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The sonnet is a famous classical form that has compelled poets for centuries. It originated in Italy during the 13th century and gained popularity during the Renaissance period. The name comes from the Italian sonetto, which means “a little sound or song”. The sonnet is historically associated with Petrarch and later adopted by William Shakespeare and other poets. It typically consists of 14 lines and is written in iambic pentameter, employing one of several rhyme schemes and adhering to a tightly structured thematic organisation. Sonnets are renowned for their lyrical beauty, thematic richness, and versatility, making them popular among poets throughout history. Two sonnet forms provide the models from which all other sonnets are formed: the Petrarchan and the Shakespearean.

Petrarchan Sonnet

The first and most common sonnet is the Petrarchan or Italian. Named after one of its most outstanding practitioners, the Italian poet Francesco Petrarch, the Petrarchan sonnet is divided into two stanzas: the octave (the first eight lines) and the answering sestet (the final six lines). The tightly woven rhyme scheme, abba, abba, cdecde, cdccdc or cdcdcd, is suited for the rhyme-rich Italian language, though there are many fine examples in English. 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 preceding argument or narrative direction, 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 and 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 pleasing 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.

    • The Petrarchan sonnet is divided into two parts: an octave (eight lines) followed by a sestet (six lines).
    • The octave presents a problem, question, or theme, while the sestet offers a resolution, commentary, or conclusion.
    • The rhyme scheme of the Italian sonnet is typically ABBAABBA for the octave, followed by various arrangements for the sestet (e.g., CDCDCD, CDCCDC, CDECDE, etc.).
    • This form was popularised by the Italian poet Petrarch and was often used to explore themes of love, spirituality, and philosophical contemplation.

Shakespearean Sonnet

The second major type of sonnet, the Shakespearean, English, or Elizabethan, follows a different set of rules. Three quatrains and a couplet follow this rhyme scheme: abab, cdcd, efef, gg. The couplet plays a pivotal role, usually in 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 unfavourably with nature’s beauties, but the concluding couplet swerves in a surprising direction.

    • The English sonnet consists of three quatrains (four-line stanzas) and a concluding couplet (two-line stanzas).
    • The quatrains often present a progression of ideas, arguments, or images, leading to a climax or resolution in the final couplet.
    • The rhyme scheme of the English sonnet is typically ABABCDCDEFEFGG, where the rhyming couplet provides a sense of closure or summary.
    • William Shakespeare popularised this form, and it became synonymous with themes of love, beauty, time, mortality, and the complexities of human experience.

Spenserian Sonnet

The Spenserian sonnet, invented by 16th-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 implicitly reorganised the Shakespearean sonnet into couplets reminiscent of the Petrarchan through interweaving the quatrains. One reason was to reduce the often excessive final couplet of the Shakespearean sonnet, putting less pressure on it to resolve the preceding argument, observation, or question.

Miltonic Sonnet

John Milton’s Italian-patterned sonnets -later known as Miltonic sonnets -added significant 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. These qualities can be seen in “When I Consider How My Light is Spent.”

While the Italian and English sonnet forms are considered traditional and are the most well-known, the Spenserian sonnet, the Miltonic sonnet, and the modern or free verse sonnet are termed as variations and adaptations of the sonnet form, which deviates from strict rhyme and meter patterns. Sonnets are renowned for their brevity, elegance, and ability to concisely convey complex emotions and ideas. They offer poets a framework for exploring various themes and subjects, from the personal and intimate to the universal and timeless. As a result, sonnets continue to be a popular and enduring form of poetry in literary traditions worldwide.