The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Sonnet: From the Italian word for “little song,” a lyric poem that typically consists of fourteen lines (usually printed as a single stanza) and that typically follows one of several conventional rhyme schemes. Sonnets may address a range of issues or themes, but love, the original subject of the sonnet, is perhaps still the most common. The first part of a sonnet traditionally sets forth a proposition, such as a problem, question, or thesis; the second part a resolution; with a segue between the two called a volta, or turn.

There are two major types of sonnets: the Italian, or Petrarchan, sonnet and the English, or Shakespearean, sonnet. (Petrarchan and Shakespearean refer, respectively, to the most famous practitioners of these forms: the fourteenth-century Tuscan poet Francesco Petrarca and the Elizabethan and Jacobean poet and playwright William Shakespeare.) The Italian sonnet has two parts: the octave, eight lines with the rhyme scheme abbaabba, and the sestet, six lines usually rhyming cdecde or cdcdcd. The English sonnet is divided into three quatrains and a couplet, rhyming abab cdcd efef gg. A third form, the Spenserian sonnet, is a hybrid of the Italian and English sonnets; developed by Elizabethan poet Edmund Spenser, it has three stanzas and a couplet, like the English sonnet, but, like the Italian sonnet, uses rhyme to link parts of the sonnet together, resulting in an abab bcbc cdcd ee form. Iambic pentameter is the most common meter for all three forms.

The sonnet originated in Italy in the thirteenth century, developed by Sicilian poet Giacomo da Lentini and Tuscan poet Guittone d’Arezzo. The form eventually spread to other European countries, flourishing during the Renaissance and reaching England in the early sixteenth century. Sir Thomas Wyatt, who translated and imitated Italian sonnets, is generally credited with introducing the form into England; Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, is generally credited with developing the English sonnet form specifically. Subsequently, during the Neoclassical Period, the sonnet declined throughout Europe before being revived by romantic poets in the nineteenth century.

Numerous poets have experimented with the sonnet form. George Meredith, an English novelist and poet, wrote sixteen-line poems with an abba cddc effe ghhg rhyme scheme in his sonnet sequence Modern Love (1862). Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins developed the curtal sonnet, a short, ten-line form divided into a six-line stanza followed by a four-line stanza with a half-line tail. Nineteenth-century French poet Paul Verlaine and twentieth-century English poet Rupert Brooke tried “inverting” sonnets; Verlaine flipped the parts of the Italian sonnet in “Sappho,” the last sonnet in his collection Les amies (The Girlfriends) (1868), opening with the sestet, and Brooke inverted the English form, beginning with a couplet in “Sonnet Reversed” (1911). Terza rima sonnets follow the linking rhyme scheme aba bcb cdc ded ee. Many twentieth-century and contemporary sonneteers have experimented even more radically with the form, dispensing with meter and/or rhyme altogether.

Noted sonneteers writing in English include Sir Philip Sidney, John Milton, John Keats, William Wordsworth, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Robert Frost, Edna St. Vincent Millay, W. H. Auden, and Robert Lowell. Noted sonneteers writing in French include Joachim du Bellay, Pierre de Ronsard, and Charles Baudelaire; in German, Georg Rudolf Weckherlin, Gottfried Bürger, August Graf von Platen, and Rainer Maria Rilke; in Italian, Dante Alighieri and Michelangelo; and, in Spanish, Garcilaso de la Vega.

FURTHER EXAMPLES: Sidney’s sonnet sequence Astrophel and Stella (1591); John Donne’s Holy Sonnets (c. 1607—13). Oscar Wilde included “Hélas,” an Italian sonnet about his career as a writer, as an epigraph to his Poems (1881):

To drift with every passion till my soul

Is a stringed lute on which all winds can play,

Is it for this that I have given away

Mine ancient wisdom, and austere control? —

Methinks my life is a twice-written scroll

Scrawled over on some boyish holiday

With idle songs for pipe and virelay°verse

Which do but mar the secret of the whole.

Surely there was a time I might have trod

The sunlit heights, and from life’s dissonance

Struck one clear chord to reach the ears of God:

Is that time dead? lo! with a little rod

I did but touch the honey of romance —

And must I lose a soul’s inheritance?

Twentieth- and twenty-first century examples include Claude McKay’s “If We Must Die” (1919), Pablo Neruda’s Cien sonetos de amor (100 Love Sonnets) (1960), Ted Berrigan’s The Sonnets (1964), Seamus Heaney’s sonnet sequence “Clearances” (1987), Bernadette Mayer’s Sonnets (1989), Wanda Coleman’s American Sonnets (1994), Karen Volkman’s Nomina (2008), and Tyehimba Jess’s Sonnet Crown for Blind Tom (2010). Marilyn Hacker’s verse novel Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons (1986) is composed of sonnets and villanelles.