Early modern theories of the sonnet
Accounts of the quatorzain in Italy, France and England in the second half of the sixteenth century
in The early modern English sonnet
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This chapter assesses the reception and the significance of the early modern sonnet by focusing on poetic treatises of the second half of the sixteenth century, when the fashion for sonnets peaked in Italy, France and England. In Italy, where the sonnet had reached formal maturity and a canonical status based on established models, poets were seeking room for innovation to compete with their prestigious forebears, exploring new forms of both sonnet and poetic collection and further dignifying the fourteen-line poem. In France, by contrast, poets and theorists sought to codify the sonnet, imitating the Italians and rejecting earlier vernacular poetry, often insisting on its epigrammatic dimension – they did not, however, discuss the development of sonnet collections. In England, the sonnet (mediated by French precedents) took a much longer time to be codified, and retained during and after the considered period its original meaning of ‘little song’, or short lyric poem. Addressing general questions of poetics related to the prosody and vocabulary of the English language seems to have held more stakes than determining the specificities of the English sonnet, whose textbook definition mostly corresponds to how it was seen by late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century English treatises.

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