Skip main navigation

New offer! Get 30% off your first 2 months of Unlimited Monthly. Start your subscription for just £29.99 £19.99. New subscribers only. T&Cs apply

Find out more

A very short history of poetic form

Watch Professor Hugh Haughton give a very short history of peotic form.
My name is Hugh Haughton and I’m going to say something about history and poetic form. Of course, we encounter poems one by one as they are written one by one. In the beginning and the end, it is a poem’s and poet’s singularity, that matters. On the other hand, all poems take part in what Seamus Heaney calls ‘a human chain’, they are part of a communal cross cultural history of poetry. This is particularly true of that archetypal poetic form, the sonnet, its evolution can be traced from its invention in mediaeval Sicily through the dazzling love sequences of Dante and Petrarch and across Renaissance Europe and from there to the entire globe.
Thomas Wyatt smuggled this 14 line form in to Henry VIII’s England with some seductively sceptical translations of Petrach, like the wonderful ‘Whoso list to hunt I know where is an Hind’, a solid pandemic followed with Over 300000 sonnets published in Renaissance England alone. Culminating in famous sequences by Sidney, Spenser and, of course, Shakespeare, who wrote a monumental sequence of love poems to an unknown young man and some to a woman. In one of these, Shakespeare
brags: ‘Not marble, nor the gilded monuments/ Of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme;’. Shakespeare’s lines foreground architecture, rhyme, and survival across time and they remind us that the sonnet is a particularly self conscious historical form. Later, Dante Gabriel Rossetti wrote that ‘a sonnet is a moment’s monument’ noticing that the word ‘moment’ hides in the word ‘monument’, and signalling that sonnets are always records of their own moment, they record form of continuity across time but also the individual life of authors in their own time, place, and skin. The sonnet quarries and quarrels with its own tradition.
We see this in 18th century women writers, like Charlotte Smith, young Romantics like Keats and Wordsworth, one of whose sonnets is a mini history of the sonnet. The sonnet is later taken up by writers from underprivileged backgrounds like John Clare who wrote hundreds of protean eco sonnets, by war poets like Wilfred Owen’s fierce anti-war poem ‘Dulce et decorum est’, the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh writing of rural Monaghan and declaring that Homer ‘made The Iliad from such a local row’ and ‘Gods make their own importance’. Sonnets, that is established the importance of often non- established subjects, including the subjected.
They stake a claim and change the map, we can see this in the crazily multiform sonnet to Paul Muldoon writing from Northern Ireland, in the Caribbean Derek Walcott’s magisterial 50 sonnet sequence ‘Midsummer’ or in the Black American Countee Cullen’s ‘The Dark Tower’ which declares ‘we shall not always plant while others reap’. Poets of all rationalities, nationalities, colours, and sexualities stake their originality, and reap their identity in the block like space of a sonnet. As Kay Ryan says, ‘It comes in a block. But of course one block is not like another’. When it comes to this most fluid of forms like a river you never step into the same sonnet twice.

In this video, Professor Hugh Haughton gives a very short history of poetic form, focusing on the sonnet form.

Below, we’ve enclosed links to some of the sonnets Professor Hugh Haughton mentions in his video, so that you can explore them, too.

You can find a selection of Petrarch’s poems on the poetry in translation website, here. Poetry in Translation website – Petrarch

Read one of Dante Alighieri’s sonnets, translated by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The sonnet is titled: ‘Sonnet: “Upon a day, came Sorrow in to me’. Poetry Foundation website – ‘Sonnet: “Upon a day, came Sorrow in to me” – Dante Alighieri trans. Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Read ‘Whoso list to hunt’ by Sir Thomas Wyatt on the Poetry Foundation Website. Poetry Foundation website – ‘Whoso list to hunt’ Sir Thomas Wyatt.

Read Wordsworth’s sonnet on why poets should like sonnets: ‘Nuns Fret Not at Their Convent’s Narrow Room’ on the Poetry Foundation Website. Poetry Foundation website – Nuns Fret Not at Their Convent’s Narrow Room – William Wordsworth.

Hear poet Denise Riley read two sonnets by Charlotte Smith, ‘Sonnet Written at the Close of Spring’, and ‘Sonnet: On Being Cautioned Against Walking on a Headland Overlooking the Sea, Because It Was Frequented by a Lunatic’. The recordings of these reading can be found on the poetry archive website Poetry Archive – Denise Riley reads Charlotte Smith.

Over to you…

From Italy to Tudor England to St Lucia, the sonnet is well-travelled. What do you think about the sonnet’s migration over history?

Let us know what you think in the comments below.

This article is from the free online

Poetry: How to Read a Poem

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now