The art of the sonnet: from the Renaissance to European Modernism

Course Dates: 05/11/22 - 12/11/22
Time: 10:30 - 13:00
Location: Online
Shakespeare's is the most celebrated of all sonnet cycles, but the form itself has been integral to Western lyric poetry for nearly eight centuries. Explore works by Petrarch, Shakespeare, Donne, Michelangelo, Vittoria Colonna and Rilke.
This course will be delivered online. See the ‘What is the course about?’ section in course details for more information.
Book your place
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Full fee £59.00 Senior fee £47.00 Concession £38.00

Course Code: HLT189

Sat, day, 05 Nov - 12 Nov '22

Duration: 2 sessions (over 2 weeks)

Or call to enrol:020 7831 7831

Please note: We offer a wide variety of financial support to make courses affordable. Just visit our online Help Center for more information on a range of topics including fees, online learning and FAQs.

What is the course about?

This online literature course takes as its starting point the fact that the Shakespearean sonnet is not only “as much a synonym for ’love-poem’ as ‘Mona Lisa’ is for ‘beautiful woman’” (Don Paterson), it takes its place in a tradition that goes all the way back to 13th century Sicily and shows no sign of dissipating in the 21st. What is it about the fourteen-line formula, in all its variants, that has drawn the greatest poets of every age to take up the challenge it poses to their powers of condensation, refinement and ingenuity? The composer Gustav Mahler claimed a symphony “must be like the world. It must embrace everything”: the sonnet epitomises a similar ambition which is at the heart of all poetic expression – to distil into compacted form all that can be said about the profoundest reaches of emotional, erotic, spiritual and imaginative experience. The course will trace its mercurial evolution from century to century and from country to country, continent to continent, while focusing in particular on individual poems drawn from the sonnet cycles of six of its most celebrated practitioners.

This is a live online course. You will need:
- Internet connection. The classes work best with Chrome.
- A computer with microphone and camera is best (e.g. a PC/laptop/iMac/MacBook), or a tablet/iPad/smart phone/iPhone if you don't have a computer.
- Earphones/headphones/speakers.
We will contact you with joining instructions before your course starts.

What will we cover?

We begin with Petrarch’s Canzoniere, classicism, and the emergence of the modern love lyric or autobiography. Next, we’ll look closely at some of Shakespeare’s Sonnets: a private theatre of the emotions, erotic obsession, and philosophical reflection on the quintessential themes of ageing, loneliness and death. We’ll contrast these with the Holy Sonnets of John Donne, comparable in their linguistic mastery but with the added radicalism, in Donne’s case, of an erotic fervour turned towards God. Moving to Renaissance Italy, we place side by side the sonnets of Michelangelo and Vittoria Colonna: what drove the monumental artist to seek this archetypally personal form of expression in the last thirty years of his life, and why was Colonna, his intellectual and spiritual confidante, feted as the most influential female voice in Renaissance Italy? We then turn to Rilke’s early 20th century Sonnets to Orpheus: classical myth and the French and German sonnet reimagined in a passionate exploration, symbolist and metaphorical, of the nature of poetry itself. How flexible can the sonnet form be?

What will I achieve?
By the end of this course you should be able to...

• Discuss the featured poems with some critical sophistication and technical knowledge
• Explore other works or poets with an understanding of their place in the history of the sonnet
• Use these texts as springboards for further investigation of the relationship between poetry and its cultural and intellectual backgrounds.

What level is the course and do I need any particular skills?

No previous knowledge is required. Anyone interested in literature who enjoys close reading and is willing to take part in discussion is welcome.

How will I be taught, and will there be any work outside the class?

There will be a variety of teaching methods, including direct tutor input, power point, video and audioclips. There will be opportunities to express why individually we are participating on the course and what we hope to take away from it. No work outside class apart from reading the poems circulated digitally before each session.

Are there any other costs? Is there anything I need to bring?

It would be helpful if you could read examples of sonnets by some of the named poets before coming to class, but this is not necessary. There are many excellent anthologies, but our discussions will centre around the tutor’s own selection. For anyone particularly interested in Shakespeare, Don Paterson’s “Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets” (Faber, 2012) is a wonderful, thought-provoking introduction.

When I've finished, what course can I do next?

Look for other Literature courses under History, Culture and Writing/Literature at

Stephen Winfield

Stephen Winfield has lectured in English for over thirty years. He taught Language and Literature at Richmond upon Thames College in Twickenham from 1989 to 2017, and was Coordinator of the International Baccalaureate there from 2004 to 2016. He has also lectured in English Literature at the University of Katowice in Poland and taught Business English in Paris. He has taught a range of EFL courses at Richmond College, for the Bell School of Languages, the Sinoscope Project at Kings College London and the BBC Summer School. He has taught classes in English, American and International Literature at City Lit since 2014.

Please note: We reserve the right to change our tutors from those advertised. This happens rarely, but if it does, we are unable to refund fees due to this. Our tutors may have different teaching styles; however we guarantee a consistent quality of teaching in all our courses.