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Che Riverside Press Cambridge



R. L. S. 244

The Riberside Press


In bringing together this group of sonnets, I have had in mind, first, the lover of English poetry who will, I hope, welcome a small and convenient volume containing so many of his favorite sonnets; and secondly, my own students of Milton, who come to the reading of his sonnets with a vague interest in this form of poetry, but with little historical or technical knowledge about it. They need to read before and after Milton, in order to understand him by comparing his work with that of others; and the sonnet collections hitherto made from the whole field of English literature are in volumes too expensive for use in large classes.

With these objects in mind, I have read from Wyatt and Surrey to the authors in the last number of Poetry, selecting and rejecting, culling and re-culling, until I here offer what seems to me representative of the best English sonnets. There appears a slightly larger proportion of sonnets before Shakespeare, because these are least well known and also the most difficult to obtain. Except in two or three cases, sonnets have been excluded whose entire theme is the description of natural scenery, since such subjects rarely have the inherent unity demanded by the sonnet, however beautiful they may be as poetry. The fact that sonnets have appeared in other collections has not in the least influenced their inclusion or exclusion, for the “best is the best, though a hundred judges have declared it so." The working basis has been to seek sonnets with a clear theme, a definite something to say; and as far as possible to choose only those that develop this thought, according to a clearly conceived plan, in musical, imaginative language. But by no means is every one of these two hundred sonnets great, for a great sonnet is one of the rarest things in literature; real greatness has been



achieved in few cases. Some of the sonnets have been included for significance of thought, although faulty in rhyme scheme or lacking power in music; others below excellence in thought, development, or diction have been given place, because they are the highest achievement of the unpoetical age in which they were written. If, however, all together they represent the best our English poets have accomplished, they show how rich, varied, and significant is the message of the sonnet.

My choice will, doubtless, not meet the approval of any one person, but wherever my judgment is questioned and my sins of commission and omission are condemned, there must necessarily be comparison and discussion; and this will inevitably further intelligence regarding the sonnet and stimulate interest in its poetry, which is the chief end and purpose

of this little book. Many of these sonnets are from books copyrighted by Houghton Mifflin Company; others are reprinted by courteous permission of various publishers. A conscientious effort has been made to search out the holders of all copyrights, and it is hoped that no acknowledgments have unintentionally been omitted.


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The word "sonnet” is derived from the Italian suono, sound, with the diminutive suffix added; its meaning is, then, “a little sound.” This term was clearer to the Italians, from whom we borrowed the poem, than it is to us, for they were in the habit of accompanying this form of verse with music. Petrarch sang his own sonnets to the sound of the lute, and it was not unusual to hear the minstrels singing them from street to street. Indeed, the Italians hardly thought of the sonnet except as accompanied by music.

The rules for the composition of the sonnet have been fixed by the acceptance and practice of the best writers; another kind of lyric may choose its number of feet to the line, or lines to the stanza, but the sonnet must have fourteen lines and no more, must have five beats to each line, neither fewer nor greater in number. It was not, however, to the Italians any poem of fourteen five-stress lines, the subject being expanded according to the caprice of the poet; on the contrary, it should have, if it were a regular sonnet,' a clear and unified theme, stated in the first quatrain, developed or proved in the second, confirmed or regarded from a new point of view in the first tercet, and concluded in the second tercet. It had thus four parts, divided unevenly into two separate systems, eight lines being devoted to placing the thought before the mind, and six to deducing the conclusion from that thought.

This division was made clearer by the use of pause and rhyme. There were three times when the poet should pause,

1 There were also tailed sonnets, with short-lined stanzas following; iterating 8onnets, having only one or two rhymes; interwoven sonnets, in which words in the middle of the lines rhymed as well as those at the end; and several other forms.



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