"With This Key Shakespeare Unlocked His Heart"

Context: Not since the glorious age of the lyric poem in the Renaissance had English poets indicated more than a passing interest in the sonnet. With the Romantic writers, however, came a new determination to breathe fresh life into verse. Lyrical Ballads was, as Wordsworth stated in the Preface to the second edition, an attempt to "choose incidents and situations from common life" and to trace through them "the primary laws of our nature." The feeling of a poem, in short, is more important to the Romantic than the incident or the situation. Thus, it is not surprising to find in the Romantic era a revival of the sonnet as an aesthetically structured medium through which to express personal emotion, especially in the hands of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, and Shelley. In "Scorn Not the Sonnet" Wordsworth defends the poetic form against those critics who would claim it too fragile and artificial. To the contrary, Wordsworth traces the history of its use–in Dante, Tasso, Petrarch, Spenser, Milton, and above all Shakespeare. Far from fragile, it has provided the format for the expression of powerful and profound emotional truths:

Scorn not the sonnet; critic, you have frowned,
Mindless of its just honours; with this key
Shakespeare unlocked his heart; the melody
Of this small lute gave ease to Petrarch's wound;
. . .
. . . a glow-worm lamp,
It cheered mild Spenser, called from Faery-land
To struggle through dark ways; and when a damp
Fell round the path of Milton, in his hand
The Thing became a trumpet; whence he blew
Soul-animating strains–alas, too few!