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An obscured tradition: the sonnet and its fourteen-line predecessors

Holton, A. (2011) An obscured tradition: the sonnet and its fourteen-line predecessors. Review of English Studies, 62 (255). pp. 373-392. ISSN 1471-6968

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To link to this item DOI: 10.1093/res/hgq109


The sonnet in English is usually located as a sixteenth-century innovation, firmly linked to Italian influences, and frequently associated with a distinctively modern consciousness. Yet the speed and comfort with which the form settled into English reflects the fact that the sonnet per se was preceded by a longstanding tradition of 14-line poems in English written in forms derived from French. Indeed, in terms of formal features, the earliest sonnets in English frequently fray into earlier forms, sharing more with the roundel than with later sonnets. This article considers a number of features of style and content that various writers on the sonnet have argued to be characteristic, sometimes definitive, of the sonnet. These features include repetition, formal unity/division of octave and sestet, use of the volta, asymmetry, argument and development, and a preoccupation with contradictions and the self. The article shows that, while it is true that these features are characteristic of many sonnets, they are not peculiarly characteristic of sonnets, and they can all be found in earlier 14-line poems. Furthermore, a number of the earliest sonnets in English do not themselves possess these ‘sonnet-like’ characteristics. The otherness and the modernity of the sonnet have thus been overstated.

Item Type:Article
Divisions:No Reading authors. Back catalogue items
Arts, Humanities and Social Science > Graduate Centre for Medieval Studies (GCMS)
Arts, Humanities and Social Science > Early Modern Research Centre (EMRC)
Arts, Humanities and Social Science > School of Literature and Languages > English Literature
ID Code:30722
Publisher:Oxford University Press

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