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The Sonnet

The Sonnet form is one of the strictest and most difficult forms of poetry in the English language. But if done correctly, it can be one of the most beautiful pieces of poetic art, and many great poets have made it so.

The first sonnets were written by the Italian poets. The form was probably invented by Giacomo da Lentini, head of the Sicilian School between 1230 and 1266 under Frederick II, the Holy Roman Emperor during most of that time. Another Italian poet, Guittone d’Arezzo, adopted the form and migrated it to Tuscany. He penned at least 300 sonnets of his own between 1235 and 1294.

While Dante Alighieri, Guidi Cavalcanti and other Italian poets wrote in the form, it was Francesca Petrarch who would build his reputation as a sonneteer. Between 1304 and 1374, Petrarch would secure his reputation as a poet and philosopher of the early Italian Renaissance. But the object of his inspiration would be a woman named Laura, about whom he wrote a collection of sonnets called "Canzoniere," or Song Book. The 366 poems in this collection, all about Petrarch’s unrequited love for this beautiful woman, with whom he never even exchanged so much as a word, became the inspiration of many later poets who used the form.

The Italian Sonnet, also called Petrarchan Sonnet after its most famous and prolific user, is characterized by its form and rhyme scheme. The poem is composed of an octave followed by a sestet.

The octave is made up of two quatrains with the following rhyme scheme: abba. The sestet follows one of four different rhyme schemes: cdecde, cdcdcd, ccedde or cdecde. In addition, Petrarchan Sonnets utilize the Alexandrine metrical outline or iambic hexameter made common by earlier Italian and French styles of poetry. The Petrarchan form is still in use today and in its entirety the rhyme scheme will appear as such:

Form 1 Form 2 Form 3 Form 4
a a a a
b b b b
b b b b
a a a a
a a a a
b b b b
b b b b
a a a a
c c c c
d d c d
e c e e
c d d c
d c d d
e d e e

Another characteristic of this poetic form was the volta, or turn. The first eight lines of the poem - the octave - set up the dilemma, or presented a proposition, while the last six lines, the sestet, offered the solution.

Click here to see examples of the Petrarchan Sonnet

Check out this contemporary writerof Petrarchan form.

While the first English sonneteers wrote in the Petrarchan style, it didn’t take long for the English to adopt their own form. Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey, maintained the Italian style and rhyme scheme and were faithful not to abandon the theme of courtly love as well.

However, later English poets such as John Milton, Thomas Gray, William Wordsworth and Elizabeth Barrett Browning abandoned the dilemma-solution logical sequence of the form and converted the metrical outline to iambic pentameter as well.

While many English poets made reputations with English version, William Shakespeare secured his place in history as the most famous of them all. In fact, his style of writing – a form that bears his name – is the most popular sonnet form in history. Only Edmund Spenser bears the honor of having an English version of this form named after him. No other poet of this form can boast of that accomplishment.

Both Shakespearean and Spenserian sonnets are written with three quatrains followed by a couplet. The couplet generally involved an unexpected turn or change of theme. The rhyme scheme for the Shakespearean Sonnet is abab cdcd efef gg. The Spenserian Sonnet varies slightly: abab bcbc cdcd ee.

Shakespeare also wrote about topics other than love, the first poet to have popularly done so using this form. But later poets such as John Donne and Goerge Herbert used the form to explore religious themes. John Milton used the sonnet as a purely meditative form. Some poets during the 17th century used both the Petrarchan form and the English forms.

During the Restoration the sonnet went out of fashion, but it became popular again during the French Revolution. William Wordsworth did much to revive the form but others soon followed, including the Romantic poets John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Keats wrote his poetry using the formal structure very closely associated with Shakespeare’s verse. Shelley, however, made more innovative use of the form and created his own rhyme scheme with the sonnet “Ozymandias.”

During the 19th century many poets wrote sonnets but the most successful of these were the Victorian poetess Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Gerard Manley Hopkins, a Jesuit priest, wrote in his own inventive style, which he called sprung rhythm. He also employed a variant of the sonnet with “Pied Beauty,” a 10½-line poem, and “That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire,” a 24-line poem.

In the 20th century the sonnet underwent more innovation. Robert Frost, Edna St. Vincent Millay and e.e. cummings used the form in the early part of the century. William Butler Yeats wrote the poem “Leda and the Swan” in half-rhymes. Wilfred Owen wrote “Anthem for Doomed Youth” about the lives of young soldiers lost in World War I. W.H. Auden wrote several sonnets but is famous for one of the first unrhymed sonnets in English poetry history, “The Secret Agent.”

Seamus Heaney has led the late 20th century revival of the form by utilizing the half-rhyme style of his fellow Irishman, Yeats. The 1990’s and the early years of the 21st century have seen a resurgence of the strict rhyme and meter of the formalist structure and it looks like the future has great prospects for the sonnet.

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