What is Sonnet?

‘Sonnet’ is an abbreviation of the Italian sonetto (little song) recited to the sound of a musical instrument. It is a fourteen-line poem written in iambic pentameter. Its origins are unclear. For some, it originated in Provence and for others, it is a development of the Greek epigram. It is a dialectical construct where two contrasting ideas, emotions, states of mind, beliefs, actions, events and images are juxtaposed.

The major types of sonnets are as follows:

• Italian (or Petrarchan) sonnet

• English (or Shakespearian) sonnet

• Spenserian sonnet.

1. Petrarchan sonnet: The Petrarchan sonnet is divided into two sections.

The first eight lines are the octave (consisting of two quatrains). The octave presents a problem or question, or situation and rhymes abba abba. The final six lines are the sestet (consisting of two tercets). The sestet presents the resolution to the octave. It has a looser rhyme scheme and can rhyme as: cdc dcd; cdd cdc; cde cde; cde ced; or cdc edc.

Typically, the ninth line of the sonnet marks the movement from the problem to the resolution. Since this marks a change in tone of the poem this line is called the ‘turn’ or volta.

2. English or Shakespearian sonnet: The Shakespearian sonnet is so-called since he was the most famous practitioner of this form. The theme, generally, is the poet’s love of a woman. This sonnet comprises of three quatrains of alternating rhyme and a couplet: abab; cdcd; efef; gg. Here, the sestet is divided into a four-line stanza and a couplet which sums up the poet’s conclusion.

3. Spenserian sonnet: The Spenserian sonnet, invented by Edmund Spenser can be seen as a variation of the Shakespearean sonnet. It too has a three quatrain and a couplet structure; but with an interwoven rhyme scheme: abab; bcbc; cdcd; ee.

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