Essay on the Different Types of Sonnet
The term ‘sonnet’ which derives from the Provencal word ‘sonet’ and the Italian Word ‘sonetto’ both meaning ‘little song’, had come to signify, by the thirteenth century, a poem of fourteen lines that follows a strict rhyme scheme and logical structure. Traditionally, when writing sonnets, English poets usually employ iambic pentameter, but in the Romance languages, the hendecasyllable and Alexandrine are the most widely used metres. So far as the definition of the sonnet is concerned, as Nelson Miller puts it, ‘A sonnet is fundamentally a dialectical construct which allows the poet to examine the nature and ramifications of two usually contrastive ideas, emotions, states of mind, beliefs, actions, events, images, etc., by juxtaposing the two against each other, and possibly resolving or just revealing the tensions created and operative between the two.
Critics of the sonnet have recognized varying classifications, and, therefore, we will, in miniature, try to shed light on each and one of them:
1. THE ITALIAN SONNET: The Italian sonnet (or Petrarchan, named after Petrarch, the Italian poet) was probably invented by Giacomo da Lentini, head of the Sicilian School under Frederick II. Guittone d’Arezzo rediscovered it and brought it to Tuscany where he adapted it to his language when he founded the Neo-Sicilian School (1235-1294). He wrote almost 300 sonnets. Other Italian poets of the time, including Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) and Guido Cavalcanti (C. 1250-1300) wrote sonnets, but the most famous early sonneteer was Francesco Petrarca (1304-1374). The Italian sonnet was divided into an octave (resp. two quatrains), which stated a proposition or a problem, followed by a sestet (resp. two tercets), which provided a resolution, with a clear break between the two sections. Typically, the ninth line created a “turn” or volta, which signaled the move from proposition to resolution. In the sonnets of Giacomo da Lentini, the octave rhymed a-b-a-b, a-b-a-b; later, the a-b-b-a, a-b-b-a pattern became the standard for Italian Sonnets. For the sestet, there were two different possibilities, c-d-e-c-d-e, and c-d-c-c-d-c.
The first known sonnets in English, written by Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, used this Italian scheme, as did sonnets by later English poets including John Milton, Thomas Gray, William Wordsworth, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
2. THE ENGLISH SONNET: Sonnets were introduced by Thomas Wyatt in the early 16th century, His sonnets and those of his contemporary the Earl of Surrey were chiefly translations from the Italian of Petrarch and the French of Ronsard and others. While Wyatt introduced the sonnet into English, it was Surrey who gave them the rhyme scheme, meter, and division into quatrains that now characterizes the English sonnet. Sir Philip Sidney’s sequence Astrophil and Stella (1591) started a tremendous vogue for sonnet sequences: the next two decades saw sonnet sequences by William Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser, Michael Drayton, Samuel Daniel, Fulke Greville, William Drummond of Hawthornden, and many others. Soon after the introduction of the Italian sonnet, English poets began to develop a fully native form. These poets included Sir Philip Sidney, Michael Drayton, Samuel Daniel, the Earl of Surrey’s nephew Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, and William Shakespeare. The form is often named after Shakespeare, not because he was the first to write in this form but because he became its most famous practitioner. The form consists of three quatrains and a couplet. The couplet generally introduced an unexpected sharp thematic or imagistic “turn” called a volta. The usual rhyme scheme was a-b-a-b, c-d-c-d, e-fe-f, g-g. In addition, sonnets are written in iambic pentameter meaning that there are 10 syllables per line and that every other syllable is naturally accented.
3. THE SPENSERIAN SONNET: A variant on the English form is the Spenserian sonnet, named after Edmund Spenser (c.1552-1599) in which the rhyme scheme is, a-b a-b, b-c b-c, c-d c-d, e-e. In a Spenserian sonnet, there does not appear to be a requirement that the initial octave sets up a problem which the closing sestet answers as is the case with a Petrarchan sonnet. Instead, the form is treated as three quatrains connected by the interlocking rhyme scheme and followed by a couplet. The linked rhymes of his quatrains suggest the linked rhymes of such Italian forms as terza rima.
4. THE MODERN SONNET: As mentioned earlier, many English poets have used the sonnet form to great effect. The sonnet also became popular in French poetry, with even such ‘avant-garde’ figures as Arthur Rimbaud and Stephane Mallarme writing sonnets. With the advent of free verse, the sonnet came to be seen as somewhat old-fashioned and fell out of use for a time among some schools of poets. However, a number of 20th-century poets, including Wilfred Owen, John Berryman, Edwin Morgan, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Pablo Neruda, Joan Brossa, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Seamus Heaney, successfully rose to the challenge of reinvigorating the form.
The 21st century has seen a strong resurgence of the sonnet form, as there are many sonnets now appearing in print and on the Internet. Richard Vallance publishes the Canadian quarterly journal Sonnetto Poesia (ISSN 1705-452) which is dedicated to the sonnet, villanelle, and quatrain forms, as well as the monthly Vallance Review on historical and contemporary sonneteers. Michael R. Burch publishes The Hyper Texts and there are sonnets from well-known poets on his site. William Baer has also recently published 150 Contemporary Sonnets (University of Evansville Press 2005). Vikram Seth’s 1986 novel The Golden Gate is written in 690 14-line stanzas, similar to sonnets, but in reality an adaptation of the stanza invented by the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin for his poem ‘Eugene Onegin’.