably like Sonnet 144, “Two loves I have of comfort and despair.”  The opening quatrain sets up the situation, with the significant players in the drama: better angel, devil and poet.  The second quatrain continues the narrative, and sets up the epistemic question that the volta hinges upon: the poet can never know if his good angel is still good.


The importance of the R & J selection is that Shakespeare was producing a sonnet that was not an autobiographical, emotional anecdote.  Unless we believe that the historical Shakespeare was in love with both a young boy and a young girl, as well as being the same young boy and young girl in a form of schizophrenic narcissism, we cannot read this sonnet autobiographically.  Thus, given that sonnets were formal conventions that were in flux, and that they, more often than not, were used for purposes of memorialization of occasions, not of emotions, and that Shakespeare himself is willing to use them in a non autobiographical format (i.e. Romeo and Juliet), why therefore are we willing to accept that a sonnet such as 144 is representative of some pseudo-recoverable biography?  The history of the sonnet, and the history of Shakespeare shows otherwise.  So what sense are we to make of such homoerotic sequences as the Young Man sonnets that open the Thorpe-arranged Quarto sequence?  Alas for the poor Biographers, Shakespeare’s use of rhetorical forms (adage, sententiae, apothegme) is quite conventional, even in his extolling the virtues of a man in homoerotic terms.


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