Sonnets From Six Centuries

The two-part structure of the sonnet enabled it to achieve great emotional and intellectual power. We will begin from its introduction from Italy by Tudor poets and range through its exploitation by Sidney, Shakespeare, Donne and others before we look at the Romantics, Keats, Wordsworth and Coleridge among them. We will explore the remarkable sonnets of Hopkins, those like the few powerful ones that Oscar Wilde wrote and those by moderns like Auden and Heaney.

This class will be delivered face-to-face at WEA Sydney. Enrolling students need to ensure they have read the current COVID-19 Safety Guidance that WEA Sydney has put in place before enrolling.


  • The origin and spread of the Sonnet Form. The most famous body of Italian sonnets was that addressed by Petrarch idealising Laura. The sonnet was introduced from Italy by Tudor poets Wyatt and Surrey early in the 16th century. In sonnets of political resentment and intense sexuality, like Wyatt’s Whoso list to hunt, they revolted energetically against Petrarch’s idealisation of woman. We will look at some of their sonnets, also at the strikingly different poems that make up Sir Philip Sidney’s witty and charming sonnet sequence, Astrophel and Stella, written in the later part of the century. We will also look at sonnets by poets such as Spenser, Drayton and others.
  • We will begin our treatment of the most remarkable sonnets from Shakespeare’s unmatched output. They are poems of the highest order of creativity and impact, arguably the greatest collection of sonnets ever written. They are different in form from the Petrarchan sonnet which set a final six lines against the first eight. The form that has been given Shakespeare’s name allows for a sharper and more dramatic turn, building through twelve lines to a final rhyming couplet.
  • There so many great poems amongst the 154 that Shakespeare wrote that we will spend a second day looking at more of them.
  • Today we will look at the great body of Donne’s Holy Sonnets, and at sonnets by John Milton, Ben Jonson and George Herbert.
  • Very few sonnets seem to have been written during the Restoration period, but the form was enthusiastically taken up by the Romantics. Wordsworth wrote , unequal in quality; Keats in his much shorter life wrote 67; Coleridge wrote 48. The best sonnets of the three, Wordsdworth’s On Westminster Bridge at Sunrise and Keats’ Bright Star, are justly loved.
  • Gerard Manley Hopkins is one of the giants of sonnet writers. His Terrible Sonnets, the record of a period of intense inner suffering near the end of his life, are amongst the most powerful sonnets ever written, but he also wrote sonnets that showed his moving care for the people he ministered to, like Felix Randall, and his admiration of their strength. Others, like My own heart let me more have pity on, show his capacity for gentleness and sensitivity. His use of what he called sprung rhythm led to the most energetic handling of language (and of the sonnet form) that shows itself in some of his more daring sonnets like Spelt from Sybil’s Leaves. Amongst Oscar Wilde’s comparatively small poetic output there is a stingingly powerful sonnet, On the Sale by Auction of Keats’ Love Letters. Wilfrid Owen’s Anthem for a Doomed Youth is an intense sonnet of the First World War.
  • W.H.Auden wrote two sonnet sequences, Sonnets from China and The Quest. Today we will look at his characteristic use of the form.
  • We will finish our review of the sonnet with an exploration of Seamus Heaney’s Glanmore Sonnets and of his collection, Clearances.


By the end of this course, students should be able to:

  1. Recognise the contribution that the sonnet has made to our literature.
  2. Recognise that the sonnet form essentially leads a poem to a turn, either setting the final six lies against the first eight or the last two against the first twelve.
  3. Notice that this turn can give poems very different qualities - sharp or gentle, dramatic or reflective, private or public.

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