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The sonnet is a poetic form that originated in Italy and became highly popular in English literature. Characterized by its specific structure and thematic elements, the sonnet has been used by numerous poets to explore a variety of subjects, from love and beauty to time and mortality.

Origins and History

  • Italian (Petrarchan) Sonnet: The sonnet originated in Italy in the 13th century, perfected by the poet Petrarch. The Italian sonnet consists of 14 lines divided into an octave (eight lines) and a sestet (six lines), typically following a rhyme scheme of ABBAABBA for the octave and varying patterns like CDECDE or CDCDCD for the sestet.
  • English (Shakespearean) Sonnet: Introduced by Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, the sonnet form was adapted to English. William Shakespeare popularized this form, which consists of 14 lines divided into three quatrains (four lines each) and a final couplet (two lines), with a rhyme scheme of ABABCDCDEFEFGG.

Structure and Form

  1. Italian (Petrarchan) Sonnet:

    • Octave: Presents a problem, situation, or emotional state.
    • Sestet: Offers a resolution, counterargument, or reflection.
    • Volta: The “turn” or shift in argument or perspective, typically occurring at the start of the sestet (line 9).
  2. English (Shakespearean) Sonnet:

    • Three Quatrains: Develops different aspects of a theme or presents a sequence of metaphors or images.
    • Couplet: Offers a conclusion, summary, or twist.
    • Volta: The turn usually comes at the beginning of the third quatrain (line 9) or at the final couplet (line 13).

Themes and Styles

  • Love: The most common theme, especially in the Petrarchan tradition, focusing on the poet’s unrequited love and admiration for an idealized beloved.
  • Beauty: Many sonnets celebrate the beauty of the beloved or nature.
  • Time and Mortality: Sonnets often explore the transient nature of life, youth, and beauty.
  • Philosophical and Reflective: Later sonnets, especially in the Shakespearean tradition, delve into broader reflections on life, politics, and human nature.

Notable Poets and Their Works

  • Francesco Petrarch: His sonnets, particularly those in “Canzoniere,” focused on his love for Laura, a woman he idealized.
  • William Shakespeare: His 154 sonnets cover themes of love, beauty, politics, and mortality. Famous sonnets include “Sonnet 18” (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”) and “Sonnet 130” (“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun”).
  • John Milton: Known for his sonnet “When I Consider How My Light is Spent,” exploring personal loss and faith.
  • Elizabeth Barrett Browning: Her “Sonnets from the Portuguese” are a series of love sonnets addressed to her husband, Robert Browning.
  • William Wordsworth: Wrote sonnets that often reflected on nature, politics, and the human condition, such as “Composed upon Westminster Bridge.”

Modern Use

  • Continued Popularity: The sonnet remains a popular form in contemporary poetry, with poets experimenting with its structure and themes.
  • Innovations: Modern poets sometimes modify the traditional rhyme schemes and meters or use the sonnet form to address contemporary issues and personal experiences.