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The Shaping of Lyric: The Influence of the Sonnet on Lyric Poetry
by Dena L. Moore   

Last edited: Wednesday, June 05, 2002
Posted: Friday, May 31, 2002

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Although the sonnet is considered a major lyric genre, what may not be obvious is the effect the sonnet has wrought on lyric poetry in all of its forms. This article discusses the works of Shakespeare and Petrarch and how the sonnet has helped shape contemporary lyric poetry.

The poetic form known as the sonnet has significantly helped shape contemporary lyric poetry (Bermann 1). The sonnet was created by Giacomo da Lentino, a courtier in Frederick the Second’s court at the end of the Middle Ages (Bermann 13). Sonnets have been written throughout history and the form continues to impact the poetic tradition (Bermann 1). Although the sonnet “is considered a major lyric genre,” what may not be obvious is the effect this “brief, closed form” with its “intricate patterns of meter and rhyme” has wrought on lyric poetry in all of its forms (Bermann 2).

The prominent difference between today’s lyric poetry and the lyric of antiquity is that lyric is no longer accompanied by an instrument. In the past the lyric was “bound to rules of rhetoric” and “phonic and even musical patterns were deemed as essential to poetic expression” (Bermann 13). The sonnet itself played an important part in the move from the past tradition to an inward looking sense of the self, which led to universality of thought (Bermann 13). Indeed, the sonnet’s very form, its “asymmetrical, single stanza shape” was not receptive to the traditional lyric use; the shape actually seems to resist “musical accompaniment” (Bermann 13). Although it is believed that the sonnet was never accompanied by music, the form itself is lyrical and contains a “certain representation of music through its sound patterns,” including the use of repetition (Bermann 147). Other aspects of the sonnet affecting the development of lyric, in addition to the inwardness of self-reflection and the resulting universality of thought, is the use of the poetic first person and the silent speech inherent in Shakespeare’s form. These features of the sonnet, the poetic first person, the self-reflection, universality of thought, and silent speech, are now quite common in lyric poetry and show that the sonnet has directly impacted the very essence of the lyric.

The sonnet as a form is “so brief” that it leaves “its fiction inconclusive and indeterminate” (Bermann 4). The essence of the sonnet tends to heighten the imagination of the reader, who will strive to fill in the fragmentary image. Where the fourteen-line sonnet leaves the reader with an uncanny need to know more, other longer forms of lyric poetry have the opportunity to answer some of the questions the shorter form leaves unanswered; however, the very question of inwardness that is presented by the sonnet when placed in a longer context of lyric form seems to readdress the fragmentary image of the sonnet itself. Questions arise in the reader’s mind about the poet within the poem, and this questioning is projected onto the reader who questions the “I” within the self. Indeed, the sonneteer’s work “is to intuit inner reality via external demeanor” (Schoenfeldt 306). As “sonnets express in manifold ways the involuted curves and wrinkles of the desiring self,” the “external demeanor” (Schoenfeldt 320) is presented to the reader in such a personal context that universality comes into being; as the reader is compelled to experience the emotions of the poet as his or her own, the poet becomes the reader and the reader becomes the poet (Wright 146).

Two poets in particular, Petrarch and Shakespeare, and the development of their own personal style within the fixed form of the sonnet, have had the most cohesive impact on lyric. The diversity, as well as certain similarities, of the sonnet can be seen in the individual works of Petrarch and Shakespeare (Bermann 2). Because the sonnet is “bound by repetition,” differences in the works of these two poets emphasize “the repetitive qualities at work to some extent in every lyric poem” (Bermann 2). Petrarch’s sonnets “stress linguistic features that frequently run counter to the repetitive form” in contrast to Shakespeare’s sonnets in which repetition is “the most visible sign of the poem’s process of meaning” (Bermann 3-4). Despite the differences in the use of repetition between these two poets, one similarity is quite striking, and this similarity is the use “as primary thematic” the “poetic first person” (Fineman 1).

Within the Petrarchan sonnet was “an historically ground-breaking urge to create through language a strong poetic ‘self’” (Bermann 13). The use of the “I” in Petrarch’s sonnets has been used “ever since the Renaissance” in “highly subjective” lyric poetry; the use of the “I” has especially influenced modern “confessional” poetry (Bermann 13). The “projecting” of “the speaker’s psyche,” visible in Petrarch’s style, draws attention to the “performing artistic maker, the sonnet’s voice” (Bermann 22). Petrarch took the most distinct feature of the Italian Sonnet, “the turn from octave to sestet,” where change in “thought and rhyme signal a transition,” and made it his own by becoming more dramatic and personal in voice at this precise point; thus, Petrarch “greatly heightened this formal potential” of the sonnet (Bermann 45). Through refusing “to define his persona according to any precursor,” Petrarch effectively used the sonnet form as a medium to self-dramatize a “perpetual quest” of self-questioning (Bermann 45). Petrarch’s use of the lyric as a self-reflective device led him away from his poetic predecessors “and toward what we now associate with the modern lyric” (Bermann 15). His use of emotion, internal dialogue, and emphasis on interwoven patterns creates “both a graphic design and a puzzle of meaning” that draws the reader not only into the poem, but also into the poet’s mind (Bermann 21). This identification of the reader with the poet is reflective of the significant impact the poetic first person and use of self-reflection has had on lyric. Petrarch’s style, his “particular build and structural centering of a very human voice,” and distinct features such as the use of recurrent images, has been imitated in lyric poetry “with extraordinary frequency” (Bermann 49). Indeed, Petrarch’s form, themes, and imagery, more than any other, led to the development of a “cohesive European literary community” (Bermann 57).

In the intervening years between the death of Petrarch and Shakespeare’s Elizabethan arrival, the sonnet tradition “became a training ground for those who were consciously working to make illustrious their own vernacular tongues” (Bermann 58). The writing of sonnets during the “sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries” was a “political movement” on the continent (Bermann 58). The sonnet was introduced in England by Wyatt and Surrey (Bermann 60). Surrey created a variation on the Italian sonnet which consisted of three quatrains and ended with a couplet (Bermann 61). Shakespeare was a product of the European literary community brought into being by his predecessors, and he revived Surrey’s style (Bermann 61).
Despite the influence of Petrarch and the subsequent sonneteers on Shakespeare, he developed Surrey’s variation of the sonnet into his own style while utilizing the self-reflection and poetic first person that had become integral to the form. Reflective inner thought, so important in the sonnet, “finds its most trenchant expression in Shakespeare’s Sonnets” (Wright 152). In direct contrast to Petrarch’s poetic monologue, where Petrarch never directly addresses Laura, many of Shakespeare’s sonnets sets a “dramatic scene” that extends to “an encounter between an ‘I’ and a ‘thou’” (Bermann 53). This encounter is a reflection of themes already present in Shakespeare’s time, the themes of “time, death, and, above all, the complications and ambiguities of human relationships” (Bermann 61). He also makes effective use of the ‘realistic motifs already a part of the English tradition” by making references to actual objects and persons (Bermann 61). The use of “thou” projects the imagery outward, thus opening the reader “to an entirely new imaginative dimension,” which not only creates the self-reflective question of the “I” in the mind, but also the external question of who are you? (Bermann 62). Reading Shakespeare’s sonnets, the reader can easily “imagine a dialogue” and possibly even “envision a drama” (Bermann 72). So different from Petrarch’s “I,” the Shakespearean sonnet develops a “stage for interpersonal communication” (Bermann 73). It could even be said that the “I” in Shakespeare’s sonnets recede in importance to the “thou,” and this grammatical “dominance” is one of his “most important semantic effects” (Bermann 76). In Shakespeare, the “I” and “thou” are inseparable, and in this fashion he is able to create a feeling that “human beings define themselves purely in terms of human relationships” (Bermann 77).

Another device Shakespeare uses is the “metaphoric overlap” (Bermann 55). This use of metaphor draws the reader into the poem and into Shakespeare’s imagery and, quite similar to Petrarch’s in its effect, rests “on a universal code of human experience” which “imitates our conception of reality” (Bermann 55). A significant effect created by Shakespeare in his sonnets that is difficult to trace to any preceding poet, and which is definitely not to be found in Petrarch’s work, is the potent use of “invisible differences” (Bermann 64). These differences are to be found in Shakespeare’s use of the “I” and “thou” in his sonnets; they are rendered impossible in the monologic, self-addressing style used by Petrarch. The understanding of this invisibility depends greatly on the universality of thought that arises from self-reflection and which has been integrated into lyric poetry. The use of the sonnet form as a projection of “varied, mobile, and often antithetical images in the course of individual sonnets” gives the reader of Shakespeare’s sonnets a “paradoxical counterpoint” to work through in the mind and creates the “invisible dimension” (Bermann 67). It is in Shakespeare’s sonnets “and much other lyric poetry that shows the same reflective depths” that “the language of silent thought” can be seen; indeed, these are the very unspoken words of consciousness and the words are so familiar to humanity as a whole because we all “generate it constantly every day of our lives” when we address ourselves and others in our minds (Wright 137). This unspoken “voice” of the sonnets reflects in “later English lyric and meditative poems” (Wright 137) and is “crucial” to lyric poetry read by contemporary readers and their predecessors “since Shakespeare’s time” (Wright 139).

Shakespeare’s development and adaptation of the sonnet and his “forceful emphasis upon a “thou” is one important sign” of the end of an era where religious constraints hampered the artist (Bermann 73). His predecessors, particularly Petrarch, had “forged a place for the secular poet,” of which Shakespeare took full advantage (Bermann 73). Although Shakespeare “modified the Petrarchan sonnet form” he did not change it in its entirety (Bermann 85). He not only retained the length of the sonnet and the “distinctive drama of its turn,” but also “effectively expands and humanizes the powerful psychological drama” of the Petrarchan sonnet (Bermann 85). Shakespeare’s brilliant combination of tradition with innovation helped to push the sonnet into even greater prominence than the form previously held (Bermann 85). It was Shakespeare’s use of the sonnet and his “ability to spark the sonnet sequence” with aspects typically associated with other genres that helped keep the sonnet alive despite its relegation to being considered a “relic of the past” by the end of the seventeenth century (Bermann 91). Concentration fell to other forms at this time, particularly “the drama and narrative with their greater scope” (Bermann 90). The sonnet was revived after nearly two hundred years in the nineteenth century by poets such as William Wordsworth, John Keats, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning (Bermann 91).

Although both Petrarch and Shakespeare worked “within a fixed form,” the poets created “a strikingly individual sonnet style” (Bermann 6). It was Petrarch’s revolutionary use of self-reflection that established a sonnet that carried a “far more psychological weight than it had when Giacomo da Lentino or Dante used it” (Bermann 143). Indeed, Petrarch’s voice became an echo of the past “which subsequent poets” strived to achieve, measuring their own voice against Petrarch’s (Bermann 143). The differences within the sonnet form are just as important as the similarities, and this is most evident in Shakespeare’s development of the ‘thou’ persona alongside the self-reflective “I” used since Petrarch. As the sonnet as a form has continued to survive the centuries by evolving, clinging, and shaping itself to individual poets, it has become the very essence of the “characteristics most frequently associated with post-Renaissance lyric” (Bermann 146). The combination of the concept of self-reflection, the concentration on the highly subjective “I”, and the universal understanding between the poet and the reader has affected not only our image of the sonnet, but “our view of the lyric tradition as a whole” (Bermann 9).

Works Consulted

Bermann, Sandra L. The Sonnet Over Time: A Study in the
Sonnets of Petrarch, Shakespeare, and Baudelaire.
Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina
Press, 1988.

Braden, Gordon. “Shakespeare’s Petrarchism.” In Shakespeare’s Sonnets: Critical Essays, ed. James Schiffner, 163-183. New York and London: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1999.

Schoenfeldt, Michael. “The Matter of Inwardness: Shakespeare’s Sonnets.” In Shakespeare’s Sonnets: Critical Essays, ed. James Schiffner, 305-324. New York and London: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1999.

Web Site: Dena's Poetry: Poetry of Love, Loss, and the Occult

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