The fundamental thing about a sonnet is that it consists of fourteen lines, (an asymmetrical form – 14 can only be divided by 2 or 7) and it is written in iambic pentameter which is a basic di-dum, di-dum, di-dum, di-dum, di-dum.
Because it is short it is good for the concentrated expression of an idea or passion. Usually there is a tension between two ideas or moods or arguments that are presented, contrasted or reconciled.
Traditionally the sonnet seems to divide up into two camps the Italian (Petrarchan) and the English (Shakespearean) forms.
The sonnet originated as a conventional form of love lyric in Italy. In the fourteenth century Petrarch wrote over 300 of them.
The seventeen lines are divided into to an octave, (the first 8 lines) and a sestet (the last 6 lines) – The argument of the poem hinges at line 9 ( the volta or turn) and there is no final couplet. The division between the octave and the sestet is clearly marked by a change in rhyme scheme.
Octave: abba, abba Sestet: one of the following: cdc cdc, cde cde, or cde dce.
Here’s an example. I’m going to use On his Blindness by John Milton (1608-74) because I’d also like to show how he moved the form on a bit into the “Miltonic sonnet”. Not liking the sharp break between the octave and sestet, he allowed the sense to flow strongly across from line 8 to line 9 (enjambement) while still maintaining the change in tone.
When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest He returning chide, -
Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?
I fondly ask:- But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies; God doth not need
Either man’s work, or His own gifts; who best
Bear His mild yoke, they serve Him best: His state
Is kingly: thousands at His bidding speed
And post o’er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.
The Petrarchan sonnets were translated and introduced into England by Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-42) where the form evolved into the Shakespearean form, which allowed more variation in the rhymes (it being harder to rhyme in English than Italian.)
The rhyme scheme is simple four groups of four (quatrains) and a couplet: abab cdcd efef gg but it is harder to make this form work really well as so much rests on the last two lines.
The sonnet still divides up into two sections but now twelve lines stand against the final two. Ideally the argument should progress as follows:
Quatrain 1 – set down an idea
Quatrain 2 – develop it
Quatrain 3 – bring it to some kind of culmination
Couplet – subvert, overturn or massively endorse the preceding 12 lines
Here is an example, from Shakespeare (1564-1616), of course
When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least:
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
I should perhaps mention a hybrid form, the Spenserian sonnet.
It still retains the 12 + 2 form but the 3 quatrains are nicely interlaced:
abab bcbc cdcd ee
So basically it combines the difficult bits out of each of the other forms – a limit of 5 rhymes and a final couplet
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