As poets have demonstrated for centuries, a sonnet for your beloved never goes out of style. The gift of verse may carry extra cachet this Valentine’s Day, on the heels of Taylor Swift’s announcement that her next album is poetry-themed.
But in carrying out my research on Renaissance literature and gender, I’ve been struck by how many of that period’s love poems were not for lovers.
These sonnets, composed for friends and family, are not just beautiful; they’re also a reminder that love and Valentine’s Day aren’t exclusively for couples.
The love sonnet is born
The sonnet was invented in 12th century Italy as a 14-line poem with 11 beats per line and various rhyming patterns. Its originator, Giacomo da Lentini, was a poet in the Kingdom of Sicily who had been inspired by older Arabic and French poetry.
But it was the Italian poet Petrarch who put the form on the map. In the 14th century, he wrote a collection of 366 poems, mostly sonnets. He penned the collection for a woman named Laura, whom he loved from afar in life and after her death.
Petrarch died in 1374, but his poetry became the most widely published literature of the Italian Renaissance. It was so popular that it inspired generations of poets, imitators known as “Petrarchists.” Petrarchism became a global phenomenon in the 16th and 17th centuries, spreading to Spain, France, England and even the Americas.
Playing with sonneteering stereotypes
Thomas Wyatt is thought to have written the first English sonnets, in the early 16th century. His poems strongly relied on Petrarch; some of the best known, like “Whoso list to hunt,” are quasi-translations of the Italian poet’s work.
Writing a half-century later, Shakespeare changed the form, ending his sonnets with a rhyming couplet, giving birth to the “Shakespearean sonnet.”