WHAT IS A SONNET?

The sonnet is a popular classical form that has compelled poets for centuries. Traditionally, the Sonnet is a lyric in fourteen lines in iambic pentameter governed by certain prescribed rules in general and in the arrangement of the rhymes. It aims at concentrated expression, but fairly complex development of a single theme also is possible. It derives its name from the Italian ‘sonnetto’ which means ‘a little song’ or sound sung to the strain of music. It has only one leading thought or emotion as in Milton’s ‘On His Blindness’ or Keats’s ‘On first looking into Chapman’s homer.

Primary Types of Sonnets:

In English literature, there are two basic sonnet patterns:

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 has two rhymes ‘a’ and ‘b’ arranged in ab ab, ab ab scheme. The sestet has three rhymes arranged in various forms as abba, abba, cdecde or cdcdcd is suited for the rhyme-rich Italian language, though there are many fine examples in English. The octave may be divided into two stanzas of four lines each called tercets. Since the Petrarchan presents an argument, observation, question, or some other answerable charge in the octave, a turn, or volta, occurs between the eighth and ninth lines. This turn marks a shift in the direction of the foregoing argument or narrative, turning the sestet into the vehicle for the counterargument, clarification, or whatever answer the octave demands.

Sir Thomas Wyatt introduced the Petrarchan sonnet to England in the early sixteenth century. His famed translations of Petrarch’s sonnets, as well as his own sonnets, drew fast attention to the form. Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, a contemporary of Wyatt’s, whose own translations of Petrarch are considered more faithful to the original though less fine to the ear, modified the Petrarchan, thus establishing the structure that became known as the Shakespearean sonnet. This structure has been noted to lend itself much better to the comparatively rhyme-poor English language.

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. In sonnet 130 of William Shakespeare’s epic sonnet cycle, the first twelve lines compare the speaker’s mistress unfavorably with nature’s beauties, but the concluding couplet swerves in a surprising direction.
 

Shakespeare Sonnet 130: My Mistress’ eyes

Variations on the Sonnet Form

John Milton’s Italian-patterned sonnets (later known as “Miltonic” sonnets) added several important refinements to the form. Milton freed the sonnet from its typical incarnation in a sequence of sonnets, writing the occasional sonnet that often expressed interior, self-directed concerns. He also took liberties with the turn, allowing the octave to run into the sestet as needed. Both of these qualities can be seen in “When I Consider How My Ligth is Spent”.

The Spenserian sonnet, invented by sixteenth-century English poet Edmund Spenser, cribs its structure from the Shakespearean—three quatrains and a couplet—but employs a series of “couplet links” between quatrains, as revealed in the rhyme scheme: abab, bcbc, cdcd, ee. The Spenserian sonnet, through the interweaving of the quatrains, implicitly reorganized the Shakespearean sonnet into couplets, reminiscent of the Petrarchan. One reason was to reduce the often excessive final couplet of the Shakespearean sonnet, putting less pressure on it to resolve the foregoing argument, observation, or question.

THe Theme:

The common theme of a sonnet is love as in the sonnets of Shakespeare, Philip Sidney, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. However several poets have used other themes also in their sonnets. Milton’s sonnet ‘On His Blindness ‘,Wordsworth’s sonnet addressed to Milton, Keat’s sonnet ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer and Arnold’s sonnet on Shakespeare are examples.

Examples of Famous Fisrt Lines in Shakespeare’s Sonnet:

William Shakespeare is credited with writing 154 sonnets, collected and published a few years after his death. Shakespeare featured many themes and subjects in his sonnets, and his works in this poetic form are arguably the most famous in English literature. Most of Shakespeare’s sonnets are known by their first-line rather than their number. Here are some examples of famous first lines in Shakespeare’s sonnets:

  • Mine eye and heart are at a mortal war
  • Those lines that I before have writ do lie
  • To me, fair friend, you never can be old
  • My love is as a fever longing still
  • Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
  • So are you to my thoughts as food to life
  • My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun
  • No longer mourn for me when I am dead
  • Love is too young to know what conscience is
  • Then let not winter’s ragged hand deface

Sonnet Sequences:

There are several types of sonnet groupings, including the sonnet sequence, which is a series of linked sonnets dealing with a unified subject. Examples include Elizabeth Barrett Brownings’s Sonnet from the Portuguese and Lady Mary Wroth’s The Countess of Montgomery’s Urania, published in 1621, the first sonnet sequence by an English woman.

Within the sonnet sequence, several formal constraints have been employed by various poets, including the corona (crown) and sonnet redoublé. In the corona, the last line of the initial sonnet acts as the first line of the next, and the ultimate sonnet’s final line repeats the first line of the initial sonnet. La Corona by John Donne  is comprised of seven sonnets structured this way. The sonnet redoublé is formed of 15 sonnets, the first 14 forming a perfect corona, followed by the final sonnet, which is comprised of the 14 linking lines in order.

Categories: Literature

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