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- This article is about the sonnet form of poetry. For the automobile named Sonett, see Saab Sonett.
The term sonnet is derived from the Provençal word sonet and the Italian word sonetto, both meaning little song. By the thirteenth century, it had come to signify a poem of fourteen lines following a strict rhyme scheme and logical structure. These have changed during its history. This article focuses mainly on the Italian or Petrarchan sonnet and the English or Shakespearean sonnet.
In addition to the rhyme scheme, English poets usually use iambic pentameter when writing sonnets. This is a rough equivalent to the hendecasyllable usually used for Petrarchan sonnets in romance languages such as Italian, French and Spanish.
History of the Sonnet in English
The sonnet was introduced into English by Thomas Wyatt in the early 16th century. His sonnets and those of his contemporary the Earl of Surrey were chiefly translations from the Italian of Petrarch and the French of writers such as Ronsard. Sir Philip Sidney's sequence Astrophel and Stella (1591) started off a tremendous vogue for sonnet sequences; the next two decades saw sonnet sequences by William Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser, Michael Drayton, Samuel Daniel, Fulke Greville, William Drummond of Hawthornden, and many others. These sonnets were all essentially inspired by the Petrarchan tradition, and generally treat of the poet's love for some woman; the exception is Shakespeare's sequence. In the 17th century, the sonnet was adapted to other purposes, with John Donne and George Herbert writing religious sonnets, and John Milton using the sonnet as a general meditative poem. Both the Shakespearean and Petrarchan rhyme schemes were popular throughout this period, as well as many variants.
The fashion for the sonnet went out with the Restoration, and hardly any sonnets were written between 1670 and Wordsworth's time. However, sonnets came back strongly with the French Revolution. Wordsworth himself wrote several sonnets, of which the best-known are "The world is too much with us" and the sonnet to Milton; his sonnets were essentially modelled on Milton's. Keats and Shelley also wrote major sonnets; Keats's sonnets used formal and rhetorical patterns inspired partly by Shakespeare, and Shelley innovated radically, creating his own rhyme scheme for the sonnet "Ozymandias". Sonnets were written throughout the 19th century, but, apart from Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese and the sonnets of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, there were few very successful traditional sonnets. Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote several major sonnets, often in sprung rhythm, of which the greatest is The Windhover , and also several sonnet variants such as the 10 1/2 line Pied Beauty and the 24-line That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire. By the end of the 19th century, the sonnet had been adapted into a general-purpose form of great flexibility.
This flexibility was extended even further in the 20th century. Among the major poets of the early Modernist period, Robert Frost was the only one to use the sonnet regularly, although William Butler Yeats wrote the major sonnet Leda and the Swan, which used half rhymes. Wilfred Owen's sonnet Anthem for Doomed Youth was another sonnet of the early 20th century. W.H. Auden wrote two sonnet sequences and several other sonnets throughout his career, and widened the range of rhyme-schemes used considerably. Auden also wrote one of the first unrhymed sonnets in English, "The Secret Agent" (1928). Half-rhymed, unrhymed, and even unmetrical sonnets have been very popular since 1950; perhaps the best works in the genre are Seamus Heaney's Glanmore Sonnets and Clearances, both of which use half rhymes. The 1990s have seen something of a formalist revival, however, and several traditional sonnets have been written in the past decade.
The English Sonnet
Main article: Shakespearean sonnet
Soon after the introduction of the Italian sonnet, English poets began to develop the native form. These poets included Sir Philip Sidney, Michael Drayton, Samuel Daniel and William Shakespeare. The form is often named after Shakespeare, not because he was the first to write in this form but because he became its most famous practitioner.
The form consists of three quatrains of four lines and a couplet of two lines. The couplet generally introduced an unexpected sharp thematic or imagistic "turn". The usual rhyme scheme was a-b-a-b, c-d-c-d, e-f-e-f, g-g.
This example, Shakespeare's Sonnet 116, illustrates the form:
- Let me not to the marriage of true minds
- Admit impediments. Love is not love
- Which alters when it alteration finds,
- Or bends with the remover to remove.
- O no, it is an ever fixed mark
- That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
- It is the star to every wand'ring barque,
- Whose worth's unknown although his height be taken.
- Love's not time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
- Within his bending sickle's compass come;
- Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
- But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
- If this be error and upon me proved,
- I never writ, nor no man ever loved.
- Happy ye leaves! whenas those lily hand
- Happy ye leaves! whenas those lily hands,
- Which hold my life in their dead doing might,
- Shall handle you, and hold in love's soft bands,
- Like captives trembling at the victor's sight.
- And happy lines! on which, with starry light,
- Those lamping eyes will deign sometimes to look,
- And read the sorrows of my dying sprite,
- Written with tears in heart's close bleeding book.
- And happy rhymes! bathed in the sacred brook
- Of Helicon, whence she derived is,
- When ye behold that angel's blessed look,
- My soul's long lacked food, my heaven's bliss.
- Leaves, lines, and rhymes seek her to please alone,
- Whom if ye please, I care for other none.
- Petrarchan sonnet
- Shakespearean sonnet
- Onegin stanza
- Shakespeare's Sonnets
- crown of sonnets
- sonnet cycle
These links are to sites with texts in English only:
- From The Sonnets and Ballate of Guido Cavalcanti Translated by Ezra Pound
- Some English Translations of Petrarch
- Wyatt's Sonnets
- Shakespeares Sonnets
- Spenser's Sonnets
- Selective Historical Bibliography on the Sonnet = Bibliographie sélective de l'histoire du sonnet
- A Comparison of Samuel Daniel's, "Care-Charmer Sleep" and Pontus de Tyard's, "Père du doux repos, Sommeil, père du Songe"
- William Shakespeare's Sonnet 73, "bare ruin'd choirs"
- Shakespeare Sonnets - searchable database
- "Fatal Interview" with Edna Saint Vincent Millay (March 2005)
- SONNETTO POESIA (Canada) ISSN 1705-4524 SONNETTO POESIA is a Quarterly international journal of the sonnet.
- Cumulative Index to The Vallance Review, Poetry Life & Times (UK), Sept. 2001 --
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