The Sonnet

by Melissa J. Sites

A sonnet is a one-stanza poem of fourteen lines, written in iambic pentameter. One way to describe a verse line is to talk about how many stressed and unstressed syllables are in the line. A simple grouping of syllables, some stressed, some unstressed, is called a foot. The iambic foot is an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. Pentameter means there are five feet in the line. "Iambic Pentameter," then, means a line of ten syllables, which alternates unstressed and stressed syllables according to the iambic rhythm.

The rhyme scheme of a sonnet refers to the pattern formed by the rhyming words at the end of each line. Each end-rhyme is assigned a letter, and the fourteen letters assigned to the sonnet describe the rhyme scheme. Different kinds of sonnets have different rhyme schemes.

The Petrarchan or Italian sonnet, named after the fourteenth century Italian poet Petrarch, has the rhyme scheme ABBAABBA CDECDE. [You might imagine the end-rhymes represented by the letters to be something like cat log hog bat, rat bog tog fat, long neck noose, song heck loose]. The first eight lines, which all end in either rhyme A [at] or B [og], form the octave. The last six lines, which end in C [ong], D [eck], or E [oose], form the sestet. Variant rhyme schemes for the sestet also include CDCDCD and CDEDCE. There is usually a pause or break in thought between the octave and sestet called the volta, or turn. Traditionally, one main thought or problem is set out in the octave and brought to a resolution in the sestet.

The Shakespearean or English sonnet was actually developed in the sixteenth century by the Earl of Surrey, but is named after Shakespeare because of his great sonnet sequence (a series of sonnets all exploring the same theme) printed in 1609 . The Shakespearean sonnet has the rhyme scheme ABAB CDCD EFEF GG, forming three quatrains (four lines in a group) and a closing couplet (two rhymed lines). The problem is usually developed in the first three quatrains, each quatrain with a new idea growing out of the previous one. Sometimes the first two quatrains are devoted to the same thought, resembling the octave of the Petrarchan sonnet, and followed by a similar volta. Most strikingly unlike the Petrarchan version, the Shakespearean sonnet is brought to a punchy resolution in the epigrammatic final couplet.

The Spenserian sonnet is a variation of the English sonnet with the rhyme scheme ABAB BCBC CDCD EE, in which the quatrains are linked by a continuation of one end-rhyme from the previous quatrain. The Miltonic sonnet is a Petrarchan sonnet which omits the volta. Wordsworth often used the Petrarchan form, but changed the octave to ABBA ACCA because it is harder to find rhyming words in English than in Italian.

The traditional subject of the sonnet has primarily been Love. Petrarch wrote his great sonnet sequence to his beloved, Laura. Many of Shakespeare's sonnets are also about Love, but Shakespeare mocked the standard worshipful attitude of the Petrarchan sonnet in his famous "My Mistress's eyes are nothing like the sun." Development of the English sonnet led to consideration of other topics, including mortality, mutability, politics, and writing itself. Donne turned from the secular subject of Love to consideration of sacred themes in a group of nineteen Holy Sonnets. Milton, instead of writing a sequence about Love, wrote individual sonnets about serious ideas, political themes, or public occasions. After Milton the sonnet declined in popularity--until it was taken up again with fervor during the Romantic period.

To Shelley's "Ozymandias"    |     To Horace Smith's "Stupendous leg of granite . . ."