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The term "sonnet" derives from the Provençal 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 is sometimes used derisively. Many modern writers of sonnets choose simply to be called "sonnet writers." One of the most well known sonnet writers is Shakespeare who wrote 154 sonnets.
The Italian sonnet
The Italian sonnet was invented 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).
The Italian sonnet comprises 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 signalling 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.
This example, On His Being Arrived to the Age of Twenty-three by John Milton, gives a sense of the Italian Form:
<poem style="margin-left: 2em"> How soon hath Time, the subtle thief of youth, (a) Stol'n on his wing my three-and-twentieth year! (b) My hasting days fly on with full career, (b) But my late spring no bud or blossom shew'th. (a) Perhaps my semblance might deceive the truth (a) That I to manhood am arriv'd so near; (b) And inward ripeness doth much less appear, (b) That some more timely-happy spirits endu'th. (a) Yet be it less or more, or soon or slow, (c) It shall be still in strictest measure ev'n (d) To that same lot, however mean or high, (e) Toward which Time leads me, and the will of Heav'n: (d) All is, if I have grace to use it so (c) As ever in my great Task-Master's eye. (e) </poem>
The 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.
The English Sonnet
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 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. The sonnet must be 14 lines long, and the last two lines of the sonnet must have rhyming endings (though there may be exceptions).
This example, Shakespeare's Sonnet 116, illustrates the form:
<poem style="margin-left: 2em"> 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 barque, (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) </poem>
The 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, a-b a-b, b-c b-c, c-d c-d, e-e. 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
<poem style="margin-left: 2em"> Happy ye leaves! whenas those lily hand
Happy ye leaves! whenas 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) </poem>
The 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.
Vikram Seth's 1986 novel The Golden Gate is written in 690 14-line stanzas, similar to sonnets, but in actuality an adaptation of the stanza invented by the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin for his novel in verse "Eugene Onegin." Marilyn Hacker's Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons is a novel in true sonnets (with villanelles and roundels thrown in for good measure) that came out in the same year.
- Caudate sonnet
- Crown of sonnets
- Curtal sonnet
- Fourteener (poetry)
- Giacomo da Lentini
- Onegin stanza
- Shakespeare's sonnets
- Sicilian School
- Sonnet cycle
- Sonnet sequence
- Contemporary Sonnet
- Selective Historical Bibliography on the Sonnet
- Some English Translations of Petrarch
- Shakespeare Sonnets – searchable database
References and further reading
- I. Bell, et al. A Companion to Shakespeare's Sonnets. Blackwell Pub., 2006. ISBN 1405121556.
- M. Bidney. A Poetic Dialogue with Adam Mickiewicz: The "Crimean Sonnets". Translated, with Sonnet Preface, Sonnet Replies, and Notes. Bernstein-Verlag 2007. ISBN 9783939431169.
- 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.
- J. Holmes. Dante Gabriel Rossetti And the Late Victorian Sonnet Sequence: Sexuality, Belief And the Self. Ashgate Pub., 2005. ISBN 0754651088.
- P. Innes. Shakespeare and the English Renaissance Sonnet: Verses of Feigning Love. Palgrave-Macmillan, 1997. ISBN 0312174578.
- J. B. Leishman. Themes and Variations in Shakespeare's Sonnets. Routledge, 2005. ISBN 0415352959.
- P. Levin. The Penguin Book of the Sonnet: 500 Years of a Classic Tradition in English. Penguin, 2001. ISBN 0140589295.
- H. A. Maxson. The Sonnets of Robert Frost: A Critical Examination of the 37 Poems. MacFarland & Co., 1997. ISBN 0786403896.
- J. Phelan. The Nineteenth Century Sonnet. Palgrave-Macmillan, 2005. ISBN 1403938040.
- S. Regan. The Sonnet. Oxford Univ. Press, 2006. ISBN 0192893076.
- M. D. Rich. The Dynamics of Tonal Shift in the Sonnet. E. M. Press, 2000. ISBN 0773477772.
- T. P. Roche. Petrarch and the English Sonnet Sequences. AMS Press, 1989. ISBN 0404622887.
- J. Schiffer. Shakespeare's Sonnets: Critical Essays. Garland Pub., 2000. ISBN 0815338937.
- R. Smith. Sonnets and the English Woman Writer, 1560-1621: The Politics of Absence. Palgrave-Macmillan, 2005. ISBN 1403991227.
- 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.
- J. A. Wagner. Revisionary Poetics and the Nineteenth Century English Sonnet. Fairleigh Dickinson Univ. Press, 1996. ISBN 0838636306.
- C. Warley. Sonnet Sequences and Social Distinction in Renaissance England. Cambridge Univ. Press, 2005. ISBN 0521842549.af:Sonnet
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