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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The Renaissance sonneteers : a study in the development of style Dunn, Ian Sinclair


The following thesis is an attempt to illustrate the development of style in English Renaissance poetry from the beginning of the Reformation, under Henry VIII, through the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods, to the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, using, as a principal guide to this development, the work of the major sonneteers: Wyatt and Surrey, Spenser, Sidney, Shakespeare, Donne, and Milton. The fundamental theorem upon which the thesis rests is dependent upon the following assumptions: that the unifying principle which gives art its structure resides in the artist's subconscious and is largely beyond his wilful control; that this principle is shaped to a great extent by various forces in the artist's intellectual environment which help to mold his whole personality; and that the structure of art in general and of poetry in particular must therefore reflect at least the more general characteristics of that intellectual environment, regardless of the artistes individual peculiarities. Even a very cursory examination of the intellectual history of the English Renaissance will reveal that the period is in a state of constant flux and can be divided into three distinct but consecutive phases: the ordered, certain world of the High Renaissance is brought to the peak of its stability during the last two decades of the sixteenth century; in the 1950’s it begins to show clear signs of breaking down, under the shattering impact of Copernicus and the New Philosophy, and by the early seventeenth century it has collapsed into chaos and generated a thoroughgoing neurotic insecurity; the remainder of the seventeenth century is devoted to a gradual philosophical reintegration, working toward the ultimate solidarity of eighteenth century rationalism, and reaching its first plateau with the relative calm of the early Restoration period. These three phases of intellectual development are all clearly represented In the literature of the period, as well as in the other arts, in the High Renaissance, mannerist, and baroque styles. The sonnets of the Renaissance are particularly useful for illustrating the development of literary style for three reasons: they are compact, well-defined, and therefore very convenient microcosms of poetic structure which, because of their precise definition, lend themselves readily to a comparative study; they display a great deal of attention to the strictly formal aspects of poetry and are therefore more than casually relevant to an examination of style; and finally, they are written in greater quantity than any of the shorter poetic forms and they appear continuously throughout the period in the work of most of the major poets. It appears that among the sonneteers of the Renaissance, Spenser, Donne, and Milton are respectively the most distinct representatives of the High Renaissance, mannerist, and baroque styles in poetry. Spenser, in his ordered ritualistic treatment of NeoPlatonism and courtly love typifies the High Renaissance; Donne, in his disingenuous inversion of Elizabethan idealism, reflects the insecurity of the Jacobean period; and Milton, in his broadly comprehensive affirmation of new certainties of vision, exhibits there integration of baroque thought. Wyatt and Surrey are working toward the Spenserian conception of poeticunity; Sidney is working away from Spenser, or at least from what Spenser represents, even though his sonnets appear several years earlier; and Shakespeare is progressively more and more caught up in the movement towards mannerism which is displayed so consistently in the poetry of Donne, in the sonnets of these seven poets, then, the style of English poetry can be seen to run through a complete cycle, reflecting in miniature not only the structural principles of art in general but the whole intellectual development of England's, golden age.

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