The evidently unauthorized publication of a portion of Samuel Daniel’s sonnet sequence Delia in 1591, as part of Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella, marked the introduction of the perfected version of a major poetic form that, within a few years, had become one of the dominant methods of expression in English poetry. While Daniel may be relatively unknown in comparison to Sidney, Edmund Spenser, or William Shakespeare, with Delia, first published in complete form in 1592, he became one of the important contributors to the development and growth of English poetry, and he remains a central figure in Elizabethan intellectual life.
One of the most notable features about the English Renaissance is the extremely rapid intellectual, cultural, and artistic development of the period. Two of the major cultural and artistic accomplishments of the English Renaissance, the blank verse play and the sonnet sequence, were innovations that were introduced relatively suddenly and perfected rapidly. The forms, once available, were utilized by artists ranging across the full intellectual spectrum, and, within a single generation, often within a period of a few years, English authors produced enduring masterpieces in both forms.
For example, Gorboduc (1561), by Thomas Sackville and Thomas Norton, is credited with being the first English play written in blank verse; it also served as the prototype for the five-act, multiple-scene play. Gorboduc spurred other writers to present a variety of plays ranging from tragedy to comedy to history. English literature reached a peak in its development by being exposed to a new and powerful method of presenting dramatic action.
Fairly soon after its initial production, Gorboduc was accorded mainly historical interest and its style and stagecraft considered rudimentary and crude; still, it was an important step forward, and within thirty years the genre had developed to the point that Christopher Marlowe and Shakespeare could write their masterpieces. The relatively crude beginning present in Gorboduc was rapidly explored and exploited.
A similarly rapid development and fruition took place with the sonnet sequence. The sonnet originally developed on the continent of Europe, with writers such as Petrarch and his followers fixing the major themes, forms, and poetic devices. Spreading throughout Europe, the sonnet convention added refinements from French poets such as Joachim du Bellay before gaining English attention in the early part of the sixteenth century, when Sir Thomas Wyatt introduced the form into English literature. Achieving limited circulation in manuscript form during Wyatt’s life (although Wyatt seems to have planned to publish), his sonnets first saw wide distribution when they were printed in 1557 in a volume known as Tottel’s Miscellany. Tottel’s Miscellany, a collection of more than 250 poems by various writers, was to become one of the most significant contributions to English literature; its value was not so much in its own excellence, but in the development that it inspired in other writers.
Between 1580 and 1583, the Elizabethan courtier and soldier Sir Philip Sidney turned to the sonnet form and produced Astrophel and Stella, the first of the great Elizabethan sonnet sequences. Purposefully unpublished during Sidney’s brief lifetime, Astrophel and Stella was first printed in 1591 in an unauthorized edition by the printer and publisher Thomas Newman. In addition to Sidney’s sonnet sequence, the volume Newman published included twenty-eight additional sonnets by Samuel Daniel; these sonnets were the core of Daniel’s own sonnet cycle, Delia. In this fashion, two of the most influential works of this particular genre were made...
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