Definition of Sonnet
A sonnet is a poetic form that has fourteen lines. It originated in Italy in the thirteenth century, and though it has generally kept some of the original rules, such as the number of lines and having a specific rhyme scheme and meter, the conventions of sonnets have changed over the centuries to some degree. There are two primary branches of the sonnet form—the Italian or Petrarchan sonnet and the English or Shakespearean sonnet. We will look further into the differences between these types of sonnet below.
The word sonnet comes from the Italian word sonneto, which means “a little poem.”
Types of Sonnet
Though the definition of sonnet states that the poem must have fourteen lines, there are a few variations with this form. All sonnets, whether Italian or English, generally are written in iambic pentameter.
Italian or Petrarchan Sonnet
The Italian sonnet, which was created first, is the combination of an octave (eight lines broken into two quatrains) and a sestet (six lines broken into two tercets). The octave proposes a problem or question, and the sestet generally proposes the solution, or leads toward a conclusion. The ninth line of this sonnet, i.e., the first line of the sestet marks a turn in mood or stance whether or not there is a satisfactory conclusion. This turn is called the volta.
Italian sonnets are known as Petrarchan because the Italian writer Petrarch was one of the main proponents of the form. The rhyme scheme he used was generally ABBA ABBA for the octave and either CDC CDC or CDE CDE for the sestet. There are a few other accepted rhyme schemes for the sestets in Italian sonnets, such as CDD CDE or CDC DCD.
English, Elizabethan, or Shakespearean Sonnet
The English sonnet is sometimes also known as Elizabethan because they came into popularity in the English language during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, i.e., in the mid- to late-1500s. William Shakespeare was not the first to write sonnets in English, but he became perhaps the most famous sonneteer, and therefore the English form is also sometimes called Shakespearean.
The main different between Italian and English sonnets is the rhyme scheme, which, in Shakespearean sonnets is ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. There is also a different breaking of the stanzas—English sonnets are comprised of three quatrains and a couplet. While the volta sometimes occurs in the third quatrain, which is to say the ninth line and therefore in the same place as in Italian sonnets, Shakespeare usually saved his change of tone and conclusion just for the couplet.
The English poet Edmund Spenser, who lived and wrote during the Elizabethan age, used a slightly different rhyme scheme in his sonnets: ABAB BCBC CDCD EE. This provides a tighter connection between the different stanzas.
Contemporary poets have continued to expand on the sonnet form, choosing to write in trochees, tetrameter, in blank verse, and with different rhyme schemes, such as AABB CCDD EEFF GG.
Common Examples of Sonnet
As the term sonnet belongs solely to poetry, there are no examples of sonnet in everyday language, advertising, speeches, etc. However, many famous lines have entered speech or cultural understanding come from sonnets, such as the following:
- “Death be not proud.” —John Donne
- “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” —William Shakespeare
- “i carry your heart with me(i carry it in / my heart)” —e.e. cummings
Significance of Sonnet in Literature
The sonnet is one of the most recognizable and common forms to be used in poetry. Though it has some restrictions on rhyme and meter, it is a relatively open form which allows for a great range of expression in sonnets. The Italian poet Giacomo da Lentini created the form in the thirteenth century, and it remains popular to this day with many contemporary poets. Some of the greatest poets in the world have dedicated much time to creating sonnets, such as Dante Aligheri, John Milton, William Wordsworth, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Robert Frost, e.e. cummings, and Federico García Lorca. William Shakespeare wrote many sonnets, and even used the form in many of his plays, such as the famous prologue to Romeo and Juliet, seen below in Example #2.
Examples of Sonnet in Literature
Example #1: Petrarchan Sonnet
When I consider how my light is spent,
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest He returning chide;
“Doth God exact day-labor, light denied?”
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need
Either man’s work or His own gifts. Who best
Bear His mild yoke, they serve Him best. His state
Is kingly: thousands at His bidding speed,
And post o’er land and ocean without rest;
They also serve who only stand and wait.”
(“When I Consider How My Light is Spent” by John Milton, 1600s)
This Petrarchan sonnet example is written in English by the famous poet John Milton. He uses the conventions established by the first Italian sonneteers with a rhyme scheme of ABBA ABBA CDE CDE. There is also a noticeable turn toward a conclusion in the the ninth line of “That murmur, soon replies, ‘God doth not need / Either man’s work of His own gifts.”
Example #2: Shakespearean Sonnet
Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents’ strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark’d love,
And the continuance of their parents’ rage,
Which, but their children’s end, nought could remove,
Is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.
(Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare, 1594)
This is a famous example of sonnet that opens William Shakespeare’s tragedy Romeo and Juliet. We can see all the telltale signs of Shakespeare’s style of sonnet, such as iambic pentameter, a rhyme scheme of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG, and a final conclusion asking the audience to pay close attention in the final couplet.
Example #3: Spenserian Sonnet
One day I wrote her name upon the strand,
But came the waves and washed it away:
Again I write it with a second hand,
But came the tide, and made my pains his prey.
Vain man, said she, that doest in vain assay,
A mortal thing so to immortalize,
For I myself shall like to this decay,
And eek my name be wiped out likewise.
Not so, (quod I) let baser things devise
To die in dust, but you shall live by fame:
My verse, your virtues rare shall eternize,
And in the heavens write your glorious name.
Where when as death shall all the world subdue,
Our love shall live, and later life renew.
(“Amoretti #75” by Edmund Spenser, 1594)
This is one of Edmund Spenser’s sonnet examples in which he uses his preferred rhyme scheme of ABAB BCBC CDCD EE. It is like Shakespeare’s in its breaking of the poem into three quatrains and a final couplet written in iambic pentameter, turning toward the resolution in the last couplet.
Example #4: Modern Sonnet
One foot down, then hop! It’s hot.
Good things for the ones that’s got.
Another jump, now to the left.
Everybody for hisself.
In the air, now both feet down.
Since you black, don’t stick around.
Food is gone, the rent is due,
Curse and cry and then jump two.
All the people out of work,
Hold for three, then twist and jerk.
Cross the line, they count you out.
That’s what hopping’s all about.
Both feet flat, the game is done.
They think I lost. I think I won.
(“Harlem Hopscotch” by Maya Angelou, 1971)
This is an interesting example of sonnet that Maya Angelou has changed in a modern way. It can be called a sonnet because it contains three quatrains and a final couplet that are all held together by a strict rhyme scheme and even meter. However, Angelou has chosen a slightly unusual rhyme scheme for a sonnet, which is: AABB CCDD EEFF GG. She has also written this poem not in the common iambic pentameter, but instead in trochaic tetrameter, i.e., line of seven or eight syllables with an alternating stress starting on the first syllable. It is still recognizable as a sonnet, however, and shows how modern writers have played with conventions as befits them.
Test Your Knowledge of Sonnet
1. Which of the following statements is the best sonnet definition?
A. A fourteen line poem with no rhyme scheme or meter.
B. A fourteen line poem that generally follows either the Italian or English conventions of strict meter and rhyme scheme.
C. A fourteen line poem with rhyme scheme ABAB CDCD EFEF GG.
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2. Consider the following description of a sonnet:
14 lines, iambic pentameter, rhyme scheme of ABAB BCBC CDCD EE
Which type of sonnet is this?
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3. Which of the following statements is true?
A. The volta in Italian sonnets usually occurs in the final line.
B. The volta in English sonnets usually occurs in the second quatrain.
C. The volta in Shakespearean sonnets usually occurs in the final couplet.
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