Subjective Poetry and its different forms

Subjective Poetry and its different forms

Subjective Poetry and its different forms : The lyric is the commonest kind of the poetry of self-expression. Man has always liked to pour out his intensely-felt feelings and emotion, and hence the lyric is among the earliest forms of poetry to be written in the literary history of any people.

Subjective Poetry and its different forms

When moved by some intense emotion, love, hatred, joy, sorrow, wonder, admiration, etc., man has always expressed himself in a poetic language, and this accounts for the early appearance of the lyric among all peoples.


The lyric: Its Nature; Its Kinds

In the beginning, the word ‘lyric’ was used for any song meant to be sung with the ‘lyre’, a stringed musical instrument known to the Greeks. In course of time this musical accompaniment of the lyric was dropped and the word came to signify any short poem or song expressing the personal emotions and experiences of the poet. A lyric may embody any kind of emotion. Says Hudson in this connection, “a lyric is almost unlimited in range and variety, for it may touch nearly all aspects of experience, from those which are most narrowly individual to those which involve the broadest interests of our common humanity. Thus we have the convival or bachanalian lyric; The lyric which skims the lighter things of life, as in the so–called verse de societe; the lyric of love in all its phases, and with all its attendant hopes and longings,  joys and sorrows; the lyric of patriotism; the lyric of religious emotion: and countless other kinds which it is unnecessary to attempt to tabulate.” There is also the reflective lyric in which the element of thought becomes prominent, and the poet philosophises on human life and human experiences.

Essentials of a Good Lyric

The chief qualities of a good lyric may be summarized as follows:

  1. It is a short poem, characterised by simplicity in language and treatment.
  2. It deals with a single emotion which is generally stated in the first few lines. Then the poet gives us the thoughts suggested by that particular emotion. The last and concluding part is in the nature of a summary or it embodies the conclusion reached by the poet. Such is the development of a lyric in general, but often these three parts are not distinctly marked. In moments of intense emotional excitement the poet may be carried away by his emotions and the lyric may develop along entirely different lines. A lyric is more often than not, mood-dictated.
  3. It is musical. Verbal-music is an important element in its appeal and charm. Various devices are used by poets to enhance the music of their lyrics.
  4. A lyric is always an expression of the moods and emotions of a poet. The best lyrics are emotional in tone. However, a poet may not express merely his emotions, he may also analyse them intellectually. This gives to the lyric a hard intellectual tone. Such intellectual analysis of emotion is an important characteristic of the metaphysical lyrics of the early 17thcentury. Such lyrics are also more elaborate than the ordinary lyric.
  5. It is characterised by intensity and poignancy. The best lyrics are the expressions of intensely felt emotions. Like fire, the intensity of the poet’s emotion burns out the non-essentials, all attention is concentrated and the basic emotion, and the gain in poignancy is enormous. It comes directly out of the heart of the poet, and so goes directly to the heart of the readers. The lyric at its best is poignant, pathetic and intense.
  6. Spontaneity is another important quality of a lyric. The lyric poet sings in strains of unpremeditated art. He sings effortlessly because he must, because of the inner urge for self-expression. Any conscious effort on his part, makes the lyric look unnatural and artificial.

The Elizabethan Lyric

The Elizabethan age was the glorious age of the English. In this age everyone sang, down from the flowery courtier to the man in the street. It was also on the stage, and lyrics are scattered all over the plays of dramatists like Shakespeare. The Elizabethan lyric is sweet and musical, but it is characterised by artificiality as the lyrics were composed because it was a fashion to write lyrics, and not because the poets really had any urge for self-expression.

The Elizabethan lyric has some well-defined characteristics of its own: (a) In the best of them there is a fine, “blending of the genius of the people and the artistic sense awakened by humanism.” The song had always been there, but the song of popular tradition was unrefined and coarse. In the most successful Elizabethan lyric, “the rudeness and clumsiness of the popular muse has been penetrated by graceful refinements of Vocabulary and a pliability of versification previously unknown to her.” (b) While the best lyrics have a perfection which is never re-captured, in lesser hands it degenerates into mere artifice and pedantry. Hence the artificiality of much of Elizabethan lyricism. (c) Moreover, many compose lyrics merely because it is the fashion to do so, and not because they have genuine inspiration. They sing of love, without being lovers, and of nature without having any real feeling for her charms. Hence the insincerity, conventionalism and affectation of many an Elizabethan lyric.

Subjective Poetry and its different forms

The poets have brilliant fancy but little passion. (d) The Elizabethan lyric differs from the romantic lyric in as much as it is not the spontaneous overflow of powerful emotion. It is not the outpouring of the poet’s soul, it lacks intensity and passion. It is impersonal in character rather than subjective. The lover is commonly represented as a shepherd, a device which separates the lover and the poet. The poet seems to be in love with love itself, and not with any real woman (e) A vein of moralising runs through the lyric. The poet frequently generalises on the folly of love or the pain or idolatory of lovers. The happiness of lowly desire, the tranquility of a virtuous mind, the superiority of a shpeherds’s life to that of a king, etc., are often pointed out by the poet. (f) Thanks to the prevailing taste for music, the Elizabethan lyric is very musical. Alliteration and other verbal devices are frequently used to make the lyric musical. (g) The lyric lacks originality. The poets are afraid of breaking new ground. They seek respectability for their efforts, “either by basing them upon accepted classic or by chanting them to hymn-like airs,” (S.A. Brooke). “In the Elizabethan lyric are blended the aroma of antiquity and the secret of modernity.”

Lyric in the 17th Century

With the exception of Milton’s epics, the poetry of the early 17th century comprises of lyrics which may be divided into three categories: (a) the metaphysical lyric, (b) the religious lyric, and (c) the Caroline or Cavalier lyric. The metaphysical lyric is more elaborate than an ordinary lyric, and is hard, intellectual in tone. John Donne, the founder of the metaphysical school of poetry, intellectualised the English lyric. He also has the credit of writing some of the finest love-lyrics in the English language. Some of the most poignant of the religious lyrics in the language also belong to him.

Every one of the lyrics has its origin in some emotional situation, and as the lyric proceeds the poet analyses intellectually that particular emotion. The emotion is discussed and analysed almost threadbare and arguments, for and against, are given in the manner of a clever lawyer pleading his case. Thus in Valediction: Forbidding Mourning, the poet advances arguments after arguments in support of the view that true lovers need not mourn at the time of parting. Similarly, in the Canonisation a case is cleverly made out in favour of love-making and the lovers are ingenuously shown to be saints of love. This intellectual analysis of emotion is something new and original in the English lyric.

Subjective Poetry and its different forms

It results in that fusion of thought and emotion – that unification of sensibility – for which T.S. Eliot commended the metaphysical lyric and regarded Donne as one of the greatest of the English poets. But this argumentation also imparts to Donne’s lyrics a hard intellectual tone, which is further heightened by his use of learned imagery drawn from such recondite and out of the way sources as medieval scholastic philosophy and older systems of astronomy and physics. However, as Ernest Rhys point out, “as Donne’s lyrics do not lack emotional intensity and immediacy, despite all this argumentation, analysis, and use of learning.”

The Caroline lyric is characterised by sweetness, music and melody. In its diction it almost touches perfection. But it is artificial, the result of art rather than of an inner urge for self-expression. Its worst fault is its extremely licentious and immoral nature.

The chief qualities of Cavaleir or Caroline lyric are:

  1. The Caroline lyrics, like the Elizabethan lyrics, were published in miscellanies and anthologies, as Wits Recreation (1641), Wit Restored (1658), Parnassus Biceps (1656) etc. The miscellanies have preserved for us the best songs and lyrics of even the lesser known poets.
  2. The Caroline lyric is the result of conscious effort. It is artificial. It is a work of art characterised by finish, polish and elegance of language but lacking that spontaneity and absence of effort which characterised the Elizabethan lyric. It has formal finish and perfection but is wanting in natural ease and warmth of emotion.
  3. It mirrors the mood and temper of the age. It is often coarse, licentious and indecent, thus reflecting the coarseness and indecency of the court and the courtly circles to which most of the poets of this school belonged.
  4. The poets of this school again and again find the various beauties of nature united in the beauty of their respective beloveds.
  5. The Cavalier poets are great lovers of nature. They observe nature minutely and describe it with feeling. Concrete, visual images drawn from the homelier objects and forces of nature abound in their lyrics.
  6. The Caroline lyric is charming but there is something trivial and unsubstantial about it. In this respect again, it reflects the triviality and frivolity of the life of the times.

The Romantic Lyric

The Augustans used exclusively the heroic couplet and little lyric poetry was written during this period of over one hundred years. It was with the rise of romanticism that the lyric once again came to its own. Shelley is the supreme lyricist of the romantic age. As a lyricist, Shelley remains unexcelled in the history of English literature. His lyrics are marked with spontaneity and effortlessness. “He exhales a lyric as a flower exhales fragrance.” Like his own skylark, he sings in profuse strains of unpremeditated art. His lyrics are the outpourings of his heart. Says J. A. Symonds: “In none of his greatest contemporaries was the lyric faculty so paramount”, and further that, “he was the loftiest and the most spontaneous singer of our age.” His lyrics are among the most musical lyrics in the English language.

The excellence which the romantic poets achieved as lyric-writers seems to have been due to two things. In the first place they perceived, in a higher degree, perhaps, than even the Elizabethans had done, the music latent in words, and succeeded in producing in their poetry, by means of happy combinations of words and rhythms, effects similar to those produced by music itself. Keats and Tennyson, more specially, were musical artists in words, and lines like,

Charmed magic casements opening on the foam
Of perilous seas in faery lands forlorn.
Forlorn! the very world is like a bell,
To toll me back from thee to my sole self:

make their appeal to us as much by the lingering fascination of their music as by the exquisiteness of their pictorial suggestion. It is in this respect that the romantic lyric surpasses the Elizabethan; a loss of some of the sunny spontaneity of the later being balanced by a corresponding gain in power and more complex quality of emotion.

“The success of the romantic lyric has, in the second place, been due to the fine appreciation, by the lyric-writers, of the delicate balance subsisting between subject and form. Never before had such a variety of subject found its way into English lyrical verse and been so completely absorbed as to give a certain intellectual value and tone to the poems without in any way detracting from their lyrical worth, Therein has lain, in large measure, the skill of the great lyricists from Wordsworth to Tennyson: they have been able to perceive with nicety the degree of thought which the lyric could carry, and exactly how they could be introduced without damage to the poem itself. It is, therefore, in their ability to perceive both the musical possibilities of words and the subtle relationship of matter to form that the Romantic and later lyricists are superior even to the Elizabethans.”

Lyric in the Victorian Era

Great lyric poetry continued to be written throughout the 19th century. In the Victorian age, there are a number of lyric-poets of note, Tennyson and Browning being the greatest of them. Tennyson is a great artist with words and so his lyrics are characterised by verbal felicity of a high order. Moreover, he is matchless in his gift of making music with words. But his artistry introduces an element of artificiality in his lyrics. His artistic, philosophic and dramatic interests inhibit and retard his lyrical impulse. Browning, on the other hand, is a great writer of dramatic lyrics, lyrics in which he does not pour out his own soul, but that of some imagined character. It is only in a few lyrics like Prospice that he speaks in his own person of his love for his beloved wife, Elizabeth.

The Modern Lyric

Lyrics continue to be written in the modern age, and it is nearly impossible to make a selection from the crowd of 20th century lyricists. Mention may only be made of John Drinkwater, Walter Do La Mare, W.H. Davies, James Elory Flecker, John Masefield, and W.B. Yeats. Lyrics of nature, lyrics of place, patriotic lyrics, love-lyrics, soldier lyrics, lyrics for children, are some of the categories of the modern lyric, and this in itself is sufficient to bring out the immensity, variety and abundance of lyric poetry in the post-Victorian period.

Subjective Poetry and its different forms


The Elegy: Its Nature

An elegy is a special kind of lyrics. A lyric expresses the emotions of the poet, and the elegy is an expression of the emotion of sorrow, woe, or despair. In short, the elegy is a lament, a lyric of mourning, or an utterance of personal bereavement and sorrow and, therefore, it should be characterised by absolute sincerity of emotion and expression. Says Hodgson, “In common use, it is often restricted to a lament over the dead, but that is an improper narrowing of its meaning. There are laments over places, over lost love, over the past (which is never “dead”), over an individual’s misery or failure; there are laments over departed pet animals, and so forth.”

The Elegy: Reflection and Philosophy

An elegy then is an expression of grief, and simplicity, brevity, and sincerity are its distinguishing features. There are elegies which are confined to the expression of grief as, for example, The Burial of Sir John Moore, and Tennyson’s Break, Break, Break. But more often than not, from an expression of personal grief, the poet passes on to reflections on human life – human suffering, the shortness of human life, and the futility of human ambitions.

Subjective Poetry and its different forms

Writes A. N. Eatwistle in this connection, “Sometimes Death is the inspiration and sole theme; at other times it is merely the common starting-point from which poets have launched various themes – speculations on the nature of death and the hereafter, tributes to friends, the poet’s own mood, even literary criticism.” Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard is one of the most popular elegies in English language. In this elegy, the poet does not mourn the death of some particular friend or relative, but expresses his grief at the sorry fate of the rude forefathers of the village, who die in obscurity, unknown, unsung. It is a magnificent and complex work of art, dignified and solemn in tone, and not an expression of personal grief.

On the other hand, Matthew Arnold’s Rugby Chapel is the poet’s direct expression of grief on the death of his father, and the elegy is characterised by sincerity and intensity of emotion. But from the expression of personal grief, the poet soon passes on to reflect on the sorry fate of humanity, and on the triviality and futility of human life. It thus becomes an embodiment not merely of the melancholy of the poet, but also of the pessimism and despair of the age in which he lived. Tennyson’s In Memoriam is a unique elegy in the English language. It is a collection of over a hundred poignant lyrics, united into a single whole by the poet’s lament at the death of his college friend, Arthur Hallam. But along with the expression of personal grief, there also runs a theology and a philosophy, as the poet constantly reflects on the problems of human life and human destiny. The elegy is an epitome of the philosophical and religious thought of the age.

The Pastoral Elegy

The pastoral elegy is a special kind of elegy. The words ‘pastoral’ comes from the Greek word “pastor”, which means “to graze”. Hence pastoral elegy is an elegy in which the poet represents himself as a shepherd mourning the death of a fellow shepherd. The form arose among the ancient Greeks, and Theocritus, Bions and Moschus were its most noted practitioners. In ancient Rome it was used by the Latin poet Virgil. In England, countless pastoral elegies have been written down from the Renaissance (16th century) to the present day. Spenser’s Astrophel, Milton’s Lycidas, Shelley’s Adonais and Arnold’s Thyrsis and Scholar Gipsy, are the most notable examples of pastoral elegy in the English language.

The pastoral elegy is a work of art, following a particular convention, and using a particular imagery drawn from rural life and rural scenery. Hence it is lacking in that sincerity which should be a marked feature of a poem of personal lament. Hence it was that Dr. Johnson condemned the form as artificial and unnatural and said, “Where there is leisure for fiction, there is little grief.”

Elegies continue to be written in the 20th century, elegies in which the poets pour out their anxieties, frustrations and despairs. Their number is so large that even their names cannot be mentioned in the short space at our disposal. But one thing is to be noted. The modern poet is unconventional in his use of the elegiac form, as in other matters. For example, W.H. Auden reverses the elegiac tradition in this elegies, particularly in his well-known elegy on W.B. Yeats. Traditionally in an elegy all nature is represented as mourning the death, here nature is represented as going on its course, indifferent and unaffected by the death of Yeats. The great poet’s death goes unnoticed both by man and nature; human life goes on as usual, and so does nature. Secondly, in the traditional elegy the dead is glorified and his death is said to be a great loss for mankind at large but Auden does not glorify Yeats. He goes to the extend of calling him ‘Silly’ and further that his poetry could make nothing happen. Ireland has her madness and her weather still.” Thus Auden reverses the traditional elegiac values and treats them ironically. Dylan Thomas is another such unconventional writer of elegies.

Subjective Poetry and its different forms

(c)  THE ODE

The Ode: Its Nature

The Ode is a special kind of lyric, more dignified, stately and elaborate than the simple lyric. Like the lyric, it also originated in ancient Greece. The Greek poet Pindar was the first to write Odes, and later on the form was practiced with certain modification by the Roman poet, Horace.

The word ‘ode’ is simply the Greek word for ‘song’. It was used by the Greeks for any kind of lyric verse, i.e. for any song sung with the lyre or to the accompaniment of some dance. However, as far as English literature is concerned, the term is now applied to only one particular kind of lyric verse. An English Ode may be defined as, ‘a lyric poem of elaborate metrical structure, solemn in tone, and usually taking the form of address” very often to some abstraction or quality. Edmund Gosse defines the ode as, “a strain of enthusiastic and exalted lyric, verse, directed to a fixed purpose, and dealing progressively with one dignified theme.”

The Essentials of an Ode

From these definitions the essentials of a modern English Ode may be summed up as,

  1. It is in the form of an address, often to some abstraction. It is not written about but written to.
  2. It has lyric enthusiasm and emotional intensity. It is a spontaneous overflow of the poet’s emotions.
  3. Its theme is dignified and exalted. It has ‘high seriousness’.
  4. Its style is equally elevated; it is also sufficiently long to allow for the full development of its dignified theme.
  5. The development of thought is logical and clear.
  6. Its metrical pattern may be regular or irregular, but it is always elaborate and often complex and intricate.

Subjective Poetry and its different forms

Its Two Kinds:

There are two important forms of the ode

(1) The Pindaric Ode; and

(2) The Horation Ode.

(1)  The Pindaric Ode

Pindar the greatest lyric poet of ancient Greece (6th to 5th century B.C.) was the father of the Pindaric or Choric’ Ode. Pindaric Odes were written generally in honour of the gods or to sing the triumphs or victories of rulers or athletes. Hence they are also known as “triumphal” odes. A Pindaric Ode has a fixed stanza-structure or pattern. The number of stanzas may vary, but they are invariably arranged in groups of three, each group being called a triad. The first stanza in each triad is called a ‘strophe’ – it was chanted by the dancing chorus as it proceeded in one direction. The second stanza in each triad is called an ante-strophe’ – it was chanted by the chorus as it returned. The third stanza in each triad is called an ‘epode’, and it was sung when the chorus was stationary. Just as the total number of stanzas in a Pindaric Ode may vary (Pindar’s odes range from one triad to thirteen in length) so also there could be variations in the metrical length of individual lines. Thus the Pindaric Ode has a fixed stanza-pattern but enjoys great rhythmical and metrical freedom.

The Poet Cowley (1618-67) was the first poet of England to imitate consciously the Pindaric odes. However, he did not understand the regular structure of the Pindaric and introduced a verse form with long irregular stanzas without any fixed system of metre or rhyme. The true Pindaric in triadic form was written with success by Dryden (Ode to St. Cecilia and Alexander’s Feast) and then by Gray (The Bard and the Progress of Poesy). After Gray, Pindaric of the triadic form fell out of use till it was revived again by Arnold and Swinburne.

Though the true Pindaric did not take root in the English soil, the ode in long irregular stanzas, first used by Cowley, has grown and flourished and has become one of the recognised and popular verse-forms of England. The title Pindaric is no longer used for it. But some of the greatest odes in the English language are of this irregular kind. To name only a few: Tennyson’s Ode on the death of Duke Wellington; Shelley’s Ode to Liberty; and Wordsworth’s Ode on the Intimations of Immortality. In other words the term Ode is now loosely used for any lyric which is sufficiently elaborate and dignified. No fixed pattern of stanza or metre is now considered necessary.

(2)  The Horatian Ode

The Horation Ode. This kind of Ode has been named after the Latin poet, Horace, who imitated Pindar but with far reaching modifications. The Horation Ode consists of a number of stanzas with a more or less regular metrical structure but without any division into triads of the Pindaric. It may be rhymed or unrhymed. This kind of Ode is light and personal (not choric) without the elaboration and complexity of the Pindaric. Many of the Finest English Odes are of this lighter sort. Some notable examples are: Collin’s Ode to Simplicity and Ode to Evening; Gray’s Eton Ode and Ode to the West Wind Wordsworth’s Ode to Duty; Shelley’s Ode of the West Wind; and Keats’ Ode to Nightingale.

Subjective Poetry and its different forms

It was in the hands of Keats that the Ode attained its highest possible perfection. His odes are the finest  fruits of his maturity. They represent Keats at his best. All the characteristic qualities of his poetry find full and vivid expression in them. As has been well said, Shelley’s genius finds perfect expression in the lyrics, Keats’ genius in The Odes. The six great odes of Keats The Ode to Psyche, to Melancholy, to Nightingale, to a Grecian, Urn to Indolence, and to Autumn, have received the highest praises from all critics of Keats. These odes are a unique phenomenon in English literature . Nothing like them existed before; and in them Keats may be said to have created a new class of lyric poetry. They are Keats’ greatest claim to immortality.

The Victorian Ode: 

Odes continued to be written all through the Victorian era, and they are being written even to-day. In the Victorian era, Tennyson and Swinburne are the greatest writers of odes. Tennyson wrote three odes, Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington, Ode for the Opening of the International Exhibition 1862, and Ode to Memory. Of these three odes, the Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington, the Victor of Waterloo, is the most moving and inspiring, and is marked with a note of patriotism and national adoration of the great hero who won victory for England against Napoleon. Tennyson pays a nation’s homage to the hero and outlines the salient qualities of his character. Swinburne produced fine odes included in Atlanta in Calydon. The opening ode of his classical tragedy Hounds of Spring is a glorious commemoration of the joys and triumphs of spring. The poet presents spring close on the heels of winter, and sings of the glories of the vernal time.

Another great poet, Francis Thompson, composed the Hounds of Heaven, which presents the pursuit of man engrossed in worldly pleasures by the hounds of heaven. Man cannot escape divinity. His final salvation lies in following the path of morality and spiritual life. The ode is unique in splendour of imagery and richness of expression reminds us of the earlier attempts of Spenser in glorious expression.

Ode in the Modern Age:

During the twentieth century many poets have composed odes, but generally speaking the modern age is not suited for the ode. Hopkin’s Ode on the Wreck of Deutschland is an ecclesiastical ode presenting the loss of the German ship with five nuns on board. The ode was in a new metrical form which Hopkins had been mediating for sometime. “I had long had haunting my ear the echo of a new rhythm which now I realised on paper,” Hopkins wrote to R.W.Dixon, his friend. Watson wrote an Ode to the Coronation of Edward VII. The language of Watson’s Ode is similar to that of the Victorians. It comes from the study of Tennyson, Arnold and Milton, and shows no contact with the speech that the Edwardians used in their streets, their public houses or even in their drawing rooms and libraries.

Subjective Poetry and its different forms

Watson’s ode does not have the vitality of a living diction and has a kind of expensive vagueness not expected from an Edwardian. Rose Macaulay’s New Year, 1968, is an unconventional ode, not glorifying the birth of a new year, but just telling us that the new year does not bring new gifts. Upon Eckington Bridge, River Avon, by Arthur Quiller-Couch is an ode singing of the old glories of the past and the destruction wrought by time. These poets make us feel that the hey-day of the ode in English are things of the past. The ode may never regain its old glory and greatness. The term is being loosely used for lyric poetry of every kind, and not much heed is being given to the characteristic features of the ode.


The Petrarchan Sonnet

The sonnet also is a form of the lyric, and of all its forms it is most carefully ordered and bound by definite, rigid rules.

The word “Sonnet” is derived from the Greek word “Sonneto”, meaning, “a sound”. It is a short lyric of fourteen lines and the Italian poet Petrarch was the first to use this form of the lyric to express his love for his beloved Laura, and its use “became the mark of Petrarchan love-poetry all over Europe in the 16th century.” Petrarch had divided his sonnets into two parts, the octave of eight lines and the sested of six lines, with a pause or ceasura after the eighth line. Its rhyme-scheme was a b, b a, a b , b a,     c d e, c d e.

The Sonnet in England – Early Sonnetteers

Sir Thomas Wyatt was the first to write sonnets in England. 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 colour and delicate music of the Italian poet.

His great contemporary Earl of 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. The rhyme-scheme of this form of the sonnet is a b a b, c d c d, e f e f, g g.

The Elizabethan Sonnet

However, the technical peculiarity of the sonnet was not realised in the earlier years of Elizabeth’s reign. The word ‘sonnet’ was used indifferently for any short lyric. The sonnet proper remained forgotten and neglected till the publication in 1591 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. 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 not because the poets had some really feit passion to express. They merely echo the sighs and love-pangs of Petrarch and the Petrarchans.

However, sincerity is the key-note 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 afterwards. It is in these sonnets alone that Spenser expresses his genuine feeling without recourse to allegory. “In the first ranks of the works of the English Renaissance, Spenser’s sonnets come between those of Sidney and Shakespeare, from which they are different in form as in sentiment.” – (Legouis)

Each of the quatrains in his sonnets is linked up by rhyme, but the couplet stands alone as in the Shakespearean variety of the sonnet.

While the Sonnets of Sidney and Spenser form the very core of their poetic work, Shakespeare’s Sonnets were written in moments 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 feeling. 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, and 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.” He divides his sonnets into three stanzas of four lines each followed by a concluding couplet.

The Contribution of Milton

In the post-Elizabethan era there is no great writer of sonnets till we come to Milton. As F.T. Prince points out, “the English passion for sonneteering died out in the early 17th century”, and Milton’s sonneteering represents practically a fresh start. His was an individual undertaking unique in the Mid-seventeenth century. By his use of it Milton not only revived the sonnet form, but he also considerably enlarged and widened its scope. It may also be added here that all Milton’s sonnets are occasional and personal, on different topics, and so cannot be arranged in sequences like the Elizabethan sonnets.

Milton’s English sonnets number twenty-three in all. Six of these belong to the period of Milton’s youth and immaturity, though even in them the hand of the master is visible. The rest were written during 1645-1658, the period in which Milton was largely busy in prose-writing. “These later English sonnets are the most immediately personal of all Milton’s utterances, representing emotional moments in his later life, experiences which find no adequate expression in his prose-writing in the publication of which he was during these years primarily engaged. We may believe also that they were, like the Psalms, prompted in part by a conscious desire in Milton to exercise himself in verse in preparation for the epic poem which he still intended. – (Henford)

Milton’s formal model is not the English sonnet, with its tendency to close with a couplet, but the Italian original which, on the whole, avoided such an ending. On the whole, Milton’s sonnets strike a new note of lofty dignity, conformable to his epic personality, and justifying Wordsworth’s description:

In his hands
The Thing became a trumpet; whence he blew
Soul-animating strains – alas, too few!

Milton widened considerably the scope of the sonnet. Previously the sonnet sang only of love and friendship, but Milton uses the form to express his deeply felt emotions on contemporary politics, religion, public figures of importance, womanhood, relationship of husband and wife, and such personal matters as his blindness. Similarly, he introduces far reaching innovations in its technique. Following the Petrarchan tradition he divides his sonnets into two parts – an ‘Octave’ of eight lines and a ‘Sestet’ of six lines. In the Petrarchan model, Octave and Sestet each has its own set of rhymes, which hold it together; but each is also sub-divided, the octave into two quatrains, the sestet into two tercets (group of three lines). In the octave the usual arrangement of rhymes is aba, abba (though abab abab and abab baba also occur). In the sestet two or three rhyme sounds are allowed, and their arrangement varies more widely than in the octave. The sentences fit into the division of the stanza, so that there is a pause at the end of each quatrain and tercet, and a more marked pause between octave and sestet.

But Milton, while accepting Petrarch as the master of the form, introduced many stylistic innovations. His sentence structure is more complex, and the rhythm is slowed down, the syntax tends to overflow the two main and the two subsidiary divisions of the poem. Milton’s use of this new style in the Sonnets foreshadows the methods of his later blank verse, where we also find ‘the sense variously drawn out from one verse into another’. The technical changes he takes over from the Renaissance Italians, to make what is necessarily a short poem into one that seems weighty and sustained; pauses within the lines are added to those suggested by the rhymes, which are partly submerged by the flow of the sense. The sonnet thus becomes a single verse-paragraph flowing through a sound-pattern made up of the four division marked by the rhymes.

The Sonnet after Milton

In the Augustan age, the sonnet-form fell into disuse. Hardly any sonnet worth the name was written during this period of over a hundred years. The sonnet was revived by Wordsworth who was inspired to write sonnets by his study of Milton’s Sonnets. Wordsworth further widened its scope by bringing in nature as one of its subjects. Since then, Sonnets have been written on practically every conceivable subject between heaven and earth. Keats, Browning and Rossetti are among other able practitioners of the form. Very little attention is now paid to the rules of sonnet-making, and wide liberty and flexibility in the use of the form is indulged in.

The vogue of the sonnet continues unabated in the 20th century. We have Robert Bridge’s admirable sonnet sequence The Growth of Love. Rupert Brooke and John Masefield have immortalised themselves as writers of sonnets. Commenting on the English sonnet in the 20th century, J.A. Noble writes “Rich as the sonnet literature of Enlgand is now, it is becoming every day richer and fuller, of potential promise, and though the possibilities of the form may be susceptible to exhaustion, there are no present signs of it, but only of new and bounteous developments. Even were no additions made to the store which has accumulated through the centuries, the sonnet – work of our English poets would remain for ever one of the most precious of the intellectual possessions of the nation.”

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