The Sonnet


Forms and Facts

Themes and Figures of Speech

Web Link: "Sonnet Central"



Development of the Style

14th Century, Italy: Francesco Petrarch developed and popularized the sonnet. The sonnet became so firmly associated with Petrarch that the Italian sonnet came to be known as the "Petrarchan" sonnet.

16th Century, England: English poets discovered Petrarch while traveling abroad and began a vogue for sonnet writing in England. Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey were among the first to promote this "new" style of lyric poetry. Many of the early English sonnet writers translated Petrarch’s poems into English. In 16th Century thinking, such imitation was flattery rather than plagiarism!

By mid-century, sonnets were highly fashionable at court -- it was an aristocratic form used by poets who belonged to or wished to flatter the nobility.

Though the sonnet writers continued to recycle Petrarch’s themes (see below), they developed some new forms: the most famous and influential came to be named for the major poets who used them: the Spenserian and the Shakespearean. (The Shakespearean form is sometimes known as the "English" sonnet).

The sonnet lost its luster by the last decades of the 16th century. In fact, Shakespeare often used the form only to poke fun at its conceits and conventions.

16th-century sonnets were written to display the great cleverness, sophistication, and skill of the poet. Generally speaking, sonnets were more self-centered than their love rhetoric might initially suggest. Although they often purport to express private emotions from the poet to a beloved, they were usually meant not for private communication, but for "public" consumption -- amongst a circle of Courtly readers. In other words, they were written to impress others rather than to convey genuine emotion.

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Forms and Facts

Sonnets contain fourteen lines.

English sonnet-writers almost always used iambic pentameter as their standard metrical pattern. You will remember that iambic pentameter verse has 10 syllables (5 metrical feet) per line with alternating stressed and unstressed syllables.

Many of the famous sonneteers collected their sonnets into cycles, often with well over 100 sonnets included. There is much critical debate about how to relate the sonnets in a cycle to each other, since the sonnets in some cycles seem to work together as a cohesive whole or form a logical progression while others do not.

The various sonnet forms differ according to how many syllables are in each line and the pattern of stresses (the meter), how many lines are grouped into a cohesive unit, and what rhyme scheme is followed throughout.

Pay attention not only to rhyme, but also to rhetoric. Sonnets are very compact, so they articulate their ideas in very controlled ways. One can usually find a turn or "volte" at the end of the second or third quatrain -- a change in the direction of the argument; this is usually signaled by such words as "but," "yet," or "however."

Italian sonnet (used by Petrarch, Wyatt, Sidney): The 14 lines are grouped into an octave (an eight-line unit) and a sestet (a six-line unit). These sections might be further divided into two four-line units and two three-line units. The rhyme scheme varies in Italian sonnets, but is patterned in accordance with the octave/sestet division. A common pattern was ABBA ABBA CDE CDE. Look for a "volte" after the octave.

Shakespearean sonnet (also used by Surrey): The 14 lines are grouped into 3 quatrains (quatrain = four-line unit) followed by one couplet (two lines). The rhyme scheme is ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. The rhetorical units of a Shakespearean sonnet generally correspond to the quatrain and couplet divisions marked by the rhyme scheme. In other words, the sonnet’s main idea develops through each of the three four-line units, each one contributing a piece of the argument (or clarifying the previous piece). Usually the couplet stands apart as a conclusion, an afterword, or a rebuttal of the ideas developed in the first 12 lines. (Look for a "volte" or turn at this point in a Shakespearean sonnet.)

Spenserian sonnet: like the Shakespearean sonnet, Spenser’s sonnets generally observe the 3-quatrain-plus-couplet model. However, Spenser’s rhyme scheme was more difficult and more rigid than the one used in the Shakespearean sonnet: ABAB BCBC CDCD EE. Notice how many fewer rhyme sounds Spenser allows himself! He must come up with twice as many "B" and "C" words as Shakespeare.

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Themes and Figures of Speech

The great majority of 16th-century sonnets were written to explore unrequited romantic love.

It was assumed that the speaker would be a besotted man and the beloved a resistant, disdainful, or otherwise unavailable woman. The speaker spends much of his time trying to persuade the beloved to sleep with him.

Petrarch developed a number of conventions for describing love’s varied pleasures and torments and the beauty of the beloved.

Sonnets abound in wordplay: puns, double-entendres, multiple meanings, and clever figures of speech.

The most common figures of speech used in 16th-century sonnets include the conceit, the blazon, and personification.

A conceit is an elaborate and surprising comparison between two apparently dissimilar things. The comparisons within a conceit were either impressively original or involved the use of familiar images for remarkably unusual purposes. Thus conceits were a way for poets to show off and to flex their creative muscles. A conceit, of course, is a metaphor (or a simile). A metaphor compares two unlike objects or an idea and an object in a direct statement that closely links the two: "love is an eternal fire." A simile makes the comparison in a slightly more distant manner, using "like" or "as": "love is like an eternal fire." Metaphors and similes can expand into an extended metaphor or simile that runs through a quatrain or even an entire sonnet.

A blazon uses a number of metaphors and/or similes to compile a description of parts of the body: "her lips are like rubies; her eyes are stars." This was a very heavily-used Petrarchan convention.

Personification is the attribution of human qualities on an idea, an inanimate object, or an animal. Renaissance personifications give life to such concepts as Time, Love, Grief, Truth, Nature, Lust, etc. Love is often given the name of Venus (the Roman goddess of love) and Cupid (her son, also known as the "blind boy" and similar descriptions). These figures are frequently treated as full-fledged characters.

Some of the information on this page appears courtesy of Nancy W. Miller. (See her web-based version of this course: OSU-Mansfield, English 201.) Some of the definitions on this page have been adapted from The Bedford Glossary of Literary Terms. Ross Murfin and Supryia M. Ray, eds. (New York: Bedford Books, 1997).

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