On October 5, 2021 the O. B Hardison Poetry Series welcomed Diane Seuss and t’ai freedom ford for a reading dedicated to exploring the sonnet form. This reading was preceded by a special presentation from the Folger’s Assistant Curator of Collections Elizabeth deBold on the history of sonnets as related to Shakespeare and items in the Folger Collection. Here she shares some of the items from that presentation for an introductory look at Shakespeare’s sonnets.
In the United States, students learn in high school that a sonnet is a short, fourteen-line poem, written in iambic pentameter, which uses the distinctive rhyme scheme ABAB CDCD EFEF GG:
Let me not to the marriage of true minds A
Admit impediments. Love is not love B
Which alters when it alteration finds, A
Or bends with the remover to remove. B
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark C
That looks on tempests and is never shaken; D
It is the star to every wand’ring bark, C
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken. D
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks E
Within his bending sickle’s compass come; F
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, E
But bears it out even to the edge of doom. F
If this be error and upon me prov’d, G
I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d. G
This poetic form, we are taught, is arranged in 3 quatrains (each one composed of four lines, the ends of which rhyme alternately), and ending with a rhymed couplet of two lines. As above, most, if not all of the examples our teachers use are drawn from Shakespeare. This form, which many remember as the only way a sonnet functions, is even known as a “Shakespearean sonnet.” But Shakespeare was far from the only poet to write sonnets, and this is far from the only form a sonnet takes.
In fact, sonnets can come in many different shapes and sizes, and many different rhyme schemes. Just like paper and wine, the sonnet was originally a European import in Britain. Originally popularized by another famous poet, Francesco Petrarch, the sonnet’s form has deep origins in the humanist poets of Italy.
The English word for “sonnet” comes from the Italian name, “soneto,” meaning “a little sound, or song.” Sir Thomas Wyatt, a poet and member of the British aristocracy, is widely believed to be responsible for introducing the form to the English language in the early sixteenth century. By the time Shakespeare arrived on the scene, the sonnet had been popular as a form for English poets to express love, longing, and despair for nearly fifty or more years.
We can see the influence English sonnet-writers had on Shakespeare in this example, one of Sir Thomas Wyatt’s poems, here called “Description and Praise of his love Geraldine:”
From Tuscany came my Lady’s worthy race;
Fair Florence was sometime her ancient seat.
The western isle whose pleasant shore doth face
Wild Camber’s cliffs, did give her lively heat.
Foster’d she was with milk of Irish breast:
Her sire an Earl; her dame of Prince’s blood.
From tender years, in Britain doth she rest,
With Kinges child; where she tasteth costly food.
Hunsdon did first present her to mine eyen:
Bright is her hue, and Geraldine she hight.
Hampton me taught to wish her first for mine;
And Windsor, alas! doth chase me from her sight.
Her beauty of kind; her virtues from above;
Happy is he that can obtain her love!
Although the rhyme scheme, quatrains, and closing couplets are all the same, it seems to lack the deep reflection, broader themes, and imagery that most of Shakespeare’s sonnets include. 154 sonnets written by Shakespeare published in an edition in 1609 survive, as well as six sonnets and a partial sonnet appearing in plays such as Romeo and Juliet, and Love’s Labour’s Lost. In the late 1590s, he was most famous for his lengthy narrative poems, Venus and Adonis and Lucrece, which were written in different poetic forms (read more here)
So how did people in the early modern period first read Shakespeare’s sonnets? According to the author Francis Meres, Shakespeare was known for writing and sharing “sugred Sonnets among his priuate friends,” likely in manuscript form.
Shakespeare was clearly writing and circulating sonnets well before they appear to us in printed form. But nothing could compete with print for increasing circulation. When discussing publishing and print, it’s important to remember that copyright and protection for an authors’ works didn’t exist as we know it today in the sixteenth century. Regulations related to printed works focused most closely on what printers were allowed to print which texts, and these texts were registered by the printers or publishers themselves, usually cutting the author out of the process.
In 1599, William Jaggard, the printer and publisher who would go on to produce the first folio edition of Shakespeare’s plays in 1623, put out a little volume of 20 poems he attributed to a “W. Shakespeare,” called the Passionate Pilgrim.
Most scholars think that there are only five poems which can firmly be attributed to Shakespeare in the Passionate Pilgrim—two sonnets and three poems from the play Love’s Labour’s Lost.
These poems all appear towards the beginning of the work, which makes scholars think Jaggard might have been trying to draw readers in with a well-known master, and then pad out the volume with other poems.
The fragments shown here at the Folger are the only surviving sheets from the first edition in existence, mixed with some sheets from the second edition, printed later that same year.
Even if it was only a clever marketing ploy, the book was very popular, and Jaggard went on to issue two further editions in later years. In the much-expanded third edition, Jaggard ultimately removed Shakespeare’s name from the title page—scholars think because Jaggard upset another poet, Thomas Heywood, whose works were included but whose name was missing, thus giving Shakespeare credit for all the poems in the volume.
In the same year, Heywood wrote in another work called An Apology for Actors of the “manifest iniury done me by taking the two Epistles of Paris to Helen, and Helen to Paris, and printing them in a lesse volume, vnder the name of another.”
Heywood fears this “may put the world in opinion I might steale them from him.” Further, Heywood appears to spill the tea that Shakespeare himself was upset with Jaggard’s liberties, writing “the Author I know much offended with M. Jaggard (that altogether unknown to him) presumed to make so bold with his name.”
This doesn’t seem to have completely spoiled Shakespeare’s relationship with the printer, given his later printing of the folio, though of course by then, Shakespeare was dead.
Here is the official 1609 edition of the Sonnets, firmly and perhaps cheekily described as “Shake-speares sonnets: never before imprinted.” They were published by T.T. (Thomas Thorpe) and printed by G. Eld—definitely not William Jaggard. This first printed edition survives, like the Passionate Pilgrim, in only a few copies—thirteen. The copy shown here is special in another way—it, along with three others, differs slightly in its printing from nine of the thirteen, and indicates it should be sold by a bookseller named William Aspley while the others indicate they should be sold by a bookseller named John Wright. Perhaps this was another way Shakespeare and his printers tried to combat the popularity of the Passionate Pilgrim—by having the work sold as widely as possible.
As my colleagues note in the introduction to our digital edition of the sonnets:
Few collections of poems—indeed, few literary works in general—intrigue, challenge, tantalize, and reward as do Shakespeare’s Sonnets. They philosophize, celebrate, attack, plead, and express pain, longing, and despair, all in a tone of voice that rarely rises above a reflective murmur, all spoken as if in an inner monologue or dialogue, and all within the tight structure of the English sonnet form.
You can read all of Shakespeare’s sonnets on The Folger Shakespeare, our full text source for all of his poems and plays, and read more essays and see more primary sources from world-class institutions around the globe at Shakespeare Documented.
Subscribe now to the O. B. Hardison Poetry Series and enjoy access to recordings of readings throughout the season, including our October reading with Diane Seuss and t’ai freedom ford exploring the sonnet form. Our next reading is Our Songs Came Through: A Celebration of Native Nations Poetry with LeAnne Howe and Tacey M. Atsitty on November 18, 2021 at 7:30pm (ET).