What is a Sonnet?

What is a sonnet?

When it comes to poetry, one form that has stood the test of time is the sonnet. The sonnet is a poetic structure that has captivated readers and writers for centuries. But what is a sonnet and why should you care? In this article, we will demystify the sonnet, exploring its history, famous examples, different types, and even how to write your own. By the end, you will have a deeper understanding of why sonnets matter in literature and poetry.

What is A Sonnet?

A sonnet is a 14-line poem that follows a specific rhyme scheme and structure. Sonnets originated in Italy in the 13th century, and this form of poetry was popularized by the Italian poet Petrarch. The word “sonnet” is comes from the Italian word “sonetto,” meaning “little song.” Sonnets are known for their lyrical quality and often explore themes of love, beauty, and the passage of time.

Related: What is Lyric Poetry?

The History of Sonnets

The history of sonnets goes back to the Italian Renaissance, where they flourished as a popular form of poetry. 

Italian poet Petrarch is often credited with establishing the sonnet as a respected poetic form. His collection of sonnets, known as “Canzoniere,” became a model for future poets. 

The sonnet form then made its way to England in the 16th century, where it was embraced by well-known poets like William Shakespeare.

Petrarchan Sonnets vs. Shakespearean Sonnets

There are two distinct types of sonnets: Petrarchan and Shakespearean. Petrarchan sonnets, also known as Italian sonnets, follow an octave-sestet structure. The octave is comprised of eight lines and presents a problem or situation, while the sestet consists of six lines and offers a resolution or conclusion. 

Petrarchan sonnets typically follow the rhyme scheme ABBAABBA CDECDE or ABBAABBA CDCDCD.

On the other hand, Shakespearean sonnets follow a three-quatrains-one-couplet structure. The three quatrains present different aspects or viewpoints, while the final couplet provides a twist or conclusion.

The rhyme scheme of a Shakespearean sonnet is ABABCDCDEFEFGG. This strict rhyme scheme helps to create rhythm and musicality.

The Significance of The Couplet in a Shakespearean Sonnet

In a Shakespearean sonnet, the couplet is the final two lines and is often significant. It serves as a punctuation mark, emphasizing the conclusion or final thought of the poem. 

The couplet can offer a surprising twist, provide a resolution, or leave the reader with a lingering thought. It is the culmination of the sonnet’s ideas and can have a lasting impact on the reader.

Examples of Sonnets

When discussing sonnets, it is impossible not to share examples of each type of sonnet. You’ll find two examples of Petrarchan sonnets from Milton and Wordsworth, and one example of a Shakespearean sonnet example from William Shakespeare.

Sonnet 19: When I consider how my light is spent, by John Milton

When I consider how my light is spent,
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide;
“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
I fondly ask. But patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er Land and Ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.”

An example of a petrarchan sonnet including information about the rhyme scheme

Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, by Willian Wordsworth

Earth has not any thing to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!

Sonnet 130, by Willian Shakespeare

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red, than her lips red:
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound:
I grant I never saw a goddess go,
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet by heaven, I think my love as rare,
As any she belied with false compare.

An example of a shakespearean
 sonnet including information about the rhyme scheme

How to Write a Sonnet

Writing a sonnet can be a rewarding creative exercise. Decide whether you want to write a Petrarchan or Shakespearean sonnet. 

Once you have chosen, determine your rhyme scheme and follow the structure of the chosen type. Consider the theme or message you want to convey and use vivid imagery and figurative language to bring your sonnet to life. 

Remember to adhere to the 14-line structure and use the final couplet to provide a thought-provoking conclusion.

Conclusion: Why Sonnets Matter in Contemporary Writing

Sonnets are a cherished form of poetry that has endured throughout the ages. They offer a unique structure and rhyme scheme that challenge poets to convey their thoughts and emotions within a specific framework. 

Sonnets have the power to captivate readers with their lyrical beauty and timeless themes. Whether reading the works of Shakespeare or writing your own sonnets, exploring this poetic form can deepen your appreciation for the power of words and their ability to evoke emotions. 

So, the next time you encounter a sonnet, take a moment to appreciate its craftsmanship and its lasting impact on the world of literature and poetry. If the beauty and creativity of sonnets inspire you, why not try writing one yourself? See if we’re currently accepting poetry submissions.

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