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Who brought sonnet to English literature? Thomas Wyatt or William Shakespeare?

Their contributions to English literature: Shakespeare wrote a book that contains 154 sonnets, but I couldn't find something like that about Wyatt. Could you help me?

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According to Jakob Schippers's A History of English Versification, the first English sonnet writers were Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey. Wyatt's poems appear to have circulated at court, but they were not published under his name until after his death in 1542. Tottel's Miscellany, the first printed anthology of English poetry, was first published in 1557 and was reprinted many times. The anthology contained poems by Sir Thomas Wyatt, Henry Howard, Earl Of Surrey and several others.

Both Wyatt (1542) and Surrey (1547) died before Shakespeare was even born (in 1564), so the English sonnet is definitely older than Shakespeare. The conventions of what we now call the Shakespearean sonnet had already been established by Wyatt and Surrey: the rhyme scheme (abab cdcd efef gg) and the breaking up of the last six lines into a quatrain and a couplet (whereas the Petrarchan sonnet ended with two tercets) and the volta or turn before the last couplet.

Shakespeare's sonnet were first published in 1609, while sonnet cycles reached their high point in the 1590s. It is not clear when exactly Shakespeare's sonnets were written (see Jonathan F. S. Post: Shakespeare's Sonnets and Poems: A Very Short Introduction, 2017, pages 75-76).

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tl;dr Nobody could credibly claim that Shakespeare was the first to write sonnets in English. He wasn't even the first to use what we now think of as the typical "Shakespearean" rhyme scheme: abab cdcd efef gg. Nor is his the first sonnet sequence (series of linked sonnets) in English.

Details. This is a supplement to and clarification of, not a replacement for, @Tsundoku's excellent answer. As @Tsundoku wrote, there is no doubt that the sonnet was long established in English poetry before Shakespeare. Thomas Wyatt introduced the sonnet form to England from Europe at the turn of the sixteenth century.

The typical Italian sonnet form, as epitomized in Petrarch's poems, consisted of an octave and a sestet. The octave consisted of two quatrains that rhymed abba abba. The sestet consisted of two tercets, but the rhyme scheme was variable: cdc ede, or cde cde, or cdd cee, or cdc dee, etc. A volta, or turn in thought, occurred between the octave and the sestet.

Wyatt did write the first sonnets in the English language. However, he did not use the "Shakespearean" rhyme scheme that became well-established in English poetry later. Wyatt's sonnets invariably preserve the Italian octave: abba abba, with its "enclosed" rhyme scheme. The sestet form he used was varied, but he did favor a closing couplet. Here are two examples:

My galley, chargèd with forgetfulness,
Through sharp seas in winter nights doth pass
'Tween rock and rock; and eke mine enemy, alas,
That is my lord, steereth with cruelness;

And every hour a thought in readiness,
As though that death were light in such a case.
An endless wind doth tear the sail apace
Of forced sighs and trusty fearfulness.

A rain of tears, a cloud of dark disdain,
Hath done the wearied cords great hinderance;
Wreathèd with error and eke with ignorance.

The stars be hid that led me to this pain;
Drownèd is Reason that should me comfort,
And I remain despairing of the port.

We see here the abba abba octave; the volta, or turn, from describing his present situation to describing what caused it; and the sestet with its two tercets, cdd cee.

The second example from Wyatt shows the same structure of an enclosed-rhyme octave and two tercets, rather than a quatrain and a couplet, for the sestet.

The longë love that in my thought doth harbour
And in mine heart doth keep his residence,
Into my face presseth with bold pretence
And therein campeth, spreading his banner.

She that me learneth to love and suffer
And will that my trust and lustës negligence
Be rayned [note 1] by reason, shame, and reverence,
With his hardiness taketh displeasure.

Wherewithall unto the heart's forest he fleeth,
Leaving his enterprise with pain and cry,
And there him hideth and not appeareth.

What may I do when my master feareth
But in the field with him to live and die?
For good is the life ending faithfully.

This poem, a translation of Petrarch's sonnet 140 ("Amor, che nel penser mio vive et regna"), uses the rhyme scheme abba abba cdc cdd [note 2]. Although it does have a closing couplet, the couplet does not stand alone. Both syntactically and by rhyme scheme, it is connected to the earlier part of the sestet. Syntactically, it isn't a grammatically complete unit, and the "d" rhyme, "die/faithfully," is introduced before the couplet with "cry."

It's instructive, and also a bit of a cliché, to compare this with Surrey's translation of the same sonnet:

Love, that doth reign and live within my thought,
And built his seat within my captive breast,
Clad in the arms wherein with me he fought,
Oft in my face he doth his banner rest.

But she that taught me love and suffer pain,
My doubtful hope and eke my hot desire
With shamefast look to shadow and refrain,
Her smiling grace converteth straight to ire.

And coward Love, then, to the heart apace
Taketh his flight, where he doth lurk and plain,
His purpose lost, and dare not show his face.

For my lord's guilt thus faultless bide I pain,
Yet from my lord shall not my foot remove:
Sweet is the death that taketh end by love.

Surrey no longer uses enclosed rhyme, but open rhyme: abab cdcd ece cff. That's a pretty huge innovation in the history of the English sonnet. But here too, the sestet is still not a "Shakespearean" sestet of efef gg.

Surrey does, however, have other poems with the typically "Shakespearean" rhyme scheme. Here's one:

Set me whereas the sun doth parch the green
Or where his beams do not dissolve the ice,
In temperate heat where he is felt and seen;
In presence prest of people, mad or wise;

Set me in high or yet in low degree,
In longest night or in the shortest day,
In clearest sky or where clouds thickest be,
In lusty youth or when my hairs are gray.

Set me in heaven, in earth, or else in hell;
In hill, or dale, or in the foaming flood;
Thrall or at large, alive whereso I dwell,
Sick or in health, in evil fame or good:

Hers will I be, and only with this thought
Content myself although my chance be nought.

We finally see an example of the sonnet form as Shakespeare used it: three open quatrains, abab cdcd efef; a closing couplet, gg; and a volta between them, with the speaker going from describing various possibilities to asserting that no matter which of them happens, he will be happy because he is in love.

So: Wyatt gets credit for introducing the sonnet form into English; Surrey for introducing the specific form of the "Shakespearean" sonnet. How about sonnet sequences? Wyatt and Surrey wrote stand-alone sonnets, but Petrarch's was a sequence: a long series that told a developing story. Shakespeare's sonnets do tell a story of sorts. The textual history of Shakespeare's sonnets makes it hard to be certain that we have the whole story, or even that the sonnets are in the right order. But there's no doubt that there are connections between his sonnets and they're not stand-alone. So his is a sonnet sequence. And AFAIK it is the longest of the sonnet sequences of the English Renaissance.

That said, it was by no means the first sonnet sequence in English. The first person to write a series of linked sonnets that told a developing story was Anne Locke. Her first name is variously spelled An, Ann, or Anne; her last, Lok, Lock, Luk, Luck, or Locke [note 3]. Locke's A Meditation of a Penitant Sinner, published in 1560, consists of 26 sonnets based on Psalm 51. This is an extremely interesting religious work of the most devout Protestantism, quite far in theme from the love intrigues of Wyatt, Surrey, and Shakespeare. One might make the case, though, that Locke's description of the agonies a sinner faces in being separated from God do echo some of the laments of the Petrarchan lovers.

So Shakespeare wasn't the first person to write a sonnet sequence in English. He wasn't even the first to write a Petrarchan sonnet sequence, i.e., one that takes romantic love for its theme, in the language. That honor goes to Philip Sidney, whose Astrophel and Stella sonnets were in circulation in the 1580s. Sidney sticks with Petrarch in theme, but his rhyme schemes are dazzlingly varied; the sequence is worth looking through simply to see how many different patterns Sidney employs before repeating one.

Dozens of poets followed Sidney's example before Shakespeare wrote his sonnet sequence: Michael Drayton, Samuel Daniel, etc. Sidney's friend Edmund Spenser deserves special mention for having come up with an innovative rhyme scheme for his sequence, Amoretti (1595): abab bcbc cdcd ee.

As this brief overview of the history of the English sonnet prior to Shakespeare shows, @Tsundoku is completely correct in pointing out that "the English sonnet is definitely older than Shakespeare" and "the conventions of what we now call the Shakespearean sonnet had already been established" well before Shakespeare's own began to circulate. I'd hesitate to say that Wyatt and Surrey established them—they started the process, and Surrey in particular got it well on its way. But beginning with Wyatt and Surrey, English poets had worked with the sonnet for a long time, and very fruitfully, before Shakespeare. His sequence has its merits: it seems startlingly modern at times in its psychological insight; his handling even of tired Petrarchan tropes can be fresh and inventive; and as one might expect, his creative use of language is always exciting. Giving him credit for pioneering the sonnet form itself, however, is groundless.

Notes:

  1. Spelling left unmodernized because the word is actually a pun: reined (curbed) or reigned (ruled) are both part of the meaning. Using either one would flatten the pun and emphasize one meaning above the other.

  2. Yes, cry/die/faithfully are a single rhyme. See the Wikipedia page on eye rhymes, which uses the example enemies/flies as something that actually rhymed in Shakespeare's day. Pronunciation has changed a lot since then. In fact, pronunciation changed a lot even between Wyatt and Shakespeare. I would argue that we don't really know how to scan Wyatt because we don't know for certain how he would have pronounced anything. That's a whole 'nother question for someone to ask on this forum. Hint, hint.

  3. Anne Locke provides a great example of how anti-Stratfordians—those who claim Shakespeare couldn't have written the plays or poems attributed to him—base their arguments on poor historical scholarship. We have six signatures in Shakespeare's handwriting. None of them uses the spelling "Shakespeare," and there are four variants of spelling in the six samples. This is often used as "evidence" that Shakespeare was illiterate and could not have written the works that are generally accepted as his. As the case of Locke shows, the matter is simply that spellings, even of names, weren't standardized in Shakespeare's day.

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  • Have you looked at metrical patterns? One thing I've noticed with Shakespeare's sonnets (I've been unable to remember or re-find the page that introduced me to this) is that the quatrains often have an AABB meter: "shall i comPARE thee to a summer's DAY / thou art more LOVEly and more temperATE. harsh WINDS do SHAKE the darling BUDS of MAY / and SUMmer's BREEZE hath all too SHORT a DATE." The stresses don't line up rigidly in an AABB pattern, but in each the pattern of stresses in each pair of lines seems closer to each other than to the stresses in the other pair. – supercat Jun 29 at 15:31
  • Typically, by my reading, the first couplet of each quatrain will work best with two stresses, on the second and fifth foot, "how HOT the eye of heaven SHINES / and OFT is his gold complexition DIMMED", while the second couplet will benefit from more stresses: "as every FAIR, from FAIR sometimes deCLINES / by CHANCE or nature's changing COURSE unTRIMMED." The samples you quote seem like they could show an AABB pattern, but the meter seems different from Shakespeare's. – supercat Jun 29 at 15:38
  • @supercat I’m not sure what you mean by AABB meter. I haven’t come across that terminology to discuss metrical patterns, and the way you have distributed the stresses in those lines is not how I would scan them. I’m also not sure what the relevance is to the question of whether Shakespeare introduced the sonnet to English poetry? – verbose Jun 29 at 17:59
  • There are a number of ways of scanning sonnets, but at least as I would be inclined to read Shakespeare's sonnets, pairs of lines have similar stress patterns (assuming one tries to read them expressively, rather than as daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM). I wish I could find the web page that discussed that pattern, since it gave me new appreciation for Shakespeare's work. The historical question is whether other people's verse had similar meter, but if you don't recognize the kind of metrical pattern I'm talking about that question would be moot. – supercat Jun 29 at 18:59
  • “There are a number of ways of scanning sonnets” [citation needed]. As far as I know there is only one way of scanning English poetry, at least since the quantitative meter folks failed to catch on in the 16th C. Yes, it would indeed be great to see that page. But manipulating meter for expressive purposes is far from unique to Shakespeare. Again, I’m not sure what the relevance is to the question of whether he introduced sonnets to England. If the claim is that his use of meter was pioneering, I refer you to Philip Sidney, mentioned in my answer. – verbose Jun 29 at 19:09

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