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The sonnet is one of the poetic forms that can be found in lyric poetry from Europe.
The term "''sonnet''" derives from the Occitan 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 that follows a strict rhyme scheme and specific structure. The conventions associated with the sonnet have evolved over its history. The writers of sonnets are sometimes referred to as "sonneteers," although the term can be used derisively. One of the best-known sonnet writers is William Shakespeare, who wrote 154 of them. A Shakespearean, or English, sonnet consists of 14 lines, each line containing ten syllables and written in iambic pentameter, in which a pattern of an unemphasized syllable followed by an emphasized syllable is repeated five times. The rhyme scheme in a Shakespearean sonnet is ababcdcdefef gg; the last two lines are a rhyming couplet.
Traditionally, English poets employ iambic pentameter when writing sonnets. In the Romance languages, the hendecasyllable and Alexandrine are the most widely used metres.
Italian (Petrarchan) sonnet
The Italian sonnet was created by Giacomo da Lentini, head of the Sicilian School under 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 300 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 Italian sonnets included two parts. First, the octave (two quatrains), which describe a problem, followed by a sestet (two tercets), which gives the resolution to it. Typically, the ninth line creates a "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.
In the sonnets of Giacomo da Lentini, the octave rhymed ''a-b-a-b, a-b-a-b''; 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''.
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.
This example, ''On His Blindness'' by Milton, gives a sense of the Italian rhyming scheme;
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)
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.
[Bertoni, 119.] It was written by Paolo Lanfranchi da Pistoia and is addressed to Peter III of Aragon. 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 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.
English (Shakespearean) sonnet
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 them the rhyming meter, and division into quatrains that now characterizes the English sonnet. Having previously circulated in manuscript, 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. 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 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). 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.
Soon after the introduction of the Italian sonnet, English poets began to develop a fully native form. These poets included Sir Philip Sidney, Michael Drayton, Samuel Daniel, the Earl of Surrey's nephew Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford 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 fourteen lines structured as three quatrains and a couplet. The third quatrain generally introduces an unexpected sharp thematic or imagistic "turn" called a volta. In Shakespeare's sonnets, the couplet usually summarizes the theme of the poem or introduces a fresh new look at the theme. The usual meter is iambic pentameter, which means five iambic feet, i.e., ten-syllable lines in which even-numbered syllables are naturally accented—although there is some accepted metrical flexibility (e.g., lines ending with an extra-syllable feminine rhyme, or a trochee at the beginning of a line rather than an iamb). 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 fixed 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).
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''. In a Spenserian sonnet there does not appear to be a requirement that the initial octave set up a problem that the closing sestet answers, as is the case with a Petrarchan sonnet. Instead, the form is treated as three quatrains connected by the interlocking rhyme scheme and followed 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)
With the advent of free verse, the sonnet came to be seen as somewhat old-fashioned and fell out of use for a time among some schools of poets. However, a number of 20th-century poets, including Wilfred Owen, John Berryman, Edwin Morgan, Robert Frost, Rupert Brooke, George Sterling, Edna St. Vincent Millay, e.e. cummings, Jorge Luis Borges, Pablo Neruda, Joan Brossa, Vikram Seth, Rainer Maria Rilke, Jan Kal, and Seamus Heaney continued to use 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.