What is Sonnet ?


The Sonnet is a particular type of lyric having a rhyme pattern or scheme. It is a poem of 14 lines. The origin of Sonnet can be traced back to the 14th century Italian poet Petrarch. It is composed of two parts – the Octave and the Sestet. The octave is a stanza of 8 lines and the Sestet is a stanza of 6 lines. The octave has two rhymes (say a and b) arranged in the rhyme scheme abba,abba and the sestet has the rhyme in cdecde pattern. Traditionally the octave would present a problem which is answered in the sestet. The Sonnet has fixed subject. It was normally about unsuccessful love.


The Italian or Petrarcan Sonnet was brought to England in 16th century by Sir Thomas Wyatt. Some modifications were made by the English Poets. Instead of fourteen lines form it had three quatrain and a couplet. The rhyme scheme was abab cdcd efef gg.
Shakespeare’s Sonnet XVIII, ‘Shall I
Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day’ is a famous example of this type of Sonnet. The English Sonnet diverged from the traditional theme of love to the religious Sonnets of John Donne and John Milton

The final couplet is usually a comment on what has come before, an epigrammatic close. The Spenserian sonnet combines the Italian and Shakespearean forms, with three quatrains and a couplet but linking rhymes between the quatrains, thus

abab bcbc cdcd ee.

Certain characteristics common to the sonnet as a form should be listed. Its strict limitations present a challenge to the poet’s artistry and necessitate the use of all technical skills at the poet’s disposal. The frequent occurrence of more or less fixed rhyme patterns within the short space of fourteen lines has a good impact on the reader’s ear and can create genuinely musical effects. The rigidity of the form prevents excessive brevity or prodigality of vocabulary. The importance of precision and perfection in expression is emphasised.

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The sonnet as a literary form arose in Italy, most likely in the thirteenth century. Petrarch, in the fourteenth century, elevated the sonnet to its pinnacle of Italian perfection, and thus gave it his own name for English readers.

Thomas Wyatt, who translated Petrarchan sonnets and leftover thirty of his own in English, was the first to bring the form to England. Surrey, an acquaintance, is credited with bringing the form to England along with Wyatt and is significant as an early modifier of the Italian form. The Italian sonnet pattern was gradually updated, and because Shakespeare became famous for the greatest poems of this modified kind, the English form was given his name.

Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, and D. G. Rossetti are among England’s most famous sonneteers. Some of America’s best sonnets are credited to Longfellow, Jones Very, G. H. Boker, and E. A. Robinson. With the rise in popularity of this poetic form, some poets have followed Petrarch’s lead and written a series of sonnets that are linked one to the other and deal with a unified theme. Such series are called sonnet sequences.

Shakespeare’s Sonnets from the Portuguese (154 in total), Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella, Spenser’s Amoretti, Rossetti’s House of Life, and Mrs Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese are among the most popular sonnet series in English literature. In this century, notable sonnetists and sonnet sequencers include William Ellery Leonard, Elinor Wylie, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and W. H. Auden. The form’s brevity encourages the concentrated presentation of an idea or passion.

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Anti-formal or meta-formal sonnets are occasions for irony made possible by implicit reference to formality itself. 

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