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The term sonnet is derived from the Italian word sonetto (from Old Provençal sonet a little poem, from son song, from Latin sonus a sound). By the thirteenth century it signified a poem of fourteen lines that follows a strict rhyme scheme and specific structure. Conventions associated with the sonnet have evolved over its history.
Writers of sonnets are sometimes called "sonneteers", although the term can be used derisively.
The sonnet was created by Giacomo da Lentini, head of the Sicilian School under Emperor Frederick II. Guittone d'Arezzo rediscovered it and brought it to Tuscany where he adapted it to his language when he founded the Neo-Sicilian School (1235–1294). He wrote almost 250 sonnets. Other Italian poets of the time, including Dante Alighieri (1265–1321) and Guido Cavalcanti (c. 1250–1300), wrote sonnets, but the most famous early sonneteer was Petrarca (known in English as Petrarch). Other fine examples were written by Michelangelo.
The structure of a typical Italian sonnet of the time included two parts that together formed a compact form of "argument". First, the octave (two quatrains), forms the "proposition", which describes a "problem", or "question", followed by a sestet (two tercets), which proposes a "resolution". Typically, the ninth line initiates what is called the "turn", or "volta", which signals the move from proposition to resolution. Even in sonnets that don't strictly follow the problem/resolution structure, the ninth line still often marks a "turn" by signaling a change in the tone, mood, or stance of the poem.
Later, the a-b-b-a, a-b-b-a pattern became the standard for Italian sonnets. For the sestet there were two different possibilities: c-d-e-c-d-e and c-d-c-c-d-c. In time, other variants on this rhyming scheme were introduced, such as c-d-c-d-c-d.
In English, both English type (Shakespearean) sonnets and Italian type (Petrarchan) sonnets are traditionally written in iambic pentameter lines.
The first known sonnets in English, written by Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, used this Italian scheme, as did sonnets by later English poets including John Milton, Thomas Gray, William Wordsworth and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Early twentieth-century American poet Edna St. Vincent Millay also wrote most of her sonnets using the Italian form.
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)
Most Sonnets in Dante's La Vita Nuova are Petrarchan, but some are not. Chapter VII gives sonnet "O voi che per la via", with two sestets (AABAAB AABAAB) and two quatrains (CDDC CDDC), and Ch. VIII, "Morte villana", with two sestets (AABBBA AABBBA) and two quatrains (CDDC CDDC).
The sole confirmed surviving sonnet in the Occitan language is confidently dated to 1284, and is conserved only in troubadour manuscript P, an Italian chansonnier of 1310, now XLI.42 in the Biblioteca Laurenziana in Florence. It was written by Paolo Lanfranchi da Pistoia and is addressed to Peter III of Aragon. It employs the rhyme scheme a-b-a-b, a-b-a-b, c-d-c-d-c-d. This poem is historically interesting for its information on north Italian perspectives concerning the War of the Sicilian Vespers, the conflict between the Angevins and Aragonese for the Sicily. Peter III and the Aragonese cause was popular in northern Italy at the time and Paolo's sonnet is a celebration of his victory over the Angevins and Capetians in the Aragonese Crusade:
An Occitan sonnet, dated to 1321 and assigned to one "William of Almarichi", is found in Jean de Nostredame and cited in Giovanni Crescembeni, Storia della volgar Poesia. It congratulates Robert of Naples on his recent victory. Its authenticity is dubious. There are also two poorly-regarded sonnets by the Italian Dante de Maiano.
When English sonnets were introduced 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 Ronsard and others. While Wyatt introduced the sonnet into English, it was Surrey who gave it a rhyming meter, and a structural division into quatrains of a kind that now characterizes the typical English sonnet. Having previously circulated in manuscripts only, both poets' sonnets were first published in Richard Tottel's Songes and Sonnetts, better known as Tottel's Miscellany (1557).
It was, however, Sir Philip Sidney's sequence Astrophel and Stella (1591) that started the English 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. This literature is often attributed to the Elizabethan Age and known as Elizabethan sonnets. These sonnets were all essentially inspired by the Petrarchan tradition, and generally treat of the poet's love for some woman, with the exception of Shakespeare's sequence of 154 sonnets. 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 fourteen lines structured as three quatrains and a couplet. The third quatrain generally introduces an unexpected sharp thematic or imagistic "turn", the volta. In Shakespeare's sonnets, however, the volta usually comes in the couplet, and usually summarizes the theme of the poem or introduces a fresh new look at the theme. With only a rare exception, the meter is iambic pentameter, although there is some accepted metrical flexibility (e.g., lines ending with an extra-syllable feminine rhyme, or a trochaic foot rather than an iamb, particularly at the beginning of a line). The usual rhyme scheme is end-rhymed a-b-a-b, c-d-c-d, e-f-e-f, g-g.
This example, Shakespeare's "Sonnet 116", illustrates the form (with some typical variances one may expect when reading an Elizabethan-age sonnet with modern eyes):
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 fixèd 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)*
* PRONUNCIATION/RHYME: Note changes in pronunciation since composition.
** PRONUNCIATION/METER: "Fixed" pronounced as two-syllables, "fix-ed".
*** RHYME/METER: Feminine-rhyme-ending, eleven-syllable alternative.
The Prologue to Romeo and Juliet is also a sonnet, as is Romeo and Juliet's first exchange in Act One, Scene Five, lines 104–117, beginning with "If I profane with my unworthiest hand" (104) and ending with "Then move not while my prayer's effect I take" (117).
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 hundreds of sonnets, of which amongst the best-known are "Upon Westminster Bridge", "The world is too much with us" and the sonnet "London, 1802" addressed 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. In Canada during the last decades of the century, the Confederation Poets and especially Archibald Lampman were known for their sonnets, which were mainly on pastoral themes. Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote several major sonnets, often in sprung rhythm, such as "The Windhover", and also several sonnet variants such as the 10½-line curtal sonnet "Pied Beauty" and the 24-line caudate sonnet "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, Edna St. Vincent Millay and E. E. Cummings all used the sonnet regularly. 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). Robert Lowell wrote five books of unrhymed "American sonnets", including his Pulitzer Prize-winning volume The Dolphin (1973). 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, and Geoffrey Hill's mid-period sequence "An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England". The 1990s saw something of a formalist revival, however, and several traditional sonnets have been written in the past decade.
A variant on the English form is the Spenserian sonnet, named after Edmund Spenser (c.1552–1599), in which the rhyme scheme is abab, bcbc, cdcd, ee. A Spenserian sonnet does not appear to require that the initial octave set up a problem that the closing sestet answers, as with a Petrarchan sonnet. Instead, the form is treated as three quatrains connected by the interlocking rhyme scheme and closed by a couplet. The linked rhymes of his quatrains suggest the linked rhymes of such Italian forms as terza rima. This example is taken from Amoretti:
Happy ye leaves! whenas those lily hands
Happy ye leaves. whenas those lily hands, (a)
Which hold my life in their dead doing might, (b)
Shall handle you, and hold in love's soft bands, (a)
Like captives trembling at the victor's sight. (b)
And happy lines on which, with starry light, (b)
Those lamping eyes will deign sometimes to look,(c)
And read the sorrows of my dying sprite, (b)
Written with tears in heart's close bleeding book. (c)
And happy rhymes! bathed in the sacred brook (c)
Of Helicon, whence she derived is, (d)
When ye behold that angel's blessed look, (c)
My soul's long lacked food, my heaven's bliss. (d)
Leaves, lines, and rhymes seek her to please alone, (e)
Whom if ye please, I care for other none. (e)
In the Indian subcontinent, sonnets have been written in the Assamese, Bengali, Dogri, English, Gujarati, Hindi, Kashmiri, Malayalam, Manipuri, Marathi, Nepali, Oriya, Sindhi and Urdu languages.Urdu poets, also influenced by English and other European poets, took to writing sonnets in the Urdu language rather late. Azmatullah Khan (1887–1923) is believed to have introduced this format to Urdu literature in the very early part of the 20th century. The other renowned Urdu poets who wrote sonnets were Akhtar Junagarhi, Akhtar Sheerani, Noon Meem Rashid, Mehr Lal Soni Zia Fatehabadi, Salaam Machhalishahari and Wazir Agha. This example, a sonnet by Zia Fatehabadi taken from his collection Meri Tasveer, is in the usual English (Shakespearean) sonnet rhyme-scheme.
With the advent of free verse, the sonnet was seen as somewhat old-fashioned and fell out of use for a time among some schools of poets. However, a number of modern poets, including Charles Baudelaire, Wilfred Owen, John Berryman, George Meredith, Edwin Morgan, Robert Frost, Rupert Brooke, George Sterling, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Federico García Lorca, E.E. Cummings, Jorge Luis Borges, Pablo Neruda, Robert Lowell, Joan Brossa, Vikram Seth, Rainer Maria Rilke, Jan Kal, Ernest Hilbert, Kim Addonizio, Paul Muldoon and Seamus Heaney continued to use the form. Elizabeth Bishop's inverted "Sonnet" was one of her last poems. Ted Berrigan's book, The Sonnets, is an arresting and curious take on the form. Paul Muldoon often experiments with 14 lines and sonnet rhymes, though without regular sonnet meter. The advent of the New Formalism movement in the United States has also contributed to contemporary interest in the sonnet. The sonnet sees its revival with the word sonnet. Concise and visual in effect, word sonnets are fourteen line poems, with one word per line. Frequently allusive and imagistic, they can also be irreverent and playful. The Canadian poet Seymour Mayne published a few collections of word sonnets, and is one of the chief innovators of the form. Contemporary word sonnets combine a variation of styles often considered to be mutually exclusive to separate genres, as demonstrated in works such as An Ode to Mary. Also, the contemporary Greek poet Yannis Livadas began what he termed a "fusion sonnet", consisting of 21 lines, essentially a variable half of a "jazz" sonnet, accompanied by a half sonnet as a coda. Both parts of the poem appear as a whole in a dismantled form of a series of 3, 2, 4, 3, 4, and 5-lined stanzas.