9 The Sonnet, History and Forms

Alan Lindsay, PhD and Candace Bergstrom, MFA

Eternal glory to the inventor of the sonnet.

—-Paul Valery

Amongst contemporary poets, the sonnet is alive and well!  Before we get into specifics about the history, traditions and forms of the sonnet, let’s look at a contemporary example & think about the various ways poets continue to work in the form, as well as break with it’s traditions and “rules.”  Here is a link to Mollycat Jones’ “Unholy Sonnet Number One.” Follow this link:      “Unholy Sonnet Number One” by Mollycat Jones

Poet, Mollycat Jones (Christine Potter), in her title is riffing off of metaphysical poet, John Donne’s “Holy Sonnets or Divine Meditations” originally published in the first edition of his Songs and Sonnets (1633). Donne wrote 19 “Holy Sonnets” in direct address to God, and he employed violent and sexual imagery. Donne’s “Holy Sonnets” is one of his most dramatic devotional lyrics.

With wit and in the voice of an angry cat (because the poet slept too late), Jones brings together God and cats in the sonnet form. We love how the cat is the speaker in the poem, and from a superior position, addresses and critiques humans for their slothful forgetfulness.

The poem is a one-stanza 14-line sonnet with a rhyme scheme of—abba abba cdcd ee (see below). We scan the first line as: “my BOWL of LAMB and GRA-vy FROM the CAN”—a line of iambic pentameter. We do this to show how the poet embraces some of the conventions of the traditional sonnet (see below) while blowing some of the conventions out of the water to make the poem uniquely her own.

In the ending couplet, there’s a turn (or volta see below), continuing in the cat’s voice and perspective, in which the cat pronounces, essentially, that humans are inferior to felines and fit only to serve them.

Origins of the Sonnet:

Credit for the invention of the form is given to the Italian poet Giacomo de Lentino in the 14th century. It is not however Lentino but Francesco Petrarca, known as Petrarch, who is most closely associated with the early form of the sonnet.

Petrarch established the themes (see below) and dominated the practice of the Italian sonnet.

Although it’s very likely the English poet Chaucer encountered the form in the late 1300s, it took approximately 200 years for the sonnet form to make its way from Italy to England.

In the mid-1500s Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (usually referred to simply as “Surrey”) and Thomas Campion translated Petrarch into English for the first time.

Surrey is credited with creating the now Standard English form of the sonnet (see below), although that form is more closely associated with Shakespeare, who perfected it.

General Form:

The sonnet is one of the most recognizable of poetic forms. It is a poem consisting of fourteen lines of iambic pentameter. Not much more can be said by way of set-in-stone definition. In fact, even these absolutes of the sonnet have been challenged. Shakespeare wrote one 15-line sonnet.

Others have written 16-line poems they have called sonnets. Some, like Philip Sidney, have written iambic hexameter or other lines in what otherwise are called and seem to be sonnets.

However, these two criteria remain the most fundamental for sonnets written in the English language: 14 lines of iambic pentameter. Beyond that, sonnets generally are divided into sub-stanzas, differently depending on the subgenre, as we’ll see below.

Sonnets generally have a volta, or “turn” as well. The volta is where, logically, the sonnet suddenly switches direction as sonnets tend to do. The poet will seem to be saying one thing and then suddenly start saying another.

The volta may bring about the answer, at the end of a sonnet, to the question being asked up to that point. Or it may occur where a false claim is replaced by a true claim, as in Michael Drayton’s Sonnet 61 in which he tells us in the first part of the poem, “I’m so glad we broke up,” and in the second, “But can we get back together.”

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Francesco Petrarca (1304-1374)

There are several recognizable versions of the sonnet. The following are the most common:

Petrarchan (Italian) Version:

The most common subject of the sonnet is love. This subject is particularly common in the Italian form. The story of love most commonly told is the story of unrequited love from the perspective of a man. In this story, the man falls hopelessly in love with a woman who is his moral and social superior.

Here is an example (there are more on the syllabus). It was written in the sixteenth century by Sir Thomas Wyatt and is one of the earliest sonnets in English. We’ve updated the spellings and changed a few words to make it easier to understand.

Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind,
But as for me, hélas, I may no more.
The vain travail hath wearied me so sore,
I am of them that farthest cometh behind.
Yet may I by no means my wearied mind
Draw from the deer, but as she fleeth afore
Fainting I follow. I leave off therefore,
Sithens in a net I seek to hold the wind.
Who list her hunt, I put him out of doubt,
As well as I may spend his time in vain.
And graven with diamonds in letters plain
There is written, her fair neck round about:
Noli me tangere, for Caesar’s I am,
And wild for to hold, though I seem tame.

An Italian sonnet is not defined primarily by its subject matter, however. In fact a sonnet can be about anything at all. The word refers only to the form: the line, the stanza and the rhyme scheme.

Here is Wyatt’s sonnet again with the meter of the first line and rhyme scheme of the whole poem noted and a space added at a natural breaking point:

Who so wish to hunt, I know where is an hind            a

But as for me, alas, I may no more;                                 b

The vain travail has wearied me so sore,                       b
I am of them that furthest come behind.                       a
Yet may I by no means my weary mind                         a
Draw from the deer: but as she flees before,                 b
Fainting, I follow. I leave off therefore,                           b
Since in a net I seek to hold the wind.                            a
Who so wish to hunt, I put him out of doubt,            c
He as well as I may spend his time in vain;                 d
And carved with diamonds in letters plain                 e
There is written, her fair neck round about,                c
No one may touch me, for Caesar’s I am,                     d
And wild to hold, although I may seem tame.             d

The Subject Matter:

Although the poem seems to be about a man who is hunting a deer, this scene is in fact a metaphor for a man who is trying to seduce a woman who will have no part of him. We should note that the poem, as presented, does not necessarily reveal this to be so.

To see this it helps to know a little about the author and the circumstances in which the poem was written. The “deer” in the poem is probably Anne Boleyn, then the lover of Henry VIII. The “Caesar” in the poem is therefore Henry VIII, who would have had Sir Thomas Wyatt, the author, killed for seducing Anne. It’s a pretty tricky situation. Wyatt obviously could not write about it directly. (He was, in fact, eventually hanged for treason—but not for this). In this early English sonnet, Wyatt has translated an Italian sonnet and applied it to his own situation.

The Line: You may notice the extra accented syllable on the first word of the first line. This is a normal kind of variation that a poet employs to keep the reader’s interest or to surprise the reader. It’s one of the ways the poet opens the closed form. Still, the poem is overwhelmingly written, as virtually all sonnets are, in iambic pentameter.

The Rhyme Scheme: abbaabba cddcee. This is one of two most common options for the Italian sonnet. The other has the same first eight lines (the octave) but cdedce for the next six (or sestet). Other variations for the sestet also exist.

The Stanza:

Whichever rhyme scheme is chosen, the Italian sonnet breaks into two stanzas as noted above (although the natural division is not usually noted with a space): an eight-line octave and a six-line sestet.

This is the primary difference between the Italian and English forms of the sonnet. The volta generally appears at the point where the octave divides from the sestet. You will notice here that lines one and nine begin with the same word, as though the poet is starting over. The octave of a Petrarchan sonnet will likely present a problem, and the sestet will provide the solution or resolution to that problem.

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William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

Shakespearean (English) Sonnet:

English, unlike Italian, is a rhyme-poor language. It’s a struggle for an English poet to find enough “a’s” and “b’s” for a sonnet. The most common sonnet form in English is therefore not the Petrarchan but the English or Shakespearean, which allows for a greater number of rhyming words.

Shakespeare followed it in all his sonnets—which are the most famous in English. It’s also called the Elizabethan sonnet. Being a sonnet, it has fourteen lines of rhymed iambic pentameter. But the form is different, and it’s less likely to be about the unrequited love of a man for a woman. Here’s one of the sonnets on our syllabus.

Sonnet 73

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

So that the meaning doesn’t interfere with the understanding of the form, here’s a paraphrase:

When you look at me you could think about the very end of autumn, when maybe a few last yellow leaves or maybe none at all hang on the boughs of the trees that are shaken by the cold wind.

Or when you look at me you think of the end of the day, after the sunset fades in the west, just before night comes to seal up life in a death-like sleep.

Or when you look at me you see an almost burnt up fire, a fire that has consumed its fuel, and the very substance that nourished it, the way that people consume themselves by burning up their youth.

You see these things when you look at me, and they make your love for me stronger, because you know I will not be around much longer.

Here’s the poem again:

 

That time of year thou mayst in me behold                                  a
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang                              b
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,                      a
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.                   b
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day                                     c
As after sunset fadeth in the west,                                                 d
Which by and by black night doth take away,                               c
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.                                 d
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire                                    e
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,                                        f
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,                                   e
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.                           f
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,         g
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.                      g

We haven’t scanned the line. But if you do, you will see the regular iambic pentameter throughout. You will notice that the rhyme scheme and stanza form differ from the Petrarchan. Here we have three quatrains and a couplet. And the rhyme scheme is abab cdcd efef gg. These things do not change in a Shakespearean sonnet.

We also notice that the volta comes after line twelve. The first three stanzas elaborate the same idea, which the couplet resolves. Not all Shakespearean sonnets follow this pattern. The stanza forms and rhyme scheme do not change, but the volta can still come after line eight. You have to look for it.

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Edmund Spenser (1552-1599)

Spenserian Sonnet:

While the Petrarchan and Shakespearean forms are the most common in English, there are others. The Spenserian sonnet, named for the chief practitioner, Edmund Spencer, is a variation on the Shakespearean form.

Like the Shakespearean it is written in three quatrains and a couplet. But, unlike the Shakespearean, the quatrains are tied together by the rhyme. Here is an example (from Spenser’s series of Sonnets called Amoretti). If you read through this sonnet for a little while, you will be able to understand the meaning. But all that matters for the moment is that you take in the form:

Sonnet 29

See how the stubborne damzell doth deprave                a
my simple meaning with disdaynfull scorne:                   b
and by the bay which I unto her gave,                               a
accoumpts my selfe her captive quite forlorne.               b

The bay (quoth she) is of the victours borne,                   b
yielded them by the vanquisht as theyr meeds,               c
and they therewith doe poetes heads adorne,                 b
to sing the glory of their famous deedes                           c

But sith she will the conquest challenge needs                c
let her accept me as her faithfull thrall,                             d
that her great triumph which my skill exceeds,               c
I may in trump of fame blaze over all.                                d

 Then would I decke her head with glorious bayes,          e
and fill the world with her victorious prayse.                   e

We’ve added spaces to make the stanzas clearer. You’ll notice that the end rhyme of the last line of each quatrain is repeated in the first line of the next quatrain, making the division into quatrains suspect.

The repeated lines give the poem a couplet every time the stanza changes, and carrying one of the rhymes from stanza to stanza weaves the sounds tightly. However the sense or meaning may change from stanza to stanza, the sounds bind them to each other. A good sonneteer would use this form to play the logic of the form against the logic of the words.

Terza Rima:

Terza rima is a special kind of tercet that was used by the Italian poet, Dante in his famous Divine Comedy. It has also been used now and then to great effect in the sonnet.

Terza Rima stanza sequence is similar to the sequence used in the Spenserian sonnet, but one line shorter: a terza rima sequence runs aba bcb cdc, etc.

Percy Bysshe Shelley and Robert Frost have done a particularly good job in this form. Here’s an example, the first of five sonnet stanzas in Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind,” which you can find the whole of in our course. In this case the spaces between the stanzas are Shelley’s.

O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being,        a
Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead     b
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,         a
Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,                     b
Pestilence-stricken multitudes: O thou,                           c
Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed                           b
The winged seeds, where they lie cold and low,                c
Each like a corpse within its grave, until                            d
Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow                        c
Her clarion o’er the dreaming earth, and fill                     d
(Driving sweet buds like flocks to feed in air)                    e
With living hues and odours plain and hill:                        d
Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere;                      e
Destroyer and preserver; hear, oh hear!                           e

You’ll notice that this sonnet also ends with a couplet.

A Nonce Sonnet:

There exist other named forms of the sonnet. But they are too rare to mention here.

At the same time, there are many sonnets for which the form is generated once and not repeated. These are called nonce sonnets.

They’re still written in fourteen lines of iambic pentameter. But the rhyme scheme and stanza form vary from any established sonnet pattern.

The unrivaled greatest of these—and of perhaps all sonnets—is, in our opinion Shelley’s Ozymandias, which is on our syllabus. When you read this sonnet, note the rhyme scheme, the internal surprising rhyme and the complex form accompanying the complex ironies of the content.

The pleasure of all fixed form poetry is partly mathematical. This is never truer than in the sonnet. In the Renaissance one expression for writing poetry was “doing numbers.” If you said, “it is written in numbers,” you meant, “it is a poem.” And just rattling off numbers could tell the listener what type of poem it was.

You will notice that none of the standard sonnet forms break down evenly into two seven line stanzas. Such sonnets have been written, but the disproportion of the stanza size adds more to the effect of the sonnet than the balance of two septets.

The form of a sonnet is mathematically rigid in respect to meter and stanza. The trick is to find freedom and flexibility within this rigidity. The pleasure of a sonnet is the pleasure of maximum freedom within maximum restraint: emotion tied to math.

Study this aspect of the form when you read this week’s poems. Watch how the units of meaning—usually the grammatical sentences—coincide rigidly with the stanza in the earlier sonnets, how the lines tend to stop sharply, and how these aspects of the sonnet loosen up as the centuries pass.

The Sonnet Sequence:

You may notice that although many sonnets were written in the early 1600’s, virtually none were written in the 1700’s.

The 18th-century perceived the sonnet as an exhausted form, a form in which nothing was left to say.

This is at least partly because of the great sonnet craze of the 1590s. In that decade, and in the years around that decade, it seemed every major poet not only wrote sonnets but sequences of sonnets: sometimes very long groups of sonnets that told a story or illustrated a theme.

Shakespeare’s sonnet sequence is 154 sonnets long. After such great voices as Edmund Spencer, Philip Sidney, and William Shakespeare had handled this form so thoroughly, newer poets tended to avoid it—to make their reputation elsewhere.

Shakespeare even, famously, used the form now and then in his plays. The most famous instance of this is the 14-line-two-voiced-sequence that occurs when Romeo and Juliet first speak.

In the 19th-century the interest in the form revived. Although the sonnet will probably never regain the popularity it had in Shakespeare’s time, many extraordinary innovations, it turned out, remained to reinvigorate the form once the time was right and it became possible to discover them. You will note as you read how different the sonnets from the 1800s and 1900s are from those in the 1600s, both in form and content.

The Sonnet’s Future:

We began the lecture with a tribute to the sonnet from a contemporary poet.

It is worth knowing that the sonnet is alive and well, as is the sonnet sequence. For example, poet Joan Larkin wrote a sonnet sequence, “The Blackout Sonnets” included in her 1986 collection of poetry A Long Sound. The sonnets deal with the impacts of alcoholism and reiterate what poet, Christine Potter wrote about the form’s ability to contain chaos, “[a]nd I write in form because the anarchic spirit of all cats is an explosive force that needs something powerful to contain it.”

Also noteworthy is Henri Cole’s 2007 collection of sonnet-like poems, Blackbird and Wolf. In this collection of 38 poems divided into 2 sections of 14 poems each (the last section contains 10 poems), the speaker grapples with the death of his mother, desire, and other difficult truths. Nearly each of the 38 poems is 14-lines long with sonnet-like voltas near the endings.

Video Lecture: The Sonnet

Some Sonnets: 

Thomas Wyatt, “The Long Love, That in My Thought Doth Harbor” (Links to an external site.)

Herbert Spenser, “Sonnet 1 [Happy ye leaves…]” (Links to an external site.)

Sir Philip Sidney, “Sonnet 14 [Alas, have I not pain enough…]” (Links to an external site.)

Michael Drayton, “Idea 61” (Links to an external site.)

William Shakespeare, “Sonnet 29 [When in disgrace with fortune…]” (Links to an external site.)

“Sonnet 73 [That time of year…]” (Links to an external site.)

John Donne, “Holy Sonnet 7 [At the round earth’s imagined corners]” (Links to an external site.)

John Milton, “When I Consider How My Light Is Spent” (Links to an external site.)

WIlliam Wordsworth, “Scorn Not the Sonnet” (Links to an external site.)

Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Ozymandias” (Links to an external site.)

John Keats, “On the Sonnet,” (Links to an external site.)

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “Sonnet 43 [How do I love thee?]” (Links to an external site.)

Gerard Manley Hopkins, “God’s Grandeur” (Links to an external site.)

Robert Frost, “Acquainted with the Night” (Links to an external site.)

 “Never Again Would Birds’ Song Be the Same” 

Edna St. Vincent Millay, “Love Is Not All, It Is Not Meat nor Drink”  

Wilfred Owen, “Anthem for Doomed Youth” (Links to an external site.)

E. E. Cummings, “next to of course god america i” (Links to an external site.)

Gwendolyn Brooks, “The Rites for Cousin Vit” (Links to an external site.)

Billy Collins, “Sonnet” (Links to an external site.)

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The Sonnet, History and Forms by Alan Lindsay, PhD and Candace Bergstrom, MFA is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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