The Elizabethan Sonnet Sequence


Overview: The Phenomenon of the Sonnet Sequence

The phrase “Elizabethan sonnet sequences” refers to the series of English sonnets written by various prominent practitioners in the Elizabethan era, such as William Shakespeare, Sir Philip Sidney, and Edmund Spenser. Shakespeare’s sonnet sequence includes 154 sonnets. Spenser’s main sonnet series is a collection entitled Amoretti and Sidney’s most famous sonnet series is entitled Astrophil and Stella.

The English sonnet sequence became a phenomenon around 1580 and remained a major literary and cultural influence until around 1610. Many credit Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella as the first true sequence. In 1619, Drayton completed his final revision of his famous sequence Idea, which historically marked the end of the phenomenon. The impact of the sonnet and sonnet sequence was seen everywhere during this time. Writers like John Donne insisted that only fools could not write sonnets. Queen Elizabeth was also known to use the language of sonnets while conducting foreign policyCitation?. Christopher Warley, author of Sonnet Sequence and Social Distinction in Renaissance England, argues that the sonnet sequence had no true system or stable pattern and

What is a Sonnet?

A sonnet is a type of poem that contains fourteen lines, is composed in iambic pentameter, and is formatted to a specific rhyme scheme, which varies for each type of sonnet.. Iambic pentameter is a style of verse writing in which each line contains ten syllables, divided into five metrical feet. In iambic pentameter, each metrical foot contains an unaccented syllable followed by an accented syllable.
An example here would be nice.

The two most commonly occurring types of sonnets are the Italian (Petrarchan) sonnet and the English (Shakespearean) sonnet. The Italian sonnet is traditionally divided into two stanzas, an octave (8 lines) and a sestet (6 lines). In addition, the Italian sonnet is traditionally characterized by the rhyme scheme abbaabba cdecde. The English sonnet is traditionally divided into three 4-line stanzas and an ending couplet, and traditionally follows the rhyme scheme abab cdcd efef gg. Typically, in an English sonnet, each quatrain serves as building block toward the poet’s ultimate point in writing the poem.

Other less frequently used forms of the sonnet exist, such as the Spenserian Sonnet. The Spenserian Sonnet is a variation of the English sonnet which has the interlocking rhyme scheme ababbcbccdcdee.

The sonnet was first practiced in the English language by Sir Thomas Wyatt the Elder (1503-1542), an English poet who also worked in the royal court under King Henry VIII.

Who Were the Chief Practitioners?

The main practitioners of the Elizabethan sonnet sequence were William Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser, and Sir Philip Sidney.

Famous portrait of William Shakespeare, known as the Chandos portrait

William Shakespeare is often considered the greatest writer of the English language. His most

Shakespeare’s house in Stratford-upon-Avon (2012)

famous works include a total of 38 plays and 154 sonnets. Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, a small town in Southern Warkwickshire, England that sits on the river Avon. He was born in April 1564, and although the date of his birth is not known for sure, historians believe that he was probably born on the 23rd, also St. George’s Day. Shakespeare’s father, John Shakespeare, was a successful glovemaker who was also held important positions in the local government. Shakespeare mother was Mary Arden. It is suspected that Shakespeare attended the free Stratford grammar school, however there is no documented proof. The rest Shakespeare’s childhood to remains somewhat of a mystery due to the lack of documentation. In 1582, at the age of 18, Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway, who was eight years his senior. In 1583, Shakespeare’s daughter, Susanna, was born, as in 1585 the couple gave birth to twins, Hamnet

The main stage at the Globe Theater in London (2012)

and Judith; however, Hamnet died at an early age in 1596. The next seven years of Shakespeare’s life are completely undocumented, and his activity is unknown; therefore, historians refer to them as his “lost years”.

By 1594, Shakespeare was working with a successful troupe of professional actors known as Lord Chamberlain’s Men, who later became the King’s Men. Shakespeare eventually became the head playwright for the company and one of its leading shareholders. In 1599, Shakespeare’s company began to perform at the Globe, an open-aired theater on the bank of the River Thames in London. Shakespeare continued to work in London while his wife and children lived in Stratford. After writing The Tempest, Shakespeare retired and returned to live with his family. In 1616, Shakespeare died, leaving most of his estate to his daughter Susanna. To his wife, Shakespeare left “my second best bed.”
Nothing here about his sonnets????

Portrait of Sir Philip Sidney

Sir Philip Sidney was born to Sir Henry Sidney and Lady Mary Dudley in Penshurst Place, Kent in 1554. His father was a governor (lord deputy) three different times of Ireland and his mother was the sister of Robert Dudley, the earl of Leicester, often regarded as the most powerful of the queen’s favorites. In 1564 he started attending Shrewsbury School and later attended the University of Oxford. Before he completed his studies at Oxford he left England and began travelling across Europe. During his travels he met many powerful figures of the time. On August 24, 1572 Sidney witnessed the Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Day in Paris, France which reinforced his Protestantism. Shortly afterthis, he returned to England. Spenser, during Sidney’s return, dedicated The Shepheardes Calendar to him. Later, he retired to his sister’s home in Pembroke and wrote Arcadia for her personal enjoyment. After this he decided to make it public and began to edit and revise it. Shortly after writing The Defense of Poesy, Sidney wrote Astrophil and Stella which is widely considered to be the first of the great Elizabethan sonnet sequences. Citation??Sir Philip Sidney was considered the first major writer of the Elizabethan sonnet sequence, and is often considered to be a major influence on William Shakespeare’s form of ABAB-CDCD-EFEF-GG. Citation?

Portrait of Edmund Spenser

Edmund Spenser was born around the year 1552 to a rather middle class family. His origins are not known for certain, however he is thought to be the son of John Spenser of East Smithfield. As a boy, Edmund studied at the Merchant Taylors’ school until he matriculated as a sizar to Pembroke Hall (today known as Pembroke College) in Cambridge. After taking his B.A. and M.A. Spenser left Cambridge in 1570 and went to Kent where he worked as a secretary for the Bishop of Rochester, John Young. By 1579, Spenser was working for the Earl of Leicester and living in Leicester House on the Strand. In 1580 Spenser was appointed secretary of Arthur and relocated to Ireland. In 1586 Spenser was alloted his estate near Doneraile which included the castle Kilcolman. After reading his draft of The Faerie Queen, Sir Walter Raleigh introduced Spenser to Queen Elizabeth in 1590. Spenser procured a pension from the Queen then returned to Ireland after insulting Lord Burghley with his Complaints. in After returning to Kilcolman, Spenser courted and proceeded to marry Elizabeth Boyle, for whom Amoretti is dedicated. In 1598 Kilcolman was sacked during the Nine Years War. Spenser fled to Cork. He left Cork carrying a message for the Privy Council and upon arrival passed away in Westminster in 1599.

Spenser is particularly famous for the development of the Spenserian sonnet, as well as his famous sonnet sequence Amoretti and his Epithalamion. Furthermore, he is famous for writing an epic work, The Faerie Queene, in which he celebrates England and Protestantism as a whole. Overall, he impacted literature massively with his unique styles of writing, his celebration of love in his poems, and his celebration of his country.

Portrait of Michael Drayton

Another well-known practitioner was Michael Drayton, who was famous for his sequence Idea. Drayton is known for changing and revolutionizing the sonnet sequence, which eventually led to its transition out of the literary spotlight at the time.

Portrait of Lady Mary Wroth

Lady Mary Wroth, another practitioner of the Elizabethan sonnet sequence, was most famous for her work entitled Pamphilia to Amphilanthus.

Major themes of the Elizabethan Sonnets:

Some of the most significant themes in the Elizabethan sonnet sequences include love, time, the value of writing, and the eternalization of beauty. Romantic love is one of the central themes; many sonnets of the Elizabethan era wrote about the frustrations of unreciprocated love. Some, however, like Spenser, celebrate the feelings of successful love. Some of the poems also deal with the themes of divine love. Many of the Elizabethan sonnets also deal with love versus desire, a theme which Sidney particularly focused on in Astrophil and Stella.

Another major theme of the Elizabethan sonnet sequence is time. Shakespeare, in particular, focused on how time could destroy nature and other beautiful things. He emphasized reproduction as a means of eternalizing beauty, which was also a common theme in the Elizabethan sonnets. It is portrayed in the sonnets that only love and poetry could withstand time.

In addition, many of the sonneteers address is the value of poetry and writing. Sidney and Spenser, for instance, both draw attention in their poems to the fact that they are using verse to portray their feelings for their desired loved ones. Many of the authors brought the Muses into their poems to imply the sources of inspiration for their writing. The Elizabethan sonnets demonstrate the growing belief that poetry could be used to immortalize phenomena such as the beauty of a loved one, which Spenser tries to do with towards the end of his sequence, Amoretti. Similarly, Shakespeare writes about the desire to eternalize beauty; by contrast to Spenser, however, Shakespeare focuses largely on physical beauty whereas Spenser shows that he values inner beauty.

Video: Shakespeare Sonnet #55 Reading & Analysis


“Famous portrait of William Shakespeare, known as the Chandos portrait”,

Greenblatt, Stephen, George Logan, Katharine E. Maus, and Barbara K. Lewalski. The Norton Anthology of British Literature Volume B. Ninth ed. New York: W. W. Norton &, 2012. Print.

Miller, Nelson. “Basic Sonnet Forms.” Sonnet Central. Cayuse Press Writers Exchange Board, 25 Aug. 2012. Web. 26 Nov. 2012.

“Portrait of Edmund Spenser”,

“Portrait of Lady Mary Wroth”,

“Portrait of Michael Drayton”,

“Portrait of Sir Philip Sidney”,

“Shakespeare’s house in Stratford-upon-Avon (2012)”, picture by Elizabeth Sobel

“The main stage at the Globe Theater in London (2012)”, picture by Elizabeth Sobel

Warley, Christopher. Sonnet Sequences and Social Distinction in Renaissance England. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2005. Print.