Sonnets and Blues and Rock and Roll as Evolving Genres or Kinds of Poetry

          Shakespeare's sonnets present us with a good example of a "late-stage" form of a popular genre.  If you know rock and roll history, you probably can trace a similar pattern of artists adopting and shifting the art form's characteristics, from African-American rhythm and blues artists like Elmore James,  Robert Johnson, and Big Moma Thornton to later imitators like the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and Janice Joplin, who themselves begin to write original variations on their models' work as they matured.  Wyatt and Surrey began the genre by translating its forms and initial content from the Italian, Francis Petrarch, the sonnet's "Elmore James."  At some point, they began to innovate by altering the stanza structure and rhyme scheme from Petrarch's octave+sestet, typically rhyming abbbaabbacdcdcd, to a three quatrain and couplet structure, passing through a hybrid period where the rhyme scheme, stanza structure, and location of the volta or dramatic "turn" in the poem's argument are located in an octave divided into two quatrains and a sestet divided into a quatrain and a couplet (abbaabba+efefgg).  Surrey invented the "English" rhyme scheme associated in most readers' minds with Shakespeare (abab+cdcd+efef+gg), but Sidney, perhaps as a conservative aristocratic poet, largely stuck with Wyatt's English-Italian hybrid.  Spenser, of course, concatenated the rhyme of Surrey's English scheme in an unique fashion (abab+bcbc+cdcd+ee).  Shakespeare often joins Sidney in mocking other poets' use of "Petrarchan conceits," those paradoxical metaphors that call love's effects "freezing fires" or compare the unsuccesssful lover to a ship lost at sea.  However, pay close attention to Shakespeare's rhyme schemes and stanza structures and you might catch him using the older structure, and he also (with Sidney) produces sonnets with deliberate "errors" when the subject of the sonnet is error, itself, especially deficiency or excess in his Beloved. 

             Innovation in genres does not happen all at once, and some artists are far out ahead of the pack.  Mary Sidney Herbert collaborated with her brother, Philip, on a dramatically innovative series of translations of the Psalms, most definitely NOT sonnets, but adapting their lyric strategies to sacred topics (as Spenser did with the "Easter sonnet," number 68).  Queen Elizabeth, however, remained quite conservative when she wrote poetry, using popular poetic forms like "poulter's measure" (alternating 12 and 14 syllable lines, that is, hexameter and heptameter) and following the old fashion of Petrarchan conceits.  Amelia Lanyer and Lady Mary Wroth both introduced a radical, feminist shift in perspective by writing from a woman's point of view and by altering the stanza forms and overall idea of a "work" until the old "sonnet" seemed quaint, almost as quaint as references to ancient pop songs for 21st-century students trying to understand Renaissance lyrics.