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The sonnet is one of the poetic forms that can be found in lyric poetry from Europe. The term "sonnet" derives from the Occitan word sonet and the Italian word sonetto, both meaning "little song." By the thirteenth century, it had come to signify a poem of fourteen lines that follows a strict rhyme scheme and specific structure. The conventions associated with the sonnet have evolved over its history. The writers of sonnets are sometimes referred to as "sonneteers," although the term can be used derisively. One of the best-known sonnet writers is Shakespeare, who wrote 154 of them. A Shakespearean sonnet consists of 14 lines, each line contains ten syllables, and each line is written in iambic pentameter in which a pattern of a non-emphasized syallable followed by an emphasized syllable is repeated five times. The rhyme scheme in a Shakespearean sonnet is ABAB CDCD EFEF GG, in which the last two lines are a rhymed couplet.

Traditionally, when writing sonnets, English poets usually employ iambic pentameter. In the Romance languages, the hendecasyllable and Alexandrine are the most widely used metres.

Italian (petrarchan) sonnet

The Italian sonnet was created by Giacomo da Lentini, head of the Sicilian School under Frederick II. Guittone d'Arezzo rediscovered it and brought it to Tuscany where he adapted it to his language when he founded the Neo-Sicilian School (1235–1294). He wrote almost 300 sonnets. Other Italian poets of the time, including Dante Alighieri (1265–1321) and Guido Cavalcanti (c. 1250–1300) wrote sonnets, but the most famous early sonneteer was Petrarca (known in English as Petrarch).Other fine examples were written by Michelangelo. The Italian sonnet included two parts. First, the octave (two quatrains), which describe a problem, followed by a sestet (two tercets), which gives the resolution to it. Typically, the ninth line creates a "turn" or volta which signals the move from proposition to resolution. Even in sonnets that don't strictly follow the problem/resolution structure, the ninth line still often marks a "turn" by signaling a change in the tone, mood, or stance of the poem.

In the sonnets of Giacomo da Lentini, the octave rhymed a-b-a-b, a-b-a-b; later, the a-b-b-a, a-b-b-a pattern became the standard for Italian sonnets. For the sestet there were two different possibilities, c-d-e-c-d-e and c-d-c-c-d-c. In time, other variants on this rhyming scheme were introduced such as c-d-c-d-c-d.

The first known sonnets in English, written by Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, used this Italian scheme, as did sonnets by later English poets including John Milton, Thomas Gray, William Wordsworth and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Early twentieth-century American poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay, also wrote most of her sonnets using the Italian form.A sonnet was famously used in Romeo and Juliet

This example, On His Blindness by Milton, gives a sense of the Italian form:

When I consider how my light is spent (a)

Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide, (b)
And that one talent which is death to hide, (b)
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent (a)
To serve therewith my Maker, and present (a)
My true account, lest he returning chide; (b)
"Doth God exact day-labor, light denied?" (b)
I fondly ask; but Patience to prevent (a)
That murmur, soon replies, "God doth not need (c)
Either man's work or his own gifts; who best (d)
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state (e)
Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed (c)
And post o'er land and ocean without rest; (d)
They also serve who only stand and wait." (e)

Occitan sonnet

The lone surviving sonnet by an Occitan is confidently dated to 1284 and is conserved only in troubadour manuscript P, an Italian chansonnier of 1310, now XLI.42 in the Biblioteca Laurenziana in Florence. It was written by Paolo Lanfranchi da Pistoia and is addressed to Peter III of Aragon. This poem is historically interesting for its information on north Italian perspectives concerning the War of the Sicilian Vespers, the conflict between the Angevins and Aragonese for Sicily. Peter III and the Aragonese cause was popular in northern Italy at the time and Paolo's sonnet is a celebration of his victory over the Angevins and Capetians in the Aragonese Crusade:
   Valenz Senher, rei dels Aragones
a qi prez es honors tut iorn enansa,
remembre vus, Senher, del Rei franzes
qe vus venc a vezer e laiset Fransa
   Ab dos sos fillz es ab aqel d'Artes;
hanc no fes colp d'espaza ni de lansa
e mainz baros menet de lur paes:
jorn de lur vida said n'auran menbransa.
   Nostre Senhier faccia a vus compagna
per qe en ren no vus qal[la] duptar;
tals quida hom qe perda qe gazaingna.
   Seigner es de la terra e de la mar,
per qe lo Rei Engles e sel d'Espangna
ne varran mais, vorres aiudar.
   Valiant Lord, king of the Aragonese
to whom honour grows every day closer,
remember, Lord, the French king
that has come to find you and has left France
   With his two sons and that one of Artois;
but they have not dealt a blow with sword or lance
and many barons have left their country:
but a day will come when they will have some to remember.
   Our Lord make yourself a company
in order that you might fear nothing;
that one who would appear to lose might win.
   Lord of the land and the sea,
as whom the king of England and that of Spain
are not worth as much, if you wish to help them.

An Occitan sonnet, dated to 1321 and assigned to one "William of Almarichi", is found in Jean de Nostredame and cited in Giovanni Crescembeni, Storia della volgar Poesia. It congratulates Robert of Naples on his recent victory. Its authenticity is dubious. There are also two poorly-regarded sonnets by the Italian Dante de Maiano.

English sonnet

Sonnets were introduced by Thomas Wyatt in the early 16th century. His sonnets and those of his contemporary the Earl of Surrey were chiefly translations from the Italian of Petrarch and the French of Ronsard and others. While Wyatt introduced the sonnet into English, it was Surrey who gave them the rhyme scheme, meter, and division into quatrains that now characterizes the English sonnet. Sir Philip Sidney's sequence Astrophil and Stella (1591) started a tremendous vogue for sonnet sequences: the next two decades saw sonnet sequences by William Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser, Michael Drayton, Samuel Daniel, Fulke Greville, William Drummond of Hawthornden, and many others.These sonnets were all essentially inspired by the Petrarchan tradition, and generally treat of the poet's love for some woman; the exception is Shakespeare's sequence. In the 17th century, the sonnet was adapted to other purposes, with John Donne and George Herbert writing religious sonnets, and John Milton using the sonnet as a general meditative poem. Both the Shakespearean and Petrarchan rhyme schemes were popular throughout this period, as well as many variants.

The fashion for the sonnet went out with the Restoration, and hardly any sonnets were written between 1670 and Wordsworth's time. However, sonnets came back strongly with the French Revolution. Wordsworth himself wrote several sonnets, of which the best-known are "The world is too much with us" and the sonnet to Milton; his sonnets were essentially modelled on Milton's. Keats and Shelley also wrote major sonnets; Keats's sonnets used formal and rhetorical patterns inspired partly by Shakespeare, and Shelley innovated radically, creating his own rhyme scheme for the sonnet "Ozymandias". Sonnets were written throughout the 19th century, but, apart from Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese and the sonnets of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, there were few very successful traditional sonnets. Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote several major sonnets, often in sprung rhythm, of which the greatest is "The Windhover," and also several sonnet variants such as the 10-1/2 line curtal sonnet "Pied Beauty" and the 24-line caudate sonnet "That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire." By the end of the 19th century, the sonnet had been adapted into a general-purpose form of great flexibility.

This flexibility was extended even further in the 20th century. Among the major poets of the early Modernist period, Robert Frost, Edna St. Vincent Millay and E. E. Cummings all used the sonnet regularly. William Butler Yeats wrote the major sonnet Leda and the Swan, which used half rhymes. Wilfred Owen's sonnet Anthem for Doomed Youth was another sonnet of the early 20th century. W. H. Auden wrote two sonnet sequences and several other sonnets throughout his career, and widened the range of rhyme-schemes used considerably. Auden also wrote one of the first unrhymed sonnets in English, "The Secret Agent" (1928). Half-rhymed, unrhymed, and even unmetrical sonnets have been very popular since 1950; perhaps the best works in the genre are Seamus Heaney's Glanmore Sonnets and Clearances, both of which use half rhymes, and Geoffrey Hill's mid-period sequence 'An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England'. The 1990s saw something of a formalist revival, however, and several traditional sonnets have been written in the past decade.

Soon after the introduction of the Italian sonnet, English poets began to develop a fully native form. These poets included Sir Philip Sidney, Michael Drayton, Samuel Daniel, the Earl of Surrey's nephew Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford and William Shakespeare. The form is often named after Shakespeare, not because he was the first to write in this form but because he became its most famous practitioner. The form consists of three quatrains and a couplet. The third quatrain generally introduces an unexpected sharp thematic or imagistic "turn" called a volta. The usual rhyme scheme was a-b-a-b, c-d-c-d, e-f-e-f, g-g. In addition, sonnets are usually written in iambic pentameter, meaning that there are 10 or perhaps even 11 or 9 syllables per line, and that every other syllable is naturally accented. (Sonnets almost always have 10 syllable lines, but do not always have the natural accent)The sonnet must be 14 lines long, and the last two lines of the sonnet have rhyming endings (though there may be exceptions). In Shakespeare's sonnets, the couplet usually summarizes the theme of the poem or introduces a fresh new look at the theme.

This is the proper rhyme scheme for an English Sonnet (/ represents a new stanza): a-b-a-b / c-d-c-d / e-f-e-f / g-g

This example, Shakespeare's Sonnet 116, illustrates the form:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds (a) Admit impediments, love is not love (b) Which alters when it alteration finds, (a) Or bends with the remover to remove. (b) O no, it is an ever fixed mark (c) That looks on tempests and is never shaken; (d) It is the star to every wand'ring bark, (c) Whose worth's unknown although his height be taken. (d) Love's not time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks (e) Within his bending sickle's compass come, (f) Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, (e) But bears it out even to the edge of doom: (f) If this be error and upon me proved, (g) I never writ, nor no man ever loved. (g)

Spenserian sonnet

A variant on the English form is the Spenserian sonnet, named after Edmund Spenser (c.1552–1599) in which the rhyme scheme is, abab, bcbc, cdcd, ee. In a Spenserian sonnet there does not appear to be a requirement that the initial octave set up a problem that the closing sestet answers, as is the case with a Petrarchan sonnet. Instead, the form is treated as three quatrains connected by the interlocking rhyme scheme and followed by a couplet. The linked rhymes of his quatrains suggest the linked rhymes of such Italian forms as terza rima. This example is taken from Amoretti

Happy ye leaves! whenas those lily hands

Happy leaves! when those lily hands, (a) Which hold my life in their dead doing might, (b) Shall handle you, and hold in love's soft bands, (a) Like captives trembling at the victor's sight. (b) And happy lines on which, with starry light, (b) Those lamping eyes will deign sometimes to look,(c) And read the sorrows of my dying sprite, (b) Written with tears in heart's close bleeding book. (c) And happy rhymes! bathed in the sacred brook (c) Of Helicon, whence she derived is, (d) When ye behold that angel's blessed look, (c) My soul's long lacked food, my heaven's bliss. (d) Leaves, lines, and rhymes seek her to please alone, (e) Whom if ye please, I care for other none. (e)

Modern sonnet

With the advent of free verse, the sonnet came to be seen as somewhat old-fashioned and fell out of use for a time among some schools of poets. However, a number of 20th-century poets, including Wilfred Owen, John Berryman, Edwin Morgan, Robert Frost, Edna St. Vincent Millay, E.E. Cummings, Jorge Luis Borges, Pablo Neruda, Joan Brossa, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Seamus Heaney continued to use the form. The advent of the New Formalism movement in the United States has also contributed to contemporary interest in the sonnet.

See also

Types of sonnets

Groups of sonnets

Forms commonly associated with sonnets


  • I. Bell, et al. A Companion to Shakespeare's Sonnets. Blackwell Pub., 2006. ISBN 1405121556.
  • Bertoni, Giulio (1915). I Trovatori d'Italia: Biografie, testi, tradizioni, note. Rome: Società Multigrafica Editrice Somu.
  • T. W. H. Crosland. The English Sonnet. Hesperides Press, 2006. ISBN 1406796913.
  • J. Fuller. The Oxford Book of Sonnets. Oxford Univ. Press, 2002. ISBN 0192803891.
  • J. Fuller. The Sonnet. (The Critical Idiom: #26). Methuen & Co., 1972. ISBN 0416656900.
  • J. Hollander. Sonnets: From Dante to the Present. Everyman's Library, 2001. ISBN 0375411771.
  • P. Levin. The Penguin Book of the Sonnet: 500 Years of a Classic Tradition in English. Penguin, 2001. ISBN 0140589295.
  • J. Phelan. The Nineteenth Century Sonnet. Palgrave-Macmillan, 2005. ISBN 1403938040.
  • S. Regan. The Sonnet. Oxford Univ. Press, 2006. ISBN 0192893076.
  • M. R. G. Spiller. The Development of the Sonnet: An Introduction. Routledge, 1992. ISBN 0415087414.
  • M. R. G. Spiller. The Sonnet Sequence: A Study of Its Strategies. Twayne Pub., 1997. ISBN 0805709703.

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