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Literary HistoryThe Development of the Sonnet
The sonnet is a form of poetry. It is characterized by a fourteen-line structure and often expresses themes of love, especially unrequited love. The word sonnet is from the Italian word sonetto, which means “a little sound” or “song.”
There are three major forms of the sonnet: the Italian, or Petrarchan; the English, or Shakespearean; and the Spenserian. The Italian sonnet is called the Petrarchan sonnet, after the poet who made this form famous, Francesco Petrarch. The first eight lines of a Petrarchan sonnet are called an octave and present a problem or a question. The last six lines of this type of sonnet are called a sestet and provide the solution or answer to the octave. The rhyme scheme of a Petrarchan sonnet varies.The English sonnet is also referred to as the Shakespearean sonnet, since Shakespeare mastered this form. English sonnets comprise three groups of four lines, called quatrains, and a couplet, or two lines. Each quatrain and couplet has its own rhyming scheme. An example of the English sonnet is Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 130”:
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun
Note how the couplet at the end of the poem compresses deftly summarizes the sentiment of the preceding three quatrains.
The Spenserian sonnet was created by Edmund Spenser, a sixteenth-century English poet. This form has three quatrains and a couplet and follows a different rhyming scheme from the English sonnet.
While these sonnet forms vary from each other, they also have elements in common. In addition to having fourteen lines, all sonnets have the same meter: iambic pentameter. “Iambic” means a metrical foot consisting of one unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable. “Pentameter” is a line of verse consisting of five metrical feet. Another common element of sonnets is rhyme schemes. Each line that ends in a certain sound, like “peace” and “release,” or “woe” and “low,” are assigned a letter, such as a or b. Italian sonnets follow an abbaabba rhyming scheme, English sonnets usually follow an abab cdcd efef gg rhyming scheme, and Spenserian sonnets follow an abab bcbc cdcd ee rhyming scheme.
The Sonnets. New York: Penguin Classics, 2001. A collection of 154 sonnets that William Shakespeare wrote during the course of his life, as well as background information on Shakespeare and the sonnet form and commentary on Shakespeare.
English Sonnets.(Everyman Poetry Library.) London: Everyman Paperback Classics/Orion Publishing Group, 1999. A collection of select sonnets from the major English poets of the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries.
The Development of the Sonnet: An Introduction. New York: Routledge, 1992. An introduction to the sonnet, from its early beginnings in Italy to the time of John Milton. Poets covered include Petrarch, Wyatt, Shakespeare, Spenser, and Milton.
The Penguin Book of the Sonnet: 500 Years of a Classic Tradition in English. New York: Penguin, 2001. A collection of more than six-hundred sonnets, from Chaucer to Wyatt to twentieth-century poets.
Sonnets from the Portuguese and Other Love Poems. New York: Gramercy, 1997. Here are forty-four interlocking sonnets that Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote for her husband, Robert Browning.
Sixteenth-Century Renaissance English Literature (1485–1603)
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