Thursday, January 11, 2007

The Sonnet

Maria Claudia Faverio headshot by Maria Claudia Faverio

The Italian Sonnet

The sonnet is one of the oldest and most distinguished poetry forms, a form that expresses some of the greatest truths of life and death in a relatively simple and straightforward way.

In this paper, I will examine both the Italian (Petrarchan) and the English (Shakespearean) sonnet.

The first sonnets were written by Giacomo Lentino, a Sicilian lawyer who lived at the court of Frederck II, around 1230 — 1240. Soon, the form established itself with Cavalcanti, Dante and Petrarch, to whom the Italian sonnet owes its name.

Maria Faverio and a friend
author and a friend

The Italian sonnet is written in two quatrains and two tercets and follows this rhyme scheme:

First quatrain:
Second quatrain:
First tercet:
Second tercet:

The two quatrains together form an octave, or "piedi", the two tercets a sestet, or "volte".

The first quatrain states a proposition, the second proves it, the first tercet then confirms it and the second draws the conclusion. These rules were established by Guittone of Arezzo, who died in 1294.

There are variations to this scheme, but the scheme presented above is the original one and the most widely used. The most important variation is in the sestet, which can also be rhymed c-d-c, d-c-d.

John Milton (1608-74) also introduced an interesting variation, eliminating the break between the octave and the sestet as required by the original rules.

Originally, the Italian sonnet was meant to be a love lyric, but by the 17th century its possible uses had been extended. Tasso categorizes the sonnets into Love Sonnets, Heroical Sonnets and Sacred and Moral Sonnets.

Milton, for example, wrote political, biographical and autobiographical as well as encomiastic sonnets that were to have a great impact on the Romantics, in particular Wordsworth and Coleridge. Milton is also the first great English poet who contributed some of the most beautiful sonnets to the English language. Five of his sonnets are even written in Italian.

The Italian sonnet is not an easy form for English-speaking poets. Milton, for example, tried to get over what Keats called "pouncing rhymes" by tricks like heavy enjambement. Wordsworth softened the octave by using abbaacca in nearly half of his 500 sonnets. However, he was still able to master the original octave, as the following example shows1 :

London, September 1802
O Friend, I know not which way I must look
For comfort, being, as I am, opprest,
To think that now our Life is only drest
For show; mean handy-work of craftsman, cook,
Or groom! — We must run glittering like a brook
In the open sunshine, or we are unblest:
The wealthiest man among us is the best:
No grandeur now in nature or in book
Delights us. Rapine, avarice, expense,
This is idolatry; and these we adore:
Plain living and high thinking are no more:
The homely beauty of the good old cause
Is gone; our peace, our fearful innocence,
And pure religion breathing household laws.

Many great poets of the past have written at least a few sonnets.

The English Sonnet

The sonnet was brought into English literature in the 16th century by Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, who both introduced variations to the Italian sonnet. Wyatt's sonnets all ended with a couplet, and Surrey used a pattern of alternately rhymed quatrains, encouraging logical exposition right up to the final couplet and postponing the turn.

Thus the scheme of the English (or Shakespearian) sonnet is as follows:

First quatrain (stave):
Second quatrain:
Third quatrain:
Couplet (gemell):

The three quatrains together form a douzain, the turn comes before the couplet. All lines are iambic pentameters.

The English sonnet became much more popular in English than the Italian form, in particular due to the fact that the English language doesn't have a wide variety of rhymes, which made the Italian sonnet quite difficult.

The couplet also introduced a pleasant novelty to the sonnet, with its epigrammatic nature often contradicting the rest of the sonnet. One of the reasons why the concluding couplet is often witty or paradoxical is due to the fact that obviously two lines cannot make an argued resolution as the Italian sestet did. The couplet doesn't argue, it asserts, after the argument has been developed in the first two quatrains and intensified (or looked at from a different perspective) in the third. This is particularly evident in Shakespeare, as the following sonnet shows:

Sonnet No.94
They that have power to hurt, and will do none,
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow:
They rightly do inherit heaven's graces,
And husband nature's riches from expense,
They are the lords and owners of their faces,
Others, but stewards of their excellence:
The summer's flower is to the summer sweet,
Though to itself, it only live and die;
But if that flower with base infection meet,
The basest weed out-braves his dignity:
For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester, smell far worse than weeds.

Before the sonnet achieved its full momentum after being introduced by Wyatt and Surrey, however, there was an interval. Then the English sonnet achieved its highest fame in the Elizabethan period in the last two decades of the 16th century. Interestingly, the Elizabethan sonneteers found more inspiration in the French rather than the Italian sonnet. Sonnets had literally thrived in France in the 16th century, while Petrarch had become a writer of the past, although a much respected one. In particular, the French sonnet was more passionate and personal than the Italian sonnet, less conventional, and as such more congenial to the Elizabethans. The first and best Elizabethan sonneteer, Sir Philip Sidney, openly declared that what he wrote was sincere and individual and didn't have anything to do with Petrarch.

His sonnet 34 (in Astrophel and Stella), for instance, is a complex self-examination:

Come, let me write, "And to what end?" To ease
A burthened heart. "How can words ease, which are
The glasses of thy daily-vexing care?"
Oft cruel fights well pictured forth do please.
"Art not ashamed to publish thy disease?"
Nay, that may breed my fame, it is so rare.
"But will not wise men think thy words fond ware?"
Then be they close, and so none shall displease.

"What idler thing than speak and not be heard?"
What harder thing than smart and not to speak?
Peace, foolish wit! With wit my wit is marr'd.
Thus write I, while I doubt to write, and wreak
My harms in ink's poor loss. Perhaps some find
Stella's great powers that so confuse my mind.

An interesting variety of the English sonnet was invented by Spenser. The pattern introduced by Spenser blends the quatrains together, thus offering the opportunity for a more closely developed argument and increasing the musicality of the sonnet:

First quatrain:
Second quatrain:
Third quatrain:

The Elizabethans used the sonnet to exhaustion. Most sonnets written in this period were sequences addressed to ladies with fancy names. This overproduction was not regarded positively, and many sonneteers of this period were mocked at for their excessive sentimentality. Matthews for example called the sonnet of this period "a highly neurotic art-form", and Lord Byron remarked in his Journals (17-18 December 1813) that they were "the most puling, petrifying, stupidly platonic compositions" he had ever read.

There were exceptions of course, notably Shakespeare, Donne and Milton, but on the whole the Elizabethan period produced too many over-sentimental sequences of sonnets. Sonneteering seemed to have become a cheap fad. Although Sidney had started this fashion stating that his sonnets were meant to be personal, many of his followers lacked any form of originality.

Shakespeare wrote one hundred and fifty-four sonnets, all of which are unique in the experiences and the power of the images they convey and in their variety of tone reflecting his deep understanding of human mutability.

They begin with seventeen sonnets in which a young man is encouraged to marry in order to perpetuate his beauty. They are then followed by a larger number of sonnets, still addressed to a young man, in which the object of love is seen in an increasingly critical way because of its wantonness and arrogance, and in which the destructive power of time is deeply felt, as we can clearly recognize in sonnet 19:

Devouring Time, blunt thou the lion's paws,
And make the earth devour her own sweet brood,
Pluck the keen teeth from the fierce tiger's jaws,
And burn the long-lived phoenix in her blood,
Make glad and sorry seasons as thou fleet'st,
And do whate'er thou wilt, swift-footed time,
To the wide world and all her fading sweets:
But I forbid thee one most heinous crime,
O carve not with thy hours my love's fair brow,
Nor draw no lines there with thine antique pen,
Him in thy course untainted to allow
For beauty's pattern to succeeding men.
Yet do thy worst, old Time, despite thy wrong
My love shall in my verse live ever young.

As the sequence goes on, the conveyed images become deeper and deeper, almost mystical, as in sonnet 94 or 107, the events described wherein have not yet been fully understood.

A significant turn in the sequence sets in when the so-called Dark Lady appears, and lust gives way to familiarity, idealism to cynical bawdiness, a tone which will dominate the sequence until the end.

Donne is another great sonneteer. He abandoned the theme of love so popular in the Elizabethan period altogether, and wrote nineteen powerful sonnets on religious themes, grouped together under the title of Holy Sonnets. Many of these sonnets are introspective, some full of self-contempt and almost hysterical, like sonnet no. 14.

Milton, the other great sonneteer already mentioned in this paper, did not write sonnets about love either, nor did he write a sequence. Milton's sonnets are concerned with a variety of subjects, from public events to the description of important persons.

He strictly abides by the rules of the Petrarchan form in all his sonnets, creating an irregular, "staccato" rhythm in the English language.

In spite of the few exceptions briefly presented above, and some others, like Thomas Gray later in the eighteenth century, the interest for the sonnet was slowly dying in favour of witty, moral and social poems.

In the eighteenth century, some tried sonnets based on Romantic themes, like Thomas Warton and William Bowles, thus introducing a new era of the sonnet. The most prolific and noteworthy poet of this period was Wordsworth. He used the form for two main types of sonnet: "moments of vision", which make up his greatest sonnets, and public events or national issues. His greatest sonnet celebrating moments of vision is "Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802", a sonnet "written on the roof of a coach, on my way to France", in Wordsworth's own words:

Earth has not anything 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 upon 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!

Of the other Romantic poets who have tried the sonnet, the best known are Keats and Shelley, but their fame is not due to their sonnets. Of Keats, we will here mention "Bright star! would I were steadfast as thou are", which is said to be Keats's last poem and was written before his departure to Italy and death; of Shelley we will mention "Ozymandias" and "England in 1819".

With the Victorian and Edwardian ages, then, the sonnet became fully re-established, and in particular the sequences about love. It was mainly influenced by the Elizabethan English sonnet and the medieval and Renaissance Italian sonnet.

Some of its most notable examples are Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese (1847-50), D.G. Rossetti's The House of Life (published 1881) and Robert Bridges's The Growth of Love (1876, with later additions). However, these are not always regarded as truly successful. Elizabeth Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese, for example, encompass forty-four sonnets, twenty-five of which contain the word "I" or "me" in the first line, which makes the whole sequence quite egocentric, and Robert Bridges's The Growth of Love is full of Shakespearean plagiarisms.

D.G. Rossetti's best sonnets are those he wrote on works of art rather than the love sonnets contained in The House of Life. His sister Christina was more talented than he and wrote a few most memorable sonnets which display an incredible honesty in her analysis of herself and the world.

The best sonneteer and most notable theorist of the sonnet among the Victorians, however, is Gerard Manley Hopkins. Hopkins called the attention to the importance of using certain tricks or devices in English sonnets to make them less "trifling" as compared to Italian sonnets with their two elisions in every line, and heavy endings or 13 syllables, simple tricks like "the mere gravity of thought", inversion, breaks and pauses, the use of many monosyllables, the weight of the syllables themselves (for example strong or circumflexed), falling (trochaic) rhythm, "outriding" feet (to equal the Italian elisions), as well as Alexandrine lines (used throughout). Of course, he used these devices in his own sonnets, like the Alexandrine line in "Spelt from Sibyl's Leaves", or the falling trochaic rhythm in the following sonnet:

No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,
More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.
Comforter, where, where is your comforting?
Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?
My cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chief
Woe, world-sorrow; on an age-old anvil wince and sing —
Then lull, then leave off. Fury has shrieked 'no ling-
ering! Let me be fell: force I must be brief'.
O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne'er hung there. Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep,
Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all
Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.
Hopkins was a great sonneteer, and it is a pity that his poems remained unknown until 1918.

Of the modern poets, the most distinguished sonnet-writer is W.H. Auden, who, like Hopkins, managed to make something new out of the sonnet and wrote notable sonnets as commentaries on public affairs or famous men and fellow-poets, like the following sonnet on Edward Lear:

Left by his friend to breakfast alone on the white
Italian shore, his Terrible Demon arose
Over his shoulder; he wept to himself in the night,
A dirty landscape-painter who hated his nose.

The legions of cruel inquisitive They
Were so many and big like dogs: he was upset
By Germans and boats; affection was miles away:
But guided by tears he successfully reached his Regret.

How prodigious the welcome was. Flowers took his hat
And bore him off to introduce him to the tongs;
The demon's false nose made the table laugh; a cat
Soon had him waltzing madly, let him squeeze her hand;
Words pushed him to the piano to sing comic songs;
And children swarmed to him like settlers. He became a land.

In spite of Yvor Winter's announcement of the death of the sonnet, it is to hope that it will find new ways of expression through new poets who may find yet new ways of making something new out of the traditional form, and indeed, this is already happening, as Jacques Roubaud, for instance, has proved with his sonnets, each of which is identified as either a black or white piece in the Japanese game of Go (so in order to read them, you have to know and follow the rules of this game). Although this may obviously go too far for some, it is the proof that the sonnet is still alive.


Cruttwell P., The English Sonnet, London 1966 Longmans

Fuller, J., The Sonnet, London 1972 Methuen & Co. Ltd

Kallich M., Gray J.C., Rodney R.M., A book of the sonnet: poems and criticism , New York 1973 Twayne Publishers

Nye, R., The Faber Book of Sonnets, London — Boston 1976, Faber and Faber

Pretty, Ron, Creating Poetry, 2001 Five Islands Press

Shakespeare's Sonnets, edited with analytic commentary by Stephen Booth New Haven 1977, Yale University Press

Stillman, Frances, The Poet's Manual and Rhyming Dictionary, 1978 Thames and Hudson, London


1 You will notice, however, that the tercets don't follow the original scheme.

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