What is a Sonnet?

An examination of the history, form and use of the Sonnet; a short but beautiful style of poetry commonly associated with Shakespeare.

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A Sonnet is a fourteen-line poem. The form has seen much evolution in the hands of Renaissance Italian poets, as well as being brought to modern renown through William Shakespeare. This has led to two major variations; the older Petrarchan Sonnet and the more familiar Shakespearean Sonnet, though more exist.

History

The Sonnet’s name originates in the Italian word Sonnetto, meaning ‘little song.’ Giacomo da Lentini, head of the Sicilian School, is credited with its invention.

The form was considered lost for a brief while soon after its invention in the 13th Century. However, Guittone d’Arezzo rediscovered the style and championed it within the Tuscan School of poetry. D’Arezzo wrote almost 250 examples of the sonnet. This body of work was hugely disseminated and lead to the form’s adoption by a number of Renaissance poets, including Dante Alighieri. However, it is Francesco Petrarca, or Petrarch, who is considered the most accomplished Sonneteer of the age, writing in the 14th Century. In fact, his work was so admired and imitated that many have come to see his Sonnets as the model for most lyrical poetry in the European canon.

The earliest Sonnets in English belong to Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, who both use the Italian style, now called the Petrarchan Sonnet. John Milton, William Wordsworth, and Elizabeth Browning would also use this form in later centuries.

The Shakespearean Sonnet is seen as a rebellion against the two-hundred-year tradition of Sonnets at that time, as well as a continuation. Shakespeare made radical changes to the form, as well as the subject matters approached. Instead of idealising an unobtainable feminine romantic object, Shakespeare tackled homoerotic themes, the imperfections of real people, as well as misogyny, infidelity, and other topics not seen as romantic. His most famous—‘Sonnet XVIII’—is recognised for its humanising approach to a romanticised woman. Instead of casting her as a goddess, Shakespeare instead reduces her qualities to earthly ones and celebrates the love that exists between the two.

John Milton was the next great Sonneteer, writing works such as ‘When I Consider How My Light is Spent.’ Milton sees the form used to address more ecclesiastical matters, which is hardly surprising from the man who crafted Paradise Lost. However, Milton’s total body of work on the Sonnet amounts to less than thirty poems.

The form fell out of fashion after the Restoration, and it seems as though no great examples of the Sonnet exist after 1670 until the time of Wordsworth, who wrote hundreds, often modelled after Milton. Coleridge, Keats, and Percy Shelley also championed the form’s revival. The Romantics would continue to expand the subject matter of the form, using the Sonnet to cover politics, nature, art, and even the beauty of the Sonnet form, seen in Wordsworth’s ‘Scorn not the Sonnet.’

Despite his prolific use of the form, Wordsworth saw himself in the shadow of Milton, and it is perhaps because of this that the firm assertion of I, seen in the narrative work of the Romantics, is not as common. They were humbled by the form, admiring both its simple rules and its challenge to master.

“The sonnet has ever been a favourite species of composition with me; but I am conscious that I have not succeeded in it.”

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Gerard Manley Hopkins is another name of note in the history of the Sonnet, pioneering several variations on the form such as the Curtal Sonnet—a ten-and-a-half-line sonnet, derived from the proportional shrinking of the Petrarchan Sonnet—and the Caudate Sonnet—a full Petrarchan Sonnet followed by a Coda, or tail, of typically six lines. Though Hopkins didn’t invent the latter (that honour belongs to Francesco Berni in the 15th/16th Century), he did introduce the form to the wider world.

Poets in the 20th Century produced many Sonnets. E. E. Cummings, Robert Frost, and Edna St. Vincent Millay all regularly approached the form. W. B. Yeats wrote the Sonnet ‘Leda and the Swan’ using half-rhymes, and W. H. Auden wrote one of the first English unrhyming Sonnets, ‘The Secret Agent,’ in 1928.

More recent work with the Sonnet has been centred on subversion of the form. Paul Muldoon frequently comes close to the Sonnet, using fourteen lines and sonnet rhymes, though without regular sonnet metre. Elizabeth Bishop’s inverted ‘Sonnet’ was one of her final poems, and the Word Sonnet has been used by poets such as Seymour Mayne. The form uses fourteen words, arranged singularly, one per line. Lastly, the Fusion Sonnet was developed by Greek poet Yannis Livadas in 1993, coupling a full Sonnet with a half-Sonnet as a Coda.

Form

A sonnet contains fourteen lines, universally. However, between the Petrarchan and Shakespearean, the divisions between those lines differ greatly. Both utilise iambic pentameter, the use of alternating stressed and unstressed syllables, designed to mimic the human heartbeat.

While almost any fourteen-lined poem has a tendency to be referred to as a Sonnet, regardless of rhyme or metre, it is better thought of as one that applies these rules.

The Petrarchan Sonnet

The Petrarchan Sonnet is divided into two uneven halves: an Octave of eight lines that introduces a problem, and a Sestet of six lines that solves the matter. The Octave can be further divided according to theme, with the first Quatrain (four lines) introducing a problem which is then developed further in the following Quatrain. These two sections are not meant to be thought as a problem and its resolution, however. They merely stand as two logically correlated streams of thought that organically arise together rather than a structured plan of action. The beginning of the Sestet, where the poem adopts a different structure, is referred to as a Volta. A similar circumstance arises in the haiku, where two images are contracted together.

The Octave is almost always built upon the same rhyme scheme:

A
B
B
A
A
B
B
A

The Sestet is more flexible, with one variation being:

C
D
E
C
D
E

The other common version of the Sestet is:

C
D
C
D
C
D

In a strict Petrarchan Sonnet there is never a Couplet at the end, though in further Italian examples this rule is not observed. Schemes such as CDDCEE and CDCDEE can be used. Whatever the variation adopted by the poet, no true Italian styled Sonnet uses more than five rhymes throughout.

The Shakespearean Sonnet

While the Shakespearean Sonnet continued many of the Petrarchan conventions such as metre and length, there are pronounced differences to be noted.

Most radically, Shakespeare abandoned the layout of Octave-Sestet, instead building his Sonnets upon three Quatrains followed by a Couplet, laid out according to the rhyme scheme:

A
B
A
B

C
D
C
D

E
F
E
F

G
G

The Volta falls at the same point as a Petrarchan Sonnet, at the start of the ninth line.

Shakespearean Sonnets also adopt different themes. Elizabethan convention led to the creation of Sonnet sequences where themes and characters emerged throughout a greater body of work. Much of Shakespeare’s Sonnets come from a collection of the same name, published in 1609.

Shakespeare himself was cynical about the form. Allusions to the Sonnet within his plays are often more critical and derogatory, lambasting the notion of idealising a lover when reality is so much more rewarding. That he should then go on to write one of the longest sequences of sonnets is profoundly unusual, though perhaps it is because of his desire to see the form grow and adapt that he set out to the task.

Use

Traditionally the Sonnet is a poem of love, however as time has passed this become less essential. What remains are a series of historical examples and a rich tradition to draw upon in your evolving practice.

Perhaps no form of poetry has hard more clearly marked evolution than the Sonnet and this history provides a series of templates to use in your own writing. Starting with the Shakespearean Sonnet as the easiest form, it’s possible to craft a whole poetry education as you progress through the likes of Milton and Petrarch.

While the Sonnet may be at its best when delivered under strictest adherence to the form’s rules, it is a form that need not put off early writers, and can provide a perfect introduction to the process of working with form, gradually applying new rules until reaching one of the iconic variations, or perhaps further, into the next evolution of the Sonnet.

Connor Sansby is a Margate-based writer, editor, poet and publisher through his super-indie Whisky & Beards publishing label.

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