“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”;
“No man is an island, entire of itself”;
“When I have fears that I may cease to be”…
Rigid structures, capsules of explosive emotion, a distant drum beating ta-tum, ta-tum, Shakespeare, unrequited love and a deified mistress—the sonnet has made a name for itself throughout its long existence with some distinct characteristics. Though they have become less popular in today’s world, which leans more towards the free-verse, sonnets continue to hold a special place in literature. Its potential as an outlet for powerful inexpressible emotions and to show-off one’s writing prowess has not dwindled over the centuries.
Origins and Evolution
The name that’s most associated with sonnets is Shakespeare. However, prolific as he was, the Bard was not actually the inventor of the sonnet. Sonnets did not even enter British borders until the 1500s. Etymology-wise, ‘sonnet’ arises from the Italian word ‘sonetto’ meaning ‘little song’, and ‘suono’ meaning ‘sound’. The form was first developed in the early 13CE by Italian poet Giacomo da Lentini before being popularised during the 14CE by Francesco Petrarch who went on to establish the Petrarchan sonnet. This was then further adapted by many poets in England such as John Donne, Edmund Spenser, John Milton and William Shakespeare, who created the well-known Shakespearean sonnet.
As sonnets are short and constrained, they provide a good medium for creating crisp, powerful statements on universal themes like love, death, rebirth, war and faith. This expressive ability made the sonnet popular among the Romantics and Pre-Raphaelites who sought to capture and convey profound ideas and feelings through their poetry, such as William Wordsworth, John Keats, Christina Rossetti and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
In the contemporary age, poets sought a more innovative take on sonnets, bridging classic forms and structures with present-day themes and placing them under a postmodern lens.
The sonnet has evolved into many different styles over the years, but there are six most notable forms:
Named after Francesco Petrarca
An octave (eight lines) with ABBAABBA rhyme serving as the ‘proposition’ that establishes the dilemma
A sestet (six lines) with varying rhymes
A ‘volta’ or change in direction or mood in line nine, between the octave and the sestet, that reaches a ‘resolution’ at the end
Named after William Shakespeare
Three quatrains with ABAB CDCD EFEF rhyme and a concluding couplet with GG rhyme
A ‘volta’ or change in direction or mood in concluding couplet
Each line follows the iambic pentameter (10 syllables in soft-hard ‘ta-TUM’ pattern)
Invented by Gerard Manley Hopkins
Contracts two quatrains in a Petrarchan octet into two tercets (three lines) and the final sestet into a quintet (five lines)
The final line of the quintet/sonnet is shorter than the rest, acting as a ‘tail’
Follows ABCABC DBCDC or DCBDC rhyme
uses sprung rhythm instead of iambic pentameter (hard-soft ‘TUM-ta’ pattern)
Cycles and Clowns
Sonnets can also be part of a bigger group united by a single theme, in which case it is known as a ‘cycle’ or ‘sequence’. The most notable sequence is Shakespeare’s collection of 154 sonnets.
Sonnets can also have a special sequence whereby the first line of each sonnet is repeated from the last line of the preceding sonnet, with the first line of the first sonnet and last line of the last sonnet sharing the same line. This is known as a ‘crown.’ A variation of this is the ‘heroic crown’ that has the final sonnet as an amalgamation of all the first lines of each sonnet in the sequence.
The sonnet is a difficult form to master, but it is considered a timeless style that has become synonymous with ‘high art’. If eager, dabble at writing one and you might just find a way to break its stiff, rigid conventions while harnessing its power of expressing your innermost thoughts and nostalgically reconnect with the dead poets of the Renaissance.