Guide to Literary Terms Sonnet


Sonnet - a lyric poem of 14 lines, usually in iambic pentameter, with rhymes arranged according to certain definite patterns. It usually expresses a single, complete thought, idea, or sentiment. There are three different forms: Petrarchan (or Italian), English (or Shakespearean), and Miltonic. The Petrarchan has an eight line stanza (called octave) followed by a six line stanza (called sestet). The octave has two quatrains rhyming abba, abba, the first of which presents the theme, while the second develops it. In the sestet, the first three lines exemplify or reflect on the theme, while the last three bring the poem to a unified end. There are two or three different rhymes in the sestets arranged cdecde, cdcdcd, or cdedce. The Shakespearean sonnet developed as an adaptation to a language less rich in rhymes than Italian. It has three quatrains, each rhymed differently, with a final, independently rhymed couplet that makes an effective, unifying climax to the whole. Its rhyme scheme is abab, cdcd, efef, gg. The Miltonic sonnet dealt not only with love as the Sixteenth Century sonnet did, but also politics, religion, and personal matters. The Miltonic sonnet has the same arrangement in the octave as the Petrarchan sonnet does, but no division is marked between the octave and sestet, the sense running from the eighth into the ninth line. After Milton, there was a decline in the sonnet’s popularity in England until the romantic poets revived it in the Nineteenth Century. The sonnet adapted well to Twentieth Century themes and diction.

The term comes from the Italian sonetto, which is a diminutive of suono, meaning “sound” and was derived from the Latin sonus.

The form was developed in Italy during the early Renaissance and introduced to England by Sir Thomas Wyatt and the Earl of Surrey, Henry Howard, in the mid-Sixteenth Century. Sir Phillip Sidney and Edmund Spenser both produced important sonnet sequences in the late-Sixteenth Century.

The most well-known sonnets are those of Shakespeare, who wrote 154.

This is Number 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 flow’r is to the summer sweet
Though to itself it only live and die;
But if that flow’r with base infection meet,
The basest weed outbraves his dignity.
For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds:
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.

see: couplet