Sonnet | Characteristics of Sonnet Writing | Major Sonneteers

What Is a Sonnet?

The word “Sonnet” came from an Italian word “Sonetto“. It means “a little song”. A sonnet is a short poem of 14 lines. The basic theme of sonnet revolves around love and emotions. It is a perfect poetic style for expressing a single idea or thought. In this literary genre, poets attribute special love and feelings to their beloved. During old literature, mostly poets were court poet. Their writings were on topics like, knights, heroes, legends, and kings but this was a unique change in history of literature when poets started writing to attributes their beloveds. .  More precisely, it originated in Italy from Dante Alighieri. He wrote a number of sonnets for his beloved, named Beatrice.

Background of Sonnet Writing

Giacomo da Lentini is the founder of Sonnet. He was the head of Sicilian School under Emperor Frederick II. He wrote almost 250 sonnets. Petrarch constituted Sonnet in the 14th century as a major form of Love poetry. Later France, Spain and England adopted it in the 16th century and Germany in the 17th century. Sonnet took form from Italian and it got significance as poetry in 13th century.  More precisely, it originated in Italy from Dante Alighieri. He wrote a number of sonnets for his beloved, named Beatrice. Sonnet further developed in the 14th century, when Francesco Petrarch made it prominent, through the poems he wrote about a woman named Laura.

Wyatt and Surrey brought the sonnet to England. It happened when they went for a diplomatic visit to Italy and learnt the sonnet writing. They started sonnet writing when they came back. Wyatt wrote sonnet in 1557. After his death, Surrey took his lead. Surrey’s sonnets were mostly an adaptation of the works of Petrarch. In the 1950s, Spenser and Shakespeare mastered the sonnet. They changed its structure to suit their several desires. After sometime, their form of it became famous. In the mid 17th century, John Milton wrote sonnets about events, people and occasions but the theme of his sonnets was also Love. He was alone and afloat in the durable wane of sonnet.

The English revival continued well into the 19th century with Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Christina Rossetti introducing female interest into sonnet. The 20th century was full of developed sonneteers. The poets from different countries wrote memorable sonnets. Some of the most prominent sonnet writers from that time include, Robert Frost and Robert Lowell from America, England’s W.H Auden, Dylan Thomas, Seamus Heaney and John Crowe Ransom, and Edwin Morgan from Scotland.

Characteristics of Sonnet Writing

Sonnet pattern of Petrarch consists of two parts: an octave (first part of sonnet consisting of eight lines) and sestet (second part of sonnet consisting of six lines). Wyatt followed him in style and wrote 32 sonnets in same pattern. In between octave and sestet, there was a pause marked space on paper. There was a change in thought in sestet; sometime called as volta or the turn of thought.

English sonnet consists of 14 lines with first 12 lines divided into 3 quatrains. Surrey brought this change to Elizabethans’ sonnets. These quatrains contain four lines each. The poet writes about a problem or theme in these three quatrains, each quatrain carry single thought followed by next quatrain and then he resolves it in the final two lines. The last two lines are called “Couplet“. It has a regular rhyme scheme. All the poets wrote sonnet in iambic pentameter. A Sonnet helps the poet to explore strong emotions and express them.

Iambic Pentameter: Iambic Pentameter is a style of writing in poetry where each line is five feet long. All feet contain two syllables, one is stressed and second in unstressed. In simple way each line carry ten syllables: five stressed and five unstressed. Look at the example.

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” (Shakespeare)

(Shall+I) (com+par) (Thee+to) (a+ sum) (mer’s+day)

Rhyme Scheme of Sonnet Writing by Different Sonneteers

  • Petrarch: [a b b a a b b a] (octave) + [c d c d c d] (sestet)
  • Surrey: [a b a b] + [a b a b] + [a b a b] + [e e]
  • Sidney: [a b b a] + [a b b a] + [c d c d] + [e e]
  • Spenser: [a b a b] + [b c b c] + [c d c d] + [e e]
  • Shakespeare: [a b a b] + [c d c d] + [e f e f] + [g  g]

Sonnet Writing in Latin Literature

In Latin literature, Giacomo da Lentini created sonnet. Other poets of that time to write sonnets include Dante Alighieri, Guido Cavalcanti, Petrarch and Michelangelo.

The typical Italian sonnet had its structure in two parts. The two parts together made a complete argument. The first part is octave that describes a problem or question. The second one is sestet that provides a solution. Normally, the solution or resolution starts from the ninth line. It is called turn or Volta. In Sonnets that do not exactingly follow this structure, still the ninth line mostly indicates a turn by a difference in the tone of the writing.

The pattern of ABBA ABBA was the model for Italian sonnets, later. The sestet had two choices: CDE CDE and CDC CDC. After some time, other variations were presented. These included rhyming schemes such as CDCDCD.

Let us look at two famous Latin sonneteers Francis Petrarch and Dante Alighieri.

Francis Petrarch (1304-74)

Petrarch was an Italian scholar and poet. He was born in Tuscan, Italy, on July 20th, 1304. Mainly he was fond of writing Latin literature. The thing that made him famous was his Italian poetry. The numbers of sonnets that he had written are almost 366. He is a father of sonnet writing. Francesco Petrarch introduced Italian or Petrarchan sonnet. His sonnets were admired and simulated in Europe and became a model for lyrical poetry. The subject of his sonnets was Laura, his beloved. There is a little information in his poetry about Laura. He mentioned in a poem that she refused him, because she was already married. He expresses his feelings in love poems.

He travelled around Europe and served as an ambassador. Due to which he got the name, “The first tourist”.

Due to his great work, many famous poets, like William Wordsworth and Sir Thomas, follow his form of poetry. Other English language poets became popular for translating Italian petrarchan sonnets into English.

The basic structure of sonnets of Petrarch is:

  • – It comprises of fourteen lines of poetry.
  • – These lines are divided into two parts.
  • – First eight lines are octave and second six lines are sestet.
  • – The octave follows a specific rhyme scheme of ABBA, ABBA.
  • – The sestets may have different patterns like CDCDCD or CDDCEE.

This structure is “Sicilian Sestet”, directly used by Petrarch himself. His famous poetry works include Canzoniere (“Songbook”) and the Trionfi (“Triumphs”). He died in 1374.

Dante Alighieri

Dante Alighieri was an Italian poet. He was born in Italy. The exact year of his birth is unknown but people conclude it to be 1265, between May and June. This inference is because of certain clues found about his birth in his poems. There is not much information about Dante’s education too. He might had been homeschooled or got his education from a church or monastery. The only thing that is apparent that he studied Tuscan poetry.

His poetry book, Divine Comedy, was originally called Comedìa and in modern Italian: Commedia and later named Divina by Giovanni Boccaccio. Divine Comedy is broadly taken as the most important poem of the Middle Ages. It is the greatest literary work in the Italian language. In this long narrative literary work, which had three parts, he journeys through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. He writes about different people guiding him through these places. This work is both stylistic and thematic. It played important role in establishment of Italian language as a literary language. Dante’s wrote most of literature after his exile in 1301. Works of Dante include De Monarchia, De vulgari eloquentia (meaning “On the Eloquence of Vernacular”), La Vita Nuova, Convivio (meaning “The Banquet”), etc.

He was a great influence on Geoffrey Chaucer, John Milton, Alfred Tennyson, and including many others. He did the first use of “terza rima” or the interlocking three-line rhyme scheme. People describe him as the father of the Italian language. In Italy, Italians refer to him as il Sommo Poeta (meaning “the Supreme Poet”).

Dante died in Ravenna in 1321 possibly from malaria. Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio are called the tre corone (meaning “three crowns”) of Italian literature.

Sonnet Writing in English literature

The sonnet is a unique form of poetry. It became famous and prominent especially in western literature, in which it has maintained its appeal for major poets for five centuries. Sonnet seemed to originate in 13th century and spread to Tuscany in 14 century, where it reached its highest expectations.

Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard introduced the sonnet in England in 16th century. This period was marked as a golden period of sonnet.

The course, which was adaptation of Italian literature, was not rich in forms and structure. Therefore, the arrival of Elizabethan sonnets has changed the form and rhyme scheme of sonnet. The rhyme scheme of English sonnet was ABAB CDCD EFEF. After this change, the sonnet became rich in rhymes but the greater numbers of rhymes had made it a less demanding form. By the time, forms of sonnet developed and the writers started writing about different topics, apart from love.

John Donne wrote his religious sonnet and John Milton wrote sonnets on the subject of politics and religion. He also wrote on personals themes, like his own blindness.

The modern sonnet had been extended to all the subjects of poetry. Still many English writers, including William Wordsworth, John Keats, and Elizabeth Barrett continued to write Petrarchan sonnets.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning resuscitated the love sonnet sequence in 19th century.

Sir Thomas Wyatt

Sir Thomas Wyatt was a lyric poet, ambassador and a politician in 16th century. He was born in 1503, at Alligator Castle. He was the first poet who introduced sonnet to English literature. His literary work was published after his death. He wrote many sonnets but most of his work consisted of translations and imitations of Italian poet Petrarch.

The subject of his sonnets was like those of Petrarch’s, but the rhyme schemes were different. Petrarch’s sonnets contained an octave followed by sestet, with various rhyme schemes. Wyatt’s octave was the same but his sestet scheme was CDDCEE. His poetry manifests classical and Italian models. His several poems are about romantic love. Wyatt wrote 96 love poems but the most famous were his 31 sonnets in English. Ten of them were the translations from Petrarch’s work. His poems were short in length but impressive and other writers appreciated his writings.

Wyatt also wrote songs, epigrams, and sonnets about his own experiences. He died on October11th, 1542.

Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (1516-1547)

Henry Howard, famously known as Surrey, was an English poet, politician and nobleman. He was born in 1516. He is one of the founders of English poetry.

His father was Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey. When his father became Duke of Norfolk in 1524, the son adopted the courtesy title of “Earl of Surrey “. Because of his father’s powerful position, he played an active and prominent role in court life. He served as a soldier in France and in Scotland.

Surrey was the friend of Sir Thomas Wyatt. He and his friend Wyatt were the first who wrote English sonnets. Later, William Shakespeare used their form. They were called as fathers of sonnet due to their splendid translation of Petrarch’s sonnets.

After Wyatt’s death, Surrey continued his work. Most of his early work was the translation of Petrarchan sonnets. Later he introduced new rhyme scheme like ABA, CDCD, EFEF, GG.  William Shakespeare adopted this form. He died on January 13, 1547 in London.

Thomas Watson (1555-1592)

Thomas Watson was an English lyric poet. He was born at London, in 1555. He studied at Oxford University. He enjoyed most of his life in abroad. He spent seven years in France and Italy. Then he studied law in London. He was actually a scholar and did translation. He studied law but he never practiced it because he was not interested in law. His true passion was literature. In 1581, his first composition was published which was the Latin version Antigone of Sophocles. He also translated Tasso’s Pastoral play of Aminla in Latin. It was published in 1585.

Watson appeared as an English poet in 1582. He published his Hekatompathia this year. It was a collection of 100 parts, in which he wrote about the pains and sorrows of a lover. He also had shown his expression towards love. The interesting thing about these poems is that, these are written in the manner of sonnets but they are having triple sets of seven-line stanza. Due to his excellent work, he was a best Latin poet of England, in 1587.

He started working in both, English and Latin, in 1590. His last and best book, “The Tears of France” was published in 1593. This is the collection of 60 sonnets.

After Wyatt and Surrey, he was first who introduced imitation of Petrarch into English poetry.

He is one of the excellent love poets among the Elizabethan writers.

He was too young when he died in 1592.

Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586)

Sir Philip Sidney was born on November 30, 1554, in Kent, England. He studied at Christ church and then at Oxford university. He went to England for gaining more knowledge of Latin, Italian and French. Due to political family background, he went to German Emperor, as an ambassador in 1577, when he was 22. He was also the member of the parliament in 1581, 1584-85. Sidney was also interested in law, ancient and modern history, medicines and poetry. He started writing poetry and prose but he did not allow publishing of his work.

Sidney also wrote to his beloved. He fell in love with a woman named Penelope Devereux. He composed a sonnet sequence “Astrophel and Stella”. Penelope is Stella (a star) and Sidney is Astrophel (a star lover). The theme of his sonnets is also love, in which he shows his unending love for her. Just like Petrarch, who wrote about Laura.

Penelope was first engaged to Sidney but late she got married to Lord Rich, in 158. Sidney was worried and upset. He overcame his sorrow through his words. After two years, he also got married. Later he wrote for his own delight and for his close friends.

On September 22, 1586, he volunteered to serve in an action to prevent the Spaniards. During this, he was badly injured as a bullet shattered his thigh. His wound became infected and he was ready to die. In his last hours, he confessed: “There came to my remembrance a vanity wherein I had taken delight, whereof I had not rid myself”. It was the Lady Rich. But I rid myself of it, and presently my joy and comfort returned. He was buried at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London on February 16, 1587, with great honour.

Edmund Spenser (1552-1599)

Edmund Spenser was born at London, in 1552. He belongs to a Midlands family of Spencer. He go admission in a grammar school and entered in the school as a “poor” boy. He learnt about Latin, Greek and Music. Spenser got Bachelor of Arts degree in 1573 and Master of Arts in 1576.

During the university period, he gained wide knowledge about Italian, French and English literature. His knowledge provided him ways to compose his own literary form. Spenser was the greatest of English poets, who had canonized England by his impressive poems.

In 1595, he published his great composition “Amoretti” . It was a collection of eighty-eight sonnets, in which he wrote about his marriage with Elizabeth Boyle. He mentioned the difficulties he suffered before and after his marriage. His poems are mostly autobiographical and based on the personal experience of poet. He died on January 13, 1599 and buried with ceremony in Westminster Abbey.

William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

William Shakespeare is the most influential writer in all of English literature. He was born in 1564, at Warwickshire, England. His father belonged to a middle- class and he was a glove- maker. Shakespeare got admission in grammar school but he left the school very soon because of certain reasons. He got married in 1582, with an old woman, who has three children with her. In 1590, he travelled to London and left his family behind. There, he worked as an actor and playwright. Soon, he became the most famous playwright in England.

His poems consist of various themes like love, beauty, jealousy, passage of time and mortality. He wrote almost 154 sonnets that he published in 1609. First 126 are the address to a young man, last 28 refers to a woman. His first 17 poems are “Procreation sonnets“. In those, he is addressing to a young man and spurring him to marry and have children. He is telling the man so, in order to commemorate his beauty by passing it to next generation.

Shakespeare’s sonnets are almost all constructed of three quatrains followed by a final couplet. He wrote all the sonnets in iambic pentameter. The rhyme scheme of Shakespearean sonnet is ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. He died at the age of 52, in 1616. Sonnet has gone through many stages like any other literary form and now includes writing in all subjects of human life.