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The Sonnet

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The term sonnet is derived from the Italian, meaning "little sound" or "little song," and this sound has been heard from Dante in the thirteenth century right through to the present day. To Coleridge, a sonnet was "a small poem, in which some lonely feeling is developed" (lonely here referring to a sole and consistent idea), and often this feeling has been love.

Iambic Allotropes - Anatomy of a Sonnet

A sonnet is traditionally a single stanza poem of fourteen lines in iambic pentameter (a meter in which each line contains five iambs - an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one). Various rhyming schemes may be used, and occasionally none at all (blank verse). (Note: rhyming schemes are described using a format best illustrated by a quick example. A four-line poem rhyming abab would have the first line rhyming with the third, and the second with the fourth.)

The Petrarchan sonnet consists of an octave (eight lines) rhyming abba abba, followed by a sestet (six lines) rhyming cde cde (or some variation like ccd ccd). This is based on the form used by the Italian poet Francesco Petrarch (1304-74), but the need for so many repeated rhymes makes it less suited to a language like English that has fewer rhymes available.

The other main form is the English or Shakespearean sonnet, requiring fewer recurrent rhymes and consisting of three quatrains (four lines) and a concluding couplet (two lines), rhyming abab cdcd efef gg.

Other variations have also been used. Spenser's Amoretti employs a scheme of three quatrains with interlocked rhymes - abab bcbc cdcd ee. This form is sometimes referred to as the Spenserian sonnet.

Sound of Centuries - a Brief Biography of the Sonnet

The late thirteenth century saw the Italian poet Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) writing verses of a length and style similar to the sonnet form, but it was with the Italian Renaissance poet Francesco Petrarch (1304-74) that the form was established.

In the early sixteenth century, Sir Thomas Wyatt (c.1503-42) was one of the first to write sonnets in English, closely following the Petrarchan structure and style, after a trip to Italy in 1527. None of his poems were published during his lifetime, but the majority of his sonnets were printed in Richard Tottel's Miscellany of Songs and Sonnets of 1557, along with other early sonneteers like Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (c.1517-47).

The sonnet became the most popular form of Elizabethan lyric in the late sixteenth century, when sonnet sequences were all the rage. 1582 saw the production of the first English sonnet sequence, Sir Philip Sidney's (1554-96) Astrophil and Stella - 108 sonnets dedicated to the daughter of the Earl of Essex, Penelope Devereux, detailing the unrequited love of Astrophil ("lover of a star") for Stella (his "star"). The first sonnet says "look in thy heart and write," and the sequence seems more genuine and personal than its Italian and French forebears, perhaps because it was not intended for publication.

Samuel Daniel (1562/3-1619) published a sequence of 50 sonnets, Delia, in 1592, dedicated to the Countess of Pembroke, Sidney's sister. By the 1601 edition, the sequence had been expanded to 57 sonnets.

Sir Edmund Spenser (c.1552-99) published Amoretti ("little loves") in 1595: a sequence of 88 sonnets inspired by the courtship of his second wife, Elizabeth Boyle, whom he married in 1594.

William Shakespeare (1564-1616) produced a remarkable sequence of 154 sonnets, which were in circulation among friends by 1598 but not published until 1609. Sonnets 1 to 126 explore the poet's love for a beautiful youth whose identity is open to debate, but is often believed to be his patron, Henry Wriothesley, third Earl of Southampton. The first 17 of these concentrate on the transience of beauty, a standard Elizabethan theme, and urge the youth to marry so that his perfection may survive in his children. The remaining poems to the young man explore in more detail the difficulties of the relationship. Sonnets 127 to 154 are about Shakespeare's affair with a "Dark Lady," an unfaithful mistress.

The seventeenth century brought greater variety in the sonnet form and subject matter, with poets like John Milton (1608-74) and the Metaphysical poets, such as John Donne (c.1572-1631), moving beyond love poetry to explore spirituality and earnest contemplation. Donne's early love sonnets were sonnets in the broadest sense, not adhering to any standard design or narrative sequence, but were certainly "little songs."

Almost all of the Romantic poets wrote sonnets (Wordsworth's "Scorn not the sonnet" even gives a brief history of the sonnet up to Milton), and the form has remained in use right up to the present day, covering a multitude of topics from a friend's cat to the terror of world war. But for the beauty of its form, and the truth of its expression, the sonnet will always be pre-eminently associated with love.

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Sonnets:     Blake   -   Browning   -   Byron   -   Donne   -   Keats   -   Shakespeare   -   Shelley   -   Wordsworth   -   Yeats