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What is a sonnet?

By Catalogs Editorial Staff

Find out about one of the best-known forms of poetry.

Find out about one of the best-known forms of poetry.

Sonnets are poems that are rich in poetic history. If you are going to master poetry like sonnets, you should first understand what it is and where the sonet comes from.

Poetry is a form of literature that can vividly express the author’s feelings about life, love, nature and whatever grabs his or her fancy. There are many forms of poetry like cinquain, ballade, free verse and sonnet. When it comes to writing about feelings of love, however, the sonnet is historically the most classic form of love poem. So, what is a sonnet?

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The term sonnet comes from an Italian word that is translated as little song. Writers of sonnets are called sonneteers. Originally the sonnet was a poem of 17 lines with a strict rhyming pattern and structure. The pattern and form have changed and evolved throughout history.

The Italian Sonnet

The Italian form of the sonnet is a poem of 14 lines. First, there are eight lines, known as an octave, that state a question or put forth an idea. These are followed by a sextet, or six lines, that state a resolution or conclusion. The rhyme pattern is usually a-b-b-a, a-b-b-a, c-d-e and d-c-e or some variation.

Some of the original masters of the Italian sonnet were Dante Alighieri and Guido Cavalcanti. Later poets like John Milton, William Wordsworth and Elizabeth Barrett Browning also took up the form, as seen in this example by Browning.

How Do I Love Thee?

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love thee with a passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints, — I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life! ? and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.


The English Sonnet

The English developed their own form of the sonnet. It has three groups of four lines, known as quatrains, and one group of two lines (a couplet). The rhyme scheme of the English sonnet is usually a-b-a-b, c-d-c-d, e-f-e-f and g-g. The most well-known authors of the English form are William Shakespeare and Edward de Vere. As an example, here is Shakespeare’s 18th Sonnet:

Sonnet 18

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this and this gives life to thee.

The Modern Sonnet

Many modern poets have taken up the sonnet, sometimes following the Italian or English traditions, sometimes developing their own rhyme scheme. Robert Frost, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Rainer Maria Rilke are some 20th-Century sonneteers.

There are quarterly journals today devoted to the form, and the 1986 novel The Golden Gate by Vikram Seth is written in 690 14-line stanzas in a form very similar to the sonnet.


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