How the Sonnet Came to England
U PON a January day in 1527 two gaily decked barges met upon the Thames. In the one sat a man of forty. His fair hair and beard were already touched with gray. His face was grave and thoughtful, and his eyes gave to it a curious expression, for the right was dull and sightless, while with the left he looked about him sharply. This was Sir John Russell, gentleman of the Privy Chamber, soldier, ambassador, and favorite of King Henry VIII. Fighting in the King's French wars he had lost the sight of his right eye. Since then he had led a busy life in court and camp, passing through many perilous adventures in the service of his master, and now once again by the King's commands he was about to set forth for Italy.
As the other barge drew near Russell saw that in it there sat
Thomas Wyatt, a young poet and courtier of
"To Italy, sent by the King."
To Italy, the land of Poetry! The idea fired the poet's soul.
"And I," at once he answered, "will, if you please, ask leave, get money, and go with you."
"No man more welcome," answered the ambassador, and so it was settled between them. The money and the leave were both forthcoming, and Thomas Wyatt passed to Italy. This chance meeting and this visit to Italy are of importance to our literature, because they led to a new kind of poem being written in English. This was the Sonnet.
The Sonnet is a poem of fourteen lines, and is perhaps the most difficult kind of poem to write. It is divided into two parts. The first part has eight lines and ought only to have two rimes. That is, supposing we take words riming with love and king for our rimes, four lines must rime with love and four with king. The rimes, too, must come in a certain order. The first, fourth, fifth and eighth lines must rime, and the second, third, sixth, and seventh. This first part is called the octave, from the Latin word octo, eight. The second part contains six lines, and is therefore called the sextet, from the Latin word sex, meaning six. The sextet may have either two or three rimes, and these may be arranged in almost any order. But a correct sonnet ought not to end with a couplet, that is two riming lines. However, very many good writers in English do so end their sonnets.
As the sonnet is so bound about with rules, it often makes the
thought which it expresses sound a little unreal. And for that
very reason it suited the times in which Wyatt lived. In those
Petrarch, the great Italian poet, from whom you remember Chaucer had learned much, and whom perhaps he had once met, made use of this kind of poem. In his sonnets he told his love of a fair lady, Laura, and made her famous for all time.
Of course, when Wyatt came to Italy Petrarch had long been dead. But his poems were as living as in the days of Chaucer, and it was from Petrarch's works that Wyatt learned this new kind of poem, and it was he who first made use of it in English. He, too, like Petrarch, addressed his sonnets to a lady, and the lady he took for his love was Queen Anne Boleyn. As he is the first, he is perhaps one of the roughest of our sonnet writers, but into his sonnets he wrought something of manly strength. He does not sigh so much as other poets of the age. He says, in fact, "If I serve my lady faithfully I deserve reward." Here is one of his sonnets, which he calls "The lover compareth his state to a ship in perilous storm tossed by the sea."
It is not perfect, it is not even Wyatt's best sonnet, but it is one of the most simple. To make it run smoothly we must sound the ed in those words ending in ed as a separate syllable, and we must put a final e to sharp in the second line and sound that. Then you see the rimes are not very good. To begin with, the first eight all have sounds of s. Then "alas" and "pass" do not rime with "case" and "apace," nor do "comfort" and "port." I point these things out, so that later on you may see for yourselves how much more polished and elegant a thing the sonnet becomes.
Although Wyatt was our first sonnet writer, some of his poems which are not sonnets are much more musical, especially some he wrote for music. Perhaps best of all you will like his satire Of the mean and sure estate. A satire is a poem which holds up to scorn and ridicule wickedness, folly, or stupidity. It is the sword of literature, and often its edge was keen, its point sharp.
That is not the end of the poem. Wyatt points the moral. "Alas," he says, "how men do seek the best and find the worst." "Although thy head were hooped with gold," thou canst not rid thyself of care. Content thyself, then, with what is allotted thee and use it well.
This satire Wyatt wrote while living quietly in the country,
having barely escaped with his life from the King's wrath. But
although he escaped the scaffold, he died soon after in his
King's service. Riding on the King's business in the autumn of
1542 he became overheated, fell into a fever, and died. He was
buried at Sherborne. No stone marks his
Books To Read
Early Sixteenth-Century Lyrics (Belle Lettres Series), edited by