Sonnets open the tiny rose-coloured window to show the greyer world waiting just beyond. In essence, a sonnet’s utility expertly strikes upon the heart as it shows both grief/loss and love/passion intermingling and meshing into one amalgamation quite smoothly, however, it’s also evident that the sheer power of the sonnet isn’t felt in every one person, as William Wordsworth notes in his sonnet circa 1802 Scorn not the Sonnet. Producing and viewing through a literary lens his argumentative sonnet uses the Italian sonnet form with a rhyming couplet to express how the sonnet, through many great literary geniuses, should stand to be relevant. Still, as the last three words tell us, these great men could not make the sonnet impressive enough for critics’ sake.
The sonnet itself mentions seven male poets/epic writers: Shakespeare; Petrarch; Tasso; Camӧens; Dante; Spenser; Milton—all of whom had used the sonnet form, whether English or Italian, to express a profound emotion in simply 14 lines. It’s intriguing that Wordsworth decides to name these seven poets in this order, as evident, they do not chronologically occur in this order as it was Petrarch that influenced Wyatt who then decided to write what we now know to be the English sonnet form (sorry, Shakespeare, but it’s true). Either way, in choosing these men to symbolize the sonnet and what the sonnet can evoke from literary passion and emotion, Wordsworth emphasizes how versatile and creative the stagnant form is. None of these named poets utilized the sonnet similarly to produce their idea or theme. For Shakespeare, he used the sonnet to hide his love for his “master mistress” from sonnets one to 126, followed by his irrevocable pining and lamentations for his “dark lady” for the rest of the sonnets. Petrarch wrote about the lovely pain he has for Laura, his unattainable beloved, and used the sonnet to express this duality and then, once she passes, to immortalize her forever with him and in her grand beauty. Vitally, this difference or shift from one style to another is something Wordsworth wishes to be cognizant of rather than dismiss.
Therefore, by beginning the sonnet by addressing a critic for scorning the sonnet for having “frowned mindless of its just honours,” this opening seeks to implore the critic to not criticize the sonnet as one, a genre, and two, as devoid of freedom and expression (l. 1-2). Literary speaking, the sonnet allows for expansion into multiple feelings and resolutions, although it has been categorized as strictly love-related. Most sonnets in the very general sense are thought, as I had once, to be typically written as being in love but that love sparks grief or even the poetic voice is grieving a loss but that loss with be loved anyhow. But, the poets Wordsworth selects branches that out a little bit to combat the critic’s brash and altogether unprecedented scorn. Each poet has done with the sonnet amazing things: “Shakespeare unlocked his heart;” “Camӧens soothed an exile’s grief;” “Spenser, called from Faery-land/to struggle through dark ways;” Milton…blew soul-animating strains” (l. 3,6,10,12-14). All these things through the literary lens had blown the sonnet form, the original critique of the critic, out of the water and used it of their own volition. Even Wordsworth himself in his sonnet changes the form by breaking the first and second lines with punctuation, which defies Shakespeare’s and Petrarch’s usage of the line structure. Yet, despite all of this, Wordsworth understands—or says lamentably—that although these great poets created great works, “alas” it was “too few” (l. 14). These historical literary marvels are lost behind the genre, not to be seen for their impressive use of the form and mode.
One thought on “Apparently literary history doesn’t repeat itself”
I think it’s really interesting how you highlighted that the Sonnet as a form triumphed over the men who seemingly perfected it in Wordsworth’s sonnet. He also mentions that the sonnet is a myrtle crown for Dante about halfway through the poem. Upon doing some brief research, I found out that the myrtle was sacred in Greek culture as another symbol of peace, growth and victory somewhat akin to the laurel. With this added piece of information, the sonnet becomes the crowning achievement of the men, and we see the Sonnet as a form and its versatility over the men who contributed to the genre.