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The English sonnet was derived from the continental European sonnet...more exactly, from Italian Francesco Petrarch (1304-74), who was the creator of this form of verse. The sonnet soon spread to France, Spain and other European countries, and it was Sir Thomas Wyatt who translated some of those continental poets sonnets and introduced them to England.
In the article, The Elizabethan Sonnet (1908), by Prosser Hall Frye, it is stated that during the sixteenth century, there were more than 300,000 sonnets published in Western Europe. Frye adds that few of these were of any aesthetic value, and he used the epithet poetasters to refer to those lesser quality poets of the time (Ben Jonson had previously used the term in one of his stage plays).
It was not until the end of sixteenth century that improvements by Shakespeare started to adapt the Petrarchian sonnet form to fit within the limitations of the English language. He gave the sonnet a structure of 3 quatrains followed by a couplet, containing a total of 14 pentameter lines, in an iambic beat. The quatrains rhyme scheme is: a b a b; c d c d; e f e f; and the final couplets is g g.


Francesco Petrarch was an Italian humanist and poet who traveled throughout Italy, France and Germany. He lived for a time in Avignon, France, where he met Laura, the woman who was to inspire him to write some of his best romantic poems. It is said that Petrarch in reality never was in a physical love relationship with her and that they enjoyed no more than a Platonic love.
Petrarch´s sonnet is composed of fourteen iambic pentameter lines, divided into two quatrains and two final tercets. This poem has a rather fixed rhyme: a b b a; a b b a; c d e; and c d e, though there can be some variations, as we find in all kinds of art.


By Francesco Petrarch

Those eyes, 'neath which my passionate rapture rose,
The arms, hands, feet, the beauty that erewhile
Could my own soul from its own self beguile,
And in a separate world of dreams enclose,

The hair's bright tresses, full of golden glows,
And the soft lightning of the angelic smile
That changed this earth to some celestial isle,
Are now but dust, poor dust, that nothing knows.

And yet I live! Myself I grieve and scorn,
Left dark without the light I loved in vain,
Adrift in tempest on a bark forlorn;

Dead is the source of all my amorous strain,
Dry is the channel of my thoughts outworn,
And my sad harp can sound but notes of pain.

Translated by Thomas Wentworth Higginson

There was in France, at that time, a group of brilliant poets known as La Pléiade. The members of this group were inspired by classical culture. One of its stellar members was Pierre de Ronsard (1524-85). Ronsard wrote much of his romantic sonnets inspired by Helene, as did his predecessor, Petrarch, with his idealized Laura.
Below is an insert about the French group The Pleiade, very important to help us understand this movement.

[4. French Pléiade, La, French post-Renaissance literary movement. Under this title, which refers to the constellation of the Pleiades, seven poets from the Alexandrian period (the reign of Ptolemy II) are gathered together. The title had been used before, by two successive groups of poets from Toulouse at the beginning of the 14th century, but it is usually applied to the seven writers assembled in 1553 by Pierre de Ronsard, who coined the term in 1556: besides himself, they were Joachim du Bellay, Pontus de Tynard, Jean-Antoine de Baïf, Guillaume Desautels, Etienne Jodelle, and Jean de La Péruse. Their common aim was to promote the use of classical traditions by means of translations and the common use of the French language as an alternative to the archaic Latin tradition. This aim was expressed in 1549 by Du Bellay's Defence et Illustration de la Langue Françoise (The Defence and Illustration of the French Language, 1939). The group were apt to imitate Greek, Latin, and Italian poets, and favoured both the sonnet form and the alexandrine. The latter was to become the main metric form in 17th-century poetry and theatre. Whilst the members of the movement were not primarily innovators, they nevertheless articulated existing but confused attempts towards a new literature, thus providing the foundations of French Classicism.]
This text was taken from the web site:

Read below one of Ronsard's sonnet:

The night that Eros in the Ballet Room

by Pierre de Ronsard

The night that Eros in the Ballet Room
had you perform an artful dance of love,
your eyes seemed to bring back the sun above,
so well did their bright rays dispel all gloom.

It was divine: I watched the dance resume
and break off and re-form and turn upon turn
diverge and then remerge and wind in curves
in imitation of Meander's stream.

Now it was long, now narrow, sometimes round
and sometimes pointed in the V formation
of cranes in flight escaping Winter's coldness.

I'm wrong, you did not dance: above the ground
your body flew - for once mortal creation
attained the airy nature of a goddess.

Translated by Peter Low

Other important European sonneteers were the Spaniards Garcilaso de la Vega (1501-36) and Francisco de Quevedo (1580-1645) among others.


Elizabeth was born in 1533, at the time the Church of England was being founded by her father, Henry VIII. The English Church had split from Rome due to a controversy caused by Henry's succession of marriages and divorces, and this issue would cause serious conflicts in England, not only on the religious side but also in the government. The strife would continue for decades. On one front, Protestants clashed with a minority of Catholics, and on the other, Elizabeth was beset by major problems with Catholic Spain and Rome.
Elizabeth I was crowned queen in 1558, after her half sister, the Catholic Mary I, died. Afterwards, she had to cope with both her political enemies and the Catholics. One of her most notorious rivals was Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots. Their rivalry, and Mary's subsequent execution, caused major repercussions, including strained relations with Spain's Felipe II and the Pope.
Those conflicts led Elizabeth I to govern with the aid of a select group (mostly men, as she disliked women) calculated by some to number several thousands. They acted as spies, as well as holding official and unofficial positions in her court. In this way she wielded complete control over the realm avoiding or putting down all rebellions from both her own people and overseas enemies.
Under Elizabeth's aegis, the arts flourished with the arrival on the scene of such intellectual luminaries as Francis Bacon who, by that time, had already written his famous essays. Many other great men of arts followed, in what is known as a cultural renaissance of the Reformation period. The Virgin Queen attended the first performance of Shakespeare's middle comedy A Midsummer Nights Dream (1595). His stage works would become the worlds most important landmark in the theater, for all the centuries to come.
However, outstanding achievement in the arts was not Elizabeth's principal purpose. She began to see the sea as vital to the future of her nation and the building of its empire. The West Indies had already been discovered by Christoforo Colombo and Spain and Portugal had already taken those lands for themselves, to settle and exploit. Sir Francis Drake made his voyage around the world from 1577 to 1580, supported by the Queen and Sir Walter Raleigh. The Queen, who had invested 1,000 crowns in that venture, received 47,000 back, on Drakes return. This money served to pay the Crowns debts and to finance future ventures.


In the official web site of the Royal Family, it states that Queen Elizabeth I (known as the Virgin Queen and other less endearing nicknames) sacrificed personal happiness for the good of the nation. She had decided not to marry, to avoid problems at home and abroad. In this regard, Shakespeare wrote one of his sonnets about the peoples preoccupation with royal descendants and the future of the dynasty. His sonnet VII ends with the following couplet:

So thou, thy selfe out-going in thy noon:
Unlockd on diest unlesse thou get a sonne.

Click here to read the complete poem.

Also, on the Royal Web site, is stated that in 1588, aided by bad weather, the English Navy scored a great victory over the Spanish invasion fleet of around 130 ships the Armada. The Armada was intended to overthrow the Queen and re-establish Roman Catholicism by conquest
But, seeing it from the Spanish viewpoint, the undeclared war between these nations was not only stirred up by the religious issue and Philip II's personal ambitions regarding his proposal to Mary Stuart, but also by the constant raids by Drakes ships on Spain's possessions in the South Pacific. Drake attacked both ports and ships, from the Straits of Magellan in the south, to what is now San Francisco Bay, in the north.
Mary Stuarts execution in 1587 triggered Philip's final decision to order the invasion. Errors in appointing the right leaders and a series of other mistakes, along with a major misjudgment of the English navy's strength, led to their defeat.
Below you will find a sonnet by Francisco de Quevedo that demonstrates his feelings perhaps the feelings of the entire nation when the sun of his country began to set.


          By Francisco de Quevedo

I saw the ramparts of my native land
One time so strong, now dropping decay,
Their strength destroyed by this new age's way
That has worn out and rotted what was grand.

I went into the fields; there I could see
The sun drink up the waters new thawed;
And on the hills the moaning cattle pawed,
Their miseries robbed the light of day for me.

I went into my house; I saw how spotted,
Decaying things made that old home their prize;
My withered walking-staff had come to bend.

I felt the age had won; my sword was rotted;
And there was nothing on which to set my eyes
That was not a reminder of the end.

John Masefield (translator)

This poem was taken from the web site of:  Fred F. Jehle

After Elizabeth I time, would come other excellent poets like Andrew Marvell, John Milton and others, precursors of modernism.


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