Fixed verse form having 14 lines that are typically five-foot iambics rhyming according to a prescribed scheme. The sonnet is unique among poetic forms in Western literature in that it has retained its appeal for major poets for five centuries. It seems to have originated in the 13th century among the Sicilian school of court poets. In the 14th century Petrarch established the most widely used sonnet form. The Petrarchan (or Italian) sonnet characteristically consists of an eight-line octave, rhyming abbaabba, that states a problem, asks a question, or expresses an emotional tension, followed by a six-line sestet, of varying rhyme schemes, that resolves the problem, answers the question, or resolves the tension. In adapting the Italian form, Elizabethan poets gradually developed the other major sonnet form, the Shakespearean (or English) sonnet. It consists of three quatrains, each with an independent rhyme scheme, and ends with a rhymed couplet.
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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:
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)
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.
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:
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)
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)