Sonnet: History & Form

History of the Sonnet

A. Italian origins

  • Dante (1265-1321) La Vita Nuova, Beatrice
  • Petrarch (1304-1374) Rime Sparse, Laura

B. Petrarchan conventions

   1. dramatic situation

  • introspective, autobiographical persona
  • conventions of courtly love (unrequited love for an unattainable beloved)
  • no resolution

   2. arrangement and organization

  • not chronological, no consistent narrative
  • each sonnet represents a specific moment
  • emotional roller coster
  • often includes songs as well as sonnets

   3. Petrarchan conceits

  • love as a war or a battle
  • love as a deadly disease or wound
  • love as torment or torture
  • love as bondage or slavery
  • love as a hunt
  • love as a ship on stormy seas
  • beloved as ruler or master
  • power of the beloved’s gaze
  • physical beauty of the beloved (blazon)
  • name of the beloved (puns)
  • immortalizing the beloved in verse
  • pain and pleasure of lovesickness
  • oxymoron and paradox

Why then, O brawling love, O loving hate,
O anything, of nothing first create!
O heavy lightness, serious vanity,
Misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms,
Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health,
Still-waking sleep, that is not what it is!
This love feel I, that feel no love in this.
Romeo and Juliet 1.1.175-81

C. English sonneteers

  • Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542)
    translated some of Petrarch’s sonnets into English
  • Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (1517-1547)
    invented the English sonnet rhyme scheme
  • Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586)
    Astrophil and Stella, “Stella” / Penelope Rich
  • Edmund Spenser (1552-1599)
    Amoretti, Elizabeth Boyle
  • William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
    Shakespeare’s Sonnets, fair young man / dark lady

Sonnet Form

Rules of sonnet form

A. 14 lines

B. iambic pentameter

  • pentameter five feet
  • foot a stressed syllable and one or more unstressed syllables in a repeating pattern
  • iambic unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable
  • repeat, insist, New York

We mourn in black, why mourn we not in blood?
We mourn | in black, | why mourn | we not | in blood?

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day
The cur | few tolls | the knell | of part | ing day

C. strict rhyme scheme

   1. Italian sonnet

  • octave: 8 lines with 2 rhyme sounds {A/B}
  • turn (or volta)
  • sestet: 6 lines with 2 (or 3) new rhyme sounds {c/d/e}
  • octave usually follows 1 of 2 set patterns: abbaabba or abababab
  • sestet displays a wide variety of patterns. cdecde, cdcdcd, cddcee, and so on.
Dear, cherish this and with it my soul’s will, A
     Nor for it ran away do it abuse. B
     Alas, it left poor me your breast to choose B
     As the blest shrine where it would harbor still. A
Then favor show and not unkindly kill A
     The heart which fled to you, but do excuse B
     That which for better did the worse refuse, B
     And pleased I’ll be, though heartless my life spill. A
But if you will be kind and just indeed, c
     Send me your heart, which in mine’s place shall feed c
     On faithful love to your devotion bound. d
There shall it see the sacrifices made e
     Of pure and spotless love, which shall not fade e
     While soul and body are together found. d

   2. English sonnet

  • three quatrains: 4 lines with 2 rhyme sounds
  • closing couplet: a pair of rhyming lines
  • abab cdcd efef gg
Dear, why should you command me to my rest A
When now the night doth summon all to sleep? B
Methinks this time becometh lovers best; A
Night was ordained together friends to keep. B
How happy are all other living things C
Which, though the day disjoin by several flight, D
The quiet evening yet together brings, C
And each returns unto his love at night. D
O thou, that art so courteous else to all, E
Why shouldst thou, Night, abuse me only thus, F
That every creature to his kind doth call E
And yet ’tis thou dost only sever us. F
     Well could I wish it would be ever day g
     If when night comes you bid me go away. g

   3. Spenserian sonnet

  • three quatrains (with interlocking rhymes)
  • closing couplet
  • ababbcbccdcdee
My hungry eyes through greedy covetize, A
     Still to behold the object of their pain, B
     With no contentment can themselves suffize: A
     But having pine and having not complain. B
For lacking it they cannot life sustaine, B
     And having it they gaze on it the more: C
     In their amazement like Narcissus vain B
     Whose eyes him starved: so plenty makes me poor. C
Yet are mine eyes so fillèd with the store C
     Of that faire sight, that nothing else they brook, D
     But loathe the things which they did like before, C
     And can no more endure on them to look. D
All this world’s glory seemeth vain to me, e
     And all their shows but shadows, saving she. e

Page Last Updated: 14 May 2011