When Shakespeare wrote his first sonnets, probably in the early 1590s, he was making a contribution to a genre that had existed in English for not much more than 50 years. In that time, however, the sonnet had become extraordinarily fashionable. First imported by the courtier and diplomat Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503–42), and refined and modified by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (1517–47), the form found a wider readership as a result of the publication in 1557 by the bookseller Richard Tottel of an anthology entitled Songs and Sonnets written by the Right Honorable Lord Henry Howard late Earl of Surrey and other. Better known as Tottel‘s Miscellany, this volume contained 271 poems by Wyatt, Surrey, the translator Nicholas Grimald, and a number of other unnamed writers, in a variety of forms imported from Europe and adapted to the vernacular language (it also included the earliest examples of blank verse). It would be difficult to overestimate the importance of Tottel‘s Miscellany to the early development of English lyric poetry; its publication was followed by many similar anthologies, and it initiated a process of dissemination to a broader audience of poems originally limited through manuscript circulation to an aristocratic elite.
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