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Love, Sex and Sonnets

A Brief History and Glimpse Into the Future of the Classic Love Sonnet


What’s so special about 14 lines and an arbitrary pre-determined rhyme scheme? A poetic architecture that traces back to the 13th century, the sonnet remains the most enduring of literary forms. The origin of the word itself suggests some of its power, deriving from the Italian word for “little song” or, to put it in more modern terms, some of history’s earliest earworms. Sonnets have cut across linguistic and cultural barriers, evolving and adapting to the changes of rhythms and meters, rhymes and times. There are sonnets about nature. There are sonnets about God. There are sonnets about grocery stores in Florida. Yet the most evocative version of the sonnet always returns to the same obsession: love.

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Petrarch: Lovelorn Sonneteer or Poetic Stalker?

The sonnet traces its birth to Renaissance Italy, where Giacomo de Lentini, a poet who worked a day job in the court of the Holy Roman Empire, started writing 14-line verses in Sicilian dialect. Dante Alighieri dabbled in these early sonnets. However, it was his fellow Italian vernacular poet, Francesco Petrarca, more commonly known as Petrarch, who perfected the style to the extent that the most common form bears his name. Petrarch wrote hundreds of sonnets over his lifetime, many of which focus on his unrequited love for a woman named Laura. Perhaps it’s a historical accident that the earliest master of the form was a charmingly lovelorn proto-Romeo… or a scribbling creeper who stalked his subject constantly, depending on your perspective. Either way, Petrarch’s sonnets about a woman he may never have even spoken to in person created the early model for future poets.

Translation, Cultural Appropriation

and the Two English Poets

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Through translation and cultural appropriation, the sonnet made its way across Europe. By the Elizabethan era in England, the greatest poets of the day were writing sonnets. Edmund Spenser, best known for tormenting generations of English majors assigned The Faerie Queene, transferred the rhyme scheme of his epic masterpiece to shorter poems about a woman named Elizabeth (not the queen, though he does reference her as well) whom he eventually married. These Spenserian sonnets treat love in fantastical terms, focusing on how mystical and spiritual qualities of love alchemize into torrents of human emotion.

Yet the most famous sonneteer of the era also happens to be the most well-known author of all time: William Shakespeare. The Bard crafted his own take on the sonnet, spinning his signature iambic pentameter onto the mandatory 14 lines, indenting the last two in a rhyming couplet that, intentionally or not, seemed to reflect the idea of two lovers.  Shakespeare’s sonnets reflect all the complexity of literature’s greatest mind, while also reinforcing a lot of male stereotypes and outdated cultural tropes. Still, because it’s Shakespeare, there will always be more going on beneath the surface, including one that has become intriguing to queer studies scholars. For better or worse, these remain some of the most famous love poems in the history of the English language.

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Liberating the Sonnet

From Poetic Patriarchy

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The sonnet continued as a popular form through the Romantic period, with some particularly notable love poems written by John Keats. Yet it’s not until later in the 19th century that the love sonnet reinvents itself through the contributions of two female poets. Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese were described by her own husband – a famous poet in his own right – as the greatest verses since Shakespeare. As opposed to the centuries of male poets pining over women that preceded her work, Barrett Browning’s words conveyed an authentically feminine perspective on love. She rejected the role of physical beauty and clichés about women’s fickle nature, focusing on the deeper bond that two individuals could form in an equitable relationship. Christina Rossetti pushed the matter one step further, transitioning from the feminine to the feminist. Her “Monna Innominata” series explicitly calls out Petrarch and Dante for their unknown and unwitting muses, offering a kind of rebuttal that focuses on the internal psyches of women in love.

The Next 800 Years

of Love Sonnets

Interestingly, while these female poets critiqued the patriarchy of romantic love, they used the same form developed by male poets to do so. As the love sonnet extended across modern poetry, other poets would use the form to subvert outdated ideas about love. W.B. Yeats reimagined a mythological love story as a brutal bestiality rape. Poets like Edna St. Vincent Millay, Winifred Letts and Sara Teasdale further explore female expectations and desires in the realm of romance. Even today, between the dueling forces of ironic deconstruction and post-contemporary sincerity, the sonnet remains the ideal poetic form to discuss the changing nature of love. The sounds and meanings of the words evolve, but the basic structure remains the same as it was when Petrarch pined for poor Laura. There’s something comforting about that. We could even dare to call it poetic.

-The Gardener

2 comments

  1. Marquis de Shade ( User Karma: 6 ) says:

    I kind of wonder about the claim in the intro that the best sonnets are about love. Not a lot to back that up! I feel like there are some famous sonnets not about love. “The World Is Too Much With Us” by Wordsworth comes to mind…

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