Close Reading the Sonnet, from Renaissance England to 21st-Century America

“Not marble, nor the gilded monuments / Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme,” begins Shakespeare’s famous Sonnet 116. And as Shakespeare predicted, the “powerful rhyme” of the fourteen-line sonnet form has fascinated Anglophone writers for centuries, outlasting not only “gilded monuments,” but other poetic styles and fads, too.

In this virtual seminar, we will dive deep into sonnets, exploring their formal features (rhyme scheme, meter, “turns”), common themes (love, sex, grief, nationhood), and enduring popularity from the early 1500s to the present day. Given their robust history and concise structure, sonnets are perfect for teaching students how to interpret form and content simultaneously, identify and analyze thematic patterns, and interrogate the politics of “the canon.” To that end, we will devote most of our seminar to close-reading and comparing sonnets across time. We will also make space to brainstorm and share strategies for teaching with sonnets based on this practice.

Authors under discussion might include: Thomas Wyatt, Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser (16th century); William Shakespeare, John Donne, Mary Wroth (17th century); Charlotte Smith (18th century); Elizabeth Barrett Browning, William Wordsworth, Emma Lazarus (19th century); Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, Gwendolyn Brooks (20th century); Eve L. Ewing, Terrance Hayes (21st century).