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What is the definition of sonnet?

The definition of a sonnet is a rhymed, fourteen-line lyric poem with a volta, or turn, after the eighth line.

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Last Updated May 26, 2023.

A sonnet is a poem of 14 lines that expresses a single idea, thought, or feeling. Typically, a sonnet is written in rhyming iambic pentameter and can be categorized according to its rhyme scheme. The two primary sonnet forms are the Petrarchan (Italian) and English (Shakespearean).

Sonnet comes from the Italian word sonnetto, meaning “little song,” from the Latin sonus, meaning “sound.”

The sonnet originated in Italy in the 13th century. It later took its name from Francesco Petrarch, a fourteenth-century poet who popularized the form with his much-admired love sonnets addressed to a woman named Laura. The Petrarchan sonnet begins with eight lines with an abbaabba rhyme scheme that presents a problem or subject. This section is followed by six lines with a cdecde, cdccdc, or cdedce rhyme scheme that resolves the problem or reaches a conclusion on the subject presented in the previous section. 

Sir Thomas Wyatt introduced the sonnet to English literature in the 16th century by translating Petrarch’s sonnets and writing his own. This form quickly gained popularity in England, spawning more translations of Petrarch made by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, who altered the sonnet form into what is now known as the Shakespearean sonnet. 

The Shakespearean sonnet consists of three sections of four lines each (abab cdcd efef) and ends, ending in a rhyming couplet (gg). This format allows poets to devote more lines to developing the problem or subject with which the sonnet is concerned and use only the ending couplet to resolve it.

Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem “I shall go back again to the bleak shore” is written in the form of a Petrarchan sonnet:

I shall go back again to the bleak shore

And build a little shanty on the sand,

In such a way that the extremest band

Of brittle seaweed will escape my door

But by a yard or two; and nevermore

Shall I return to take you by the hand;

I shall be gone to what I understand,

And happier than I ever was before.

The love that stood a moment in your eyes,

The words that lay a moment on your tongue,

Are one with all that in a moment dies,

A little under-said and over-sung.

But I shall find the sullen rocks and skies

Unchanged from what they were when I was young.

Other notable sonnets include Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella collection, Edmund Spenser’s Amoretti, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese, and Maya Angelou’s poem “Harlem Hopscotch.”

see: poetry

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