The sonnet is a poem of fourteen lines that follows a strict rhyme scheme and specific structure, the invention of which is credited to the thirteenth century Italian poet Giacomo Da Lentini, and was subsequently made famous by Petrarch. Thomas Wyatt, in the early 16th century, introduced the sonnet into England. However, it was the Earl of Surrey who developed the rhyme scheme – abab cdcd efef gg – which now characterizes the English or Shakespearean sonnet.
The sonnet has been a popular literary form since its creation, made famous by Dante, Petrarch, Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, John Donne, and John Milton, but during the late 17th century and early 18th century the sonnet fell out of favor. Many sonnets were still being produced but were not as popular. Revival began with poets like Thomas Edwards and Charlotte Turner Smith before later including the other Romantics such as Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats and Shelley.
The Romantic poets were influenced by all their famous predecessors, when writing sonnets, but the most important single influence was Milton, who had written less than 30 sonnets himself. In the 17th century Milton kept the sonnet form alive while also expanding the subject matter – which hitherto had mainly been love – by writing about ideas, events, history, and contemporary issues. Like Milton, the Romantics wrote relatively few love sonnets and the sonnet of the Romantic era include politics, nature, friendship, art, history, religion, life and death. In fact some of the Romantic poets even wrote sonnets about sonnets. Wordsworth’s Scorn not the Sonnet is an example of this. Keats also wrote about sonnets, most notably in On the Sonnet (1819), which like Wordsworth's poem defends the form in content and by using it himself.
Milton especially had a strong influence on Wordsworth after he heard his sonnets read aloud. Of sonnets he said, “Rather [I] like to employ them occasionally, tho’ I have done it much less in proportion than my great Masters, especially Milton”.[full citation needed] Although Wordsworth wrote hundreds of sonnets, he saw himself in Milton's shadow. Wordsworth loved the sonnet form because once the simple rules were mastered he could take as much liberty as he wanted to explore topics of interest. He believed that poets should write sonnets to add variety to their work and keep them out of the trap of routine.
The sonnet form humbled many of the Romantics who are usually noted for their strong “I” assertion in lyric narratives. Coleridge too felt unsure of himself saying, “The sonnet has ever been a favourite species of composition with me; but I am conscious that I have not succeeded in it".[full citation needed]
Although the Romantics wrote sonnets about a variety of subjects, the most common was nature. Petrarch also wrote many sonnets which included descriptions of nature, as did Shakespeare, but their use of nature was often incidental to the main theme relating to love or part of an analogy. Milton moved away from nature and it is missing from many of his sonnets. Nature, however, is the main subject of many of the Romantics sonnets. Many of the sonnets and poems of the era describe the calm, beauty, power or sublimity of nature and Nature is often personified to emphasise the closeness in the relationship between people to and nature. In other poems an analogy is made between man and nature. For instance, in Keats’s The Human Seasons, the changes of the seasons are compared with the stages of human life.
The two classic forms that the Romantics used the most were the Petrarchan sonnet and the Shakespearean sonnet. The Petrarchan or Italian form usually follows a rhyme scheme of abba abba cde cde. The poem is usually divided into two sections with the first eight lines, an octave, and the last six, a sestet. There is usually a turn in the poem around line nine. The Shakespearean form has a rhyme scheme of abab cdcd efef gg. The end rhyming couplet is often used to turn the idea that has been building through the poem.
The Romantics played with these forms. Since the general topic and focus of the sonnet shifted in this era, it makes sense that the form would also change to mirror the content. A sonnet like Shelley’s Ozymandias uses neither a complete Shakespearian nor Petrarchan rhyme scheme. The pattern of ab ab ac dc ed ef ef, is no less a sonnet than those of conventional patterns. The movement away from set structures could be to mirror the feelings of detachment in the poem.
Charlotte Turner Smith (1749 – 1806) was one of the first Romantics to bring back the use of the sonnet. She is noted for her experimentation with forms, combining In new ways the Petrarchan and Shakespearean forms, picking and choosing the best features of both. Her poem, "Sonnet LVI, The Captive Escaped in the Wilds of America", has end lines that turn the whole poem in a new direction using mostly near rhymes.
The ode might seem a much more likely form for the Romantics, because it is an irregular form and adapted in many ways to the speaker and subject. These elements of the ode were often used to convey rapid changes in thoughts and emotions. However, the sonnet form gave the Romantic poets the best of both worlds. A poem like Shelley’s "Ode to the West Wind" contains violent shifts reflecting the blowing wind, but it consists of sections made up of sonnets. The Romantics prove with this that they could master the ways of their predecessors that they so admire and still move on to something new. The form of the sonnet helps Shelley to contain something that is uncontainable. Following the form of Dante in his Divine Comedy, Shelley uses a unique terza rima pattern to create a structure like the flow of the wind, and yet contain the poem, so there is a sense of closure at the end.