The course will introduce students to the sonnet and explore its importance to the English Renaissance. Very often the expression of a suffering lover, a sonnet contains 14 lines that proceed according to a formal rhyme scheme (such as ABAB CDCD EFEF GG in the Shakespearean sonnet). The sonnet came to prominence in 13th century Italy but only entered English several centuries later, when poets such as Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard translated selections of Petrarch’s Canzoniere. The course will trace the history of the sonnet from its Italian origins to the immensely popular sonnet sequences (collections of sonnets that feature recurrent voices and perhaps even tell a story) of late 16th century England, beginning with Philip Sidney’s highly influential Astrophil and Stella. It will then turn to poetic experiments with the sonnet in the 17th Century, by the likes of Shakespeare, Donne, and Milton.
The course will examine the poetic form, history, and emotional pull of the sonnet. It will ask why this form captured the imagination of the greatest English poets and how it was used to tackle fundamental questions about the nature of selfhood, desire, faith, and politics. How, for instance, do poets used the sonnet to respond and contribute to fundamental changes in the political, economic, and religious structures in Renaissance England? How do poets compete with and influence one another? And how do they use the sonnet to think about the nature of the individual self and its use of language? The sonnet may initially appear to be a plaintive song about impossible love but it is much more than that – it sings of erotic love but also of religious faith and doubt, political upheaval, and the place of the self in its broader world and culture.
The course seeks to introduce students to both the poetic form of the sonnet and the literary and cultural movements of the English Renaissance. First, students will develop an understanding of poetic form and learn to analyse how poet’s use rhyme, rhythm, and structure to express complex ideas and emotions. Second, students will learn about the evolution of the sonnet and how its formal features are both eloborated upon and challenged by succeeding poets. Third, the course will link the sonnet to its historical context, and ask students to think about how it might be a means of expressing or challenging broader political, religious, and cultural movements. By the end of the course, students should be able to anlayse a sonnet’s form and language and use this analysis as part of a larger argument about the poem’s use or design – be it aesthetic, personal, political, or religious.
We will meet once a week for three hours. The class will be made up of formal lectures, group work, and class discussions. Each week different students will present a short discussion paper on a particular sonnet. There will also be one or two short in-class written exercises throughout the semester.
Class Attendance and Participation – 10%
In-Class Exercises and Presentations – 20%
Mid-Term Paper – 25%
Final Paper – 45%
We will study sonnets by the following poets: