“To the Reader of these Sonnets”: Drayton and the English Sonnet

Updated on March 8, 2018

My verse is the true image of my mind” –Michael Drayton (“Idea,”1916)


On the cusp between the 15th and 16th centuries, Michael Drayton’s collection of English sonnets, “Idea,” appealed to both classicism and progressivism in both the form and content of his sonnets. His poetry essentially generated an intriguing perspective of Platonic poetry in an age of rising humanism. While Drayton’s poetry surprisingly lacked nationalistic intentions for English renaissance poetry, he nevertheless embraced a highly personalized voice in “Idea.” Unlike the English writers from his age, Drayton carefully curbed his efforts not to hyperbolize his content with excessive figures of speech because his poetry was aimed towards representing the “true image” of his mind; in other words, Drayton’s poetry was the perfect Platonic ‘form’ or ‘idea’ of his thoughts, not merely images or imitations of material objects: they were transcendent and pure. Ultimately, Drayton wisely sculpted his sonnets in a highly elevated style appealing to both form and content to represent his mind’s pure Platonic ‘ideas,’ hence why the title of his collection of sonnets is rightly named “Idea.”

Drayton's Poetic Epistle

As a prelude to Drayton’s “Idea,” he wrote a poetic epistle ‘To the Reader of these Sonnets,’ which provides the key to unlocking the meaning behind Drayton’s poetry. The epistle is wrote as an English sonnet – three quatrains with alternating rhymes, concluded with a heroic couplet at the turn – in iambic pentameter: metrical structure consisting of five feet of an unstressed/stress syllable pattern (Ferguson et al., pgs. lxv-lxxiv). Drayton most likely used iambic pentameter to allow his words to roll off the English tongue as naturally as speech, thus lending the pace of the poem a swift current to ride along with. Aristotle in his “Poetics,” commented on the iambic speech pattern saying, “The iambic is the verse most suited to speech; and the indication of this is that in [everyday] speech with each other we use mostly iambic [rhythms], but rarely hexameters, and [only] when we depart from the intonations of [everyday] speech” (Cain et al., pg. 94).

Michael Drayton
Michael Drayton | Source

Movement of Language

Furthermore, Drayton’s frequent alliterations and consonances generate smooth rippling waves in the poem’s pace, which are consistent with the sounds of Drayton’s end rhymes and metrical stress; the two largest surges of current occur in the words “satisfy” and “fanatically,” which occur in the poem directly before two key moments of silence. Together, these effects create a lapping tide effect for the reader, during which the waves of sentences reach an accumulative threshold and crash into the shores of the reader’s mind, and then slowly subside back into the sea of verse.

Movement of Images

Even though the pace is both swift and nimble resulting from the metrical structure and Drayton’s literary conventions, it is nevertheless slow-moving because of his long sentence structures, which stretch completely across each quatrain in the poem. In 14 lines of verse, Drayton only writes three sentences, which naturally lend the reader a slower development of images, since each sentence contains a single train of thought. Drayton’s lengthy train moves leisurely on its tracks, begging by-passer’s imploration on the intricate graffiti written along its cargo while it goes slumbering by.

Giacopo Mazzoni
Giacopo Mazzoni | Source

Icastic versus Phantastic Images

The terms ‘icastic’ and ‘phantastic’ refer back to the Italian Renaissance philosopher and scholar, Giacopo Mazzoni’s literary work of criticism, “On the Defense of the Comedy of Dante.” In this work, Mazzoni refers to the ‘icastic’ as an image of the world or something empirically ‘real’. ‘Phantastic’ refers to an image which is completely from an artist’s imagination, which of course is a fantastic merging or blending of two or more icastic images (Cain et al., pgs. 299-323). For instance, a ‘pig’ is an icastic image because pigs are real; the verb ‘to fly’ is an icastic image because things such as birds and paper airplanes can ‘fly’; however, a ‘pig that can fly’ is a phantastic image because there is no such thing in reality as a ‘flying pig’. Thus, to create a phantastic image we need only to combine at minimum two physically inconsistent icastic images.

Structural Characteristics

The structural characteristics of Drayton’s “To the Reader of these Sonnets” collectively create a steady pulse to resemble the hypnotic and intellectual lull of the English sonnet, which Drayton refers to in the heroic couplet turn, “My muse is rightly of the English strain,/That cannot long one fashion entertain” (Ferguson et al., pg. 214). Perhaps Drayton chose the English sonnet to transmit his mind’s “true images” because the structural fabric of the English sonnet is akin to the human mind; according to the Folger Shakespeare Library (2014), “The sonnet has proved to be a remarkably durable and adaptable form- a ‘fixed form’ that is, paradoxically, enormously flexible.” While the human mind is limited to our biological potential, which is restricted to what we are capable of speculating or empirically exploring with the senses or with the aid of technology, the mind nevertheless has a nearly infinite ability to create icastic or phantastic images through cultivating an insatiable curiosita and connessione, which are two key principles to unlocking our full human potential according to Michael Gelb (1998), a Leonardo da Vinci expert and internationally renowned author and speaker on creativity and innovation. Likewise, the poet who uses the English sonnet still has the infinite ability to create original icastic or phantastic content despite its strict rhythm and rhyming structure.

As readers, we can only speculate why Drayton chose the English sonnet; however, it would be consistent for him and for this interpretation to conclude that he chose the form most suitable to represent his mind’s images accurately. Thus, the English sonnet ambivalently serves as a Platonic representation of his thoughts and as a mode of transmission to the reader.

The English Sonnet and Drayton's Platonism

To Drayton, poetry is a pure passion. Drayton explains this concept in the first line of verse, “Into these loves who but for passion looks” (Drayton, pg. 214). Even so, Drayton carefully informs his readers this passion is a Platonic form and not a worldly emotion: “No far-fetched sigh shall ever wound my breast,/Love from mine eye a tear shall never wring” (Drayton, pg. 214). Drayton is clearly distinguishing material passion from pure passion, or eros from Platonic Love; Drayton’s poetry of “true images” is representative of his Platonic love.

Furthermore and perhaps most importantly, Drayton creates two puns on two powerful words, which ultimately give shape to the meaning behind Drayton’s sonnets. The pun on Drayton’s title of his collection of English sonnets cannot be overlooked. Drayton’s “Idea” is an obvious play on Plato’s theory of forms in which ‘forms’ are also referred to as ‘ideas,’ which are transcendental and pure. Thus, Drayton’s title, “Idea,” can manifest a double meaning: 1) a mental representational image, or 2) a purely universal and transcendental representation of a material object or lower form. Furthermore, the pun on Plato’s ‘forms’ must not be overlooked as well. While we have been discussing ‘forms’ in terms of Platonic philosophy as something pure and transcendent, the word ‘form’ also represents the poetical structure of the verse. Thus, the relationship between the Platonic form and the poetical form in Drayton’s poetry merge at the English sonnet. As discussed earlier, perhaps Drayton chose the English sonnet because it resembles both the rigors and flexibility of human mind from which ‘ideas’ spring from.

Summary and Concluding Thoughts

Drayton scrupulously crafted his collection of sonnets in light of Platonic philosophy and his individual ideas thus striking the common Renaissance chord of the arts and sciences: ambivalence of objectivity and subjectivity, tradition and innovation, and an ambiguity between the individual and society, and the fleeting and eternal. Drayton’s poetic aim was to create poetry which represented the “true images” of his mind. By combining the English sonnet form with his precisely worded poetic epistle ‘To the Readers of these sonnets,’ Drayton set the tone and pace for his Platonic content to flow rich and diligent throughout a 59 sonnet collection. Even so and most importantly, however, were Drayton’s explicit puns on the words ‘idea’ and ‘form,’ which ultimately link Drayton’s poetic visions with Platonic philosophy, and thusly connecting Drayton’s poetic form with his ‘ideal’ content.



A short history of the sonnet. (2014). Retrieved from http://www.folger.edu/Content/Teach-and-Learn/Teaching-Resources/Teaching-Sonnets/A-Short-History-of-the-Sonnet.cfm

Cain, W., Finke L., Johnson B., Leitch V., McGowan J., & Williams J.J.(2001) The norton anthology: Theory and criticism (1st ed.) New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Ferguson, M., Salter, M. J., & Stallworthy, J. (Eds.). (2005). The Norton anthology of poetry (5th ed.). New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.

Gelb, M. (1998). How to think like leonardo da vinci: seven steps to genius every day. New York, NY: Dell Publishing.

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