Elizabethan poetry: the sonnet
The Elizabethan Age was characterized by a flourishing of literary works, of drama, sonnets and song as the court of the Queen attracted poets, actors and musicians from all over the country. This period is thus known as the “Golden Age” or poetry in England.
The Italian sonnet developed by Dante and Petrarca had become a model for all European poets of the Renaissance, and England was no exception. The Elizabethan sonnet, like the Italian, was characterized by certain themes, such as the love search and satisfaction but also the desire of a lady who cannot return the poet’s affections. Thus, this is the poetry of the longing and of the great passions for the woman who is the personification of eternal beauty and perfection. As such, the woman guides the poet and brings out his virtuous side. But the poet is also driven to madness and despair in front of his love’s rejection and this leads to the most important “paradox” of the time, and the sonnet is full of paradoxes. Both the lover and the lady suffer because they cannot stay with their beloved one and at the same time the poet doesn’t want the end of this suffering. In the sonnet, the feelings of the poet are well dealt with while the lady’s are not talked about. The lady is fair, beautiful and desirable but at the same time she’s pitiless and chaste. There is no physical consummation of the poet’s love that remains idealized and as such this love for the woman often turns into the love for God.
The sonnet is composed of fourteen lines. The Italian sonnet is divided into one octave which presents a situation and a sestet which offers the solution to the problem formerly presented, or the poet’s reflections. Often the turning point of the sonnet is at the end of the eighth line. Frequently, the rhyme scheme is ABBA ABBA CDC DCD or ABBA ABBA CDE CDE. Instead, the evolution of English sonnet settled on the Shakespearian sonnet which is divided in three quatrains and a final couplet with a rhyme scheme of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. The quatrains can present a theme which is confirmed or denied in the final couplet or each quatrain can develop three different situations or problems which find their conclusion in the final couplet, thus allowing for some flexibility.
The typical Elizabethan metre is the “blank verse” in which the lines are unrhymed thus allowing for even more flexibility (used for example in Macbeth of Shakespeare). Another characteristic of the Elizabethan sonnet is the use of “conceits” or elaborate poetic images that give profundity to the concepts presented by the poet.