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What is a sonnet?

The term sonnet is derived from the Italian word sonetto which means "a little sound or song," .
It is a poetic form which is originated in Italy. It signified a poem of fourteen lines that follows a
strict rhyme scheme and specific structure.
History of Sonnets
Invented in Italy in the thirteenth century, the sonnet was brought to a high form of
development in the fourteenth century by Francesco Petrarch (130474), Italian poet and
humanist best remembered now for his sonnets dedicated to an idealized lady named Laura
glimpsed in a church, and with whom he fell in love at first sight, or so the legend goes. Lauras
true identity is unknown; supposedly, she married someone else and, being ideally virtuous as
well as beautiful, was permanently unavailable. Theres no evidence Petrarch ever talked to her.
The uses Petrach made of the conventions of courtly love for a beautiful, unattainable lady
became known as Petrarchan conventions. Some of these are that love is excruciatingly
painful; the angelically beautiful and virtuous lady is cruel in rejecting the poets love;
and love is a religion, the practice of which ennobles the lover. Christian and classical imagery
coexist. The god of Love, Cupid, is unpredictable, powerful, and cruel. The eyes are the
windows to the soul, and love usually begins at first sight. The poet is subject to extremes of
feeling and internal conflictthe war within the self. Life is short and art, fortunately, is long.
The poetry will outlive the poet.
Sir Thomas Wyatt (150242) and Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey (151747), are credited
with introducing the Petrarchan model to England in the sixteenth century andadjusting the
rhyme scheme and the meter to accommodate the English language. They, like Petrarch, use
religious imagery and terms to convey the holiness and intensity of the lovers passion for the
unattainable love-object and make frequent allusions to both classical deities and Christian
This model exerted a strong influence on numerous English Renaissance poets: Spenser,
Sidney, Sidneys brilliant niece Mary Wroth, among others, and of course, Shakespeare himself.
Writing sonnet sequences became popular among gentlemen, and these poems were often
circulated in manuscript form, evidently including Shakespeares.Publication was not
generally considered gentlemanly or ladylike.
Shakespeares 154 sonnets published in 1609 are a collection rather than a sequence,
although there are some groupings that look like mini-sequences. And they are remarkably
various: Shakespeare explores the same theme in different ways but never exactly repeats a
pattern. He is keenly aware of Petrarchan conventions and often uses them, but just as
often upends them, as in Sonnet 130. The cruel loved one in many of his sonnets is a young
man, not a woman, and the Dark Lady of sonnets 127152 is neither virtuous nor ideally
beautiful.Shakespeares Sonnets represented a kind of apoge of the English sonnet-writing
fashion, and, in fact, may have contributed to the vogues fading away, since no one could
outdo him or even come close to matching his skill and versatility.

The sonnet has proved to be a remarkably durable and adaptable forma fixed form that
is, paradoxically, enormously flexible. Although no one has ever equaled Shakespeares sonnets,
nearly every notable poet writing in English has had a go at a sonnet or two. Among the bestknown British writers of sonnets are John Donne, Milton, Wordsworth, W.H. Auden, and
Dylan Thomas.
The form survived the transatlantic crossing. Distinguished American practitioners include
Robert Frost, Edna St. Vincent Millay, John Crowe Ransom, as well as significant AfricanAmerican and Caribbean-American poets, such as James Weldon Johnson, Paul Laurence
Dunbar, Countee Cullen, Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Hayden, Derek Walcott, Marilyn
Nelson, and Claude McKay.
The sonnet can be a lens through which to look at poetry over the last 400 years.
Characteristics of Sonnets
14 lines. All sonnets have 14 lines which can be broken down into four sections called
A strict rhyme scheme. The rhyme scheme of a Shakespearean sonnet is ABAB / CDCD
/ EFEF / GG (note the four distinct sections in the rhyme scheme).
Written in iambic Pentameter. Sonnets are written in iambic pentameter, a poetic meter
with 10 beats per line made up of alternating unstressed and stressed syllables.
Two Forms of Sonnet

Petrarchan Sonnet
The first and most common sonnet is the Petrarchan, or Italian. Named after one
of its greatest practitioners, the Italian poet Petrarch, the Petrarchan sonnet is
divided into two stanzas, the octave (the first eight lines) followed by the
answering sestet (the final six lines).
"Sonnet LXXI"
Who will in fairest book of Nature know
How Virtue may best lodged in Beauty be,
Let him but learn of Love to read in thee,
Stella, those fair lines, which true goodness show.
There shall he find all vices' overthrow,
Not by rude force, but sweetest sovereignty
Of reason, from whose light those night-birds fly;
That inward sun in thine eyes shineth so.
And not content to be Perfection's heir

Thyself, dost strive all minds that way to move,

Who mark in thee what is in thee most fair.
So while thy beauty draws the heart to love,
As fast thy Virtue bends that love to good.
"But, ah," Desire still cries, "give me some food."

Shakespearean Sonnet
Shakespearean Sonnet
The second major type of sonnet, the Shakespearean, or English sonnet, follows a
different set of rules. Here, three quatrains and a couplet follow this rhyme
scheme: abab, cdcd, efef, gg. The couplet plays a pivotal role, usually arriving in
the form of a conclusion, amplification, or even refutation of the previous three
stanzas, often creating an epiphanic quality to the end.
Example:In Sonnet 130 of William Shakespeares epic sonnet cycle, the first
twelve lines compare the speakers mistress unfavorably with natures beauties.
But the concluding couplet swerves in a surprising direction:
My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips' red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress when she walks treads on the ground.
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.

Spenserian Sonnet
It is invented by Edmund Spenseras an outgrowth of the stanza pattern he used
in TheFaerie Queene (a b a b b c b c c), has the pattern:a b a b b c b c c d c d e e.
"Sonnet LIV"
Of this World's theatre in which we stay,
My love like the Spectator idly sits,
Beholding me, that all the pageants play,

Disguising diversely my troubled wits.

Sometimes I joy when glad occasion fits,
And mask in mirth like to a Comedy;
Soon after when my joy to sorrow flits,
I wail and make my woes a Tragedy.
Yet she, beholding me with constant eye,
Delights not in my mirth nor rues my smart;
But when I laugh, she mocks: and when I cry
She laughs and hardens evermore her heart.
What then can move her? If nor mirth nor moan,
She is no woman, but a senseless stone.
There are, of course, some sonnets that don't fit any clear recognizablepattern but
still certainly function as sonnets. Shelley's "Ozymandias"belongs to this
category. It's rhyming pattern of a b a b a c d c e d e f e.
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, (stamped on these lifeless things,)
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Famous writers of sonnet

On His Blindness by Milton, gives a sense of the Italian rhyming scheme:

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)

Sonnet 116 by Shakespeare

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 fixd 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)*

The first is an Italian Sonnet by James DeFord, written in 1997:

Turn back the heart you've turned away
Give back your kissing breath
Leave not my love as you have left
The broken hearts of yesterday
But wait, be still, don't lose this way
Affection now, for what you guess
May be something more, could be less
Accept my love, live for today.
Your roses wilted, as love spurned
Yet trust in me, my love and truth
Dwell in my heart, from which you've turned
My strength as great as yours aloof.
It is in fear you turn away
And miss the chance of love today!