[Contents] [Index] [Home]


After examining a number of sonnets by...

compose one of your own--preferably in the Shakespearean or English form--about a topic or theme you've encountered in your research. To keep your writing on the "straight-and-narrow," read Hugh Holman's commentary on the sonnet; it follows below. Remember that, in addition to providing you with an elaborated definition, Holman is also providing you with a set of instructions, with guidelines, for writing sonnets.

A lyric poem almost invariably of fourteen lines and following one of several set rhyme-schemes. Critics of the sonnet have recognized various forms, but only two types need be discussed if the reader will understand that each of them has undergone various modifications. The two basic sonnet types are the Italian or Petrarchan and the English or Shakespearean. The Italian form is distinguished by its division into the octave and the sestet: the octave consisting of eight lines rhyming abbaabba, and the sestet consisting of six lines rhyming cdecde, cdccdc, or cdedce. The octave presents a narrative, states a proposition or raises a question; the sestet drives home the narrative by making an abstract comment, applies the proposition, or solves the problem. English poets have varied these requirements greatly. The octave and sestet division is not always kept; the thyme-scheme is often varied, but within the limitation that no Italian sonnet properly allows more than five rhymes. Iambic pentameter is usually the meter, but certain poets have experimented with hexameter and other meters.
In the English or Shakespearean sonnet, instead of the octave and sestet, four divisions are used: three quatrains (each with a rhyme-scheme of its own, usually rhyming alternative lines) and a rhymed concluding couplet. The typical rhyme-scheme for the English sonnet is abab cdcd efef gg. The couplet at the end is often a commentary on the preceding quatrains, and an epigrammatic close. The Spenserian sonnet combines the Italian and the Shakespearean forms, using three quatrains and a couplet but having linking rhymes among the quatrains, thus abab bcbc cdcd ee.
Certain qualities are common to the sonnet as a form. Its definite restrictions make it a challenge to the artistry of the poet and call for all the technical skill at the poet's command. The more or less fixed rhyme patterns afford a pleasant effect on the ear of the reader, and can create musical effects. The rigidity of the form precludes a too great economy or too great prodigality of words. Emphasis is placed on exactness and perfection of expression. The brevity of the form favors concentrated expression of idea or passion.
The sonnet as a form developed in Italy probably in the thirteenth century. Petrarch, in the fourteenth century, raised it to its greatest Italian perfection and gave it, for English readers at least, his name. The form was introduced into England by Thomas Wyatt, who translated Petrarchan sonnets and left over thirty of his own compositions in English. Surrey, an associate, shares with Wyatt the credit for introducing the form to England and is important as an early modifier of the Italian form. Gradually the Italian sonnet pattern was changed, and since Shakespeare attained fame for the greatest poems of this modified type, his name has often been given to the English form. Among the most famous sonneteers in England have been Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, Keats, D. G. Rossetti, and Meredith. Longfellow, Jones Very, and E. A. Robinson are generally credited with writing some of the best sonnet in America. With the interest in this poetic form, certain poets following the example of Petrarch have written a series of sonnets linked to one another and dealing with a single, although sometimes generalized, subject. Such series are called sonnet sequences. Some of the most famous sonnet sequences in English literature are Shakespeare's Sonnets, Sidney's Astrophel and Stella, Spenser's Amoretti, Rossetti's House of Life, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese, and Meredith's Modern Love. William Ellery Leonard, Elinor Wylie, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and W. H. Auden have done distinguished work in the sonnet and the sonnet sequence in this century. (1980:422-23)