Sonnet: definition, characteristics, origin and main sonneteers

Sonnet is a short rhyming lyric poem, usually of fourteen lines of iambic pentameter. The term may be applied to poems of different lengths ranging from ten-and-a-half lines in some sonnets of Gerard Manley Hopkins to sixteen in those of George Meredith and Tony Harrison and some sonnets by Philip Sidney and others have been composed in alexandrines, but the widely accepted standard is fourteen pentameters.

The rhyme schemes of the sonnet have also varied, but fall into two basic patterns. (1) The Italian or Petrarchan sonnet begins with an octave using two rhymes (abbaabba), followed by a sestet with two or three further rhymes (either cdeded or cdecde), with a pause or redirection in the thought (called the ‘turn’ or volta) after the octave. English practitioners of this form, notably John Milton and William Wordsworth, have sometimes adapted it to allow a third rhyme in the octave (abbaacca) and a ‘turn’ in a later position around the tenth line. (2) The English sonnet comprising four quatrains and a couplet has two major versions, the Spenserian form in which the quatrains are linked by rhyme, thus preserving the Italian restriction to five rhymes (ababbcbccdcdee), and the Shakespearian scheme of seven rhymes in which the quatrains remain unlinked (ababcdcdefefgg).

The term ‘sonnet has come from the Italian ‘sonnetto’ (‘suono’ sound, a song). It originated in Italy. The sonnet was first written, in about 1230 or 1240, by Giacomo de Lentino, a Sicilian lawyer at the court of Frederick II. In the following century, it became an established poetical form, and, in the master hands of Petrarch, Cavalcanti, and Dante, it attained the pinnacle of perfection. The sonnet, as a literary form, appeared in England, as one of the distinct effects of the Renaissance, under Wyatt’s literary initiative. developed by  Earl of Surrey, and thereafter widely used, notably in the sonnet sequences of Shakespeare, Sidney, Samuel Daniel, Edmund Spenser, and others, most of which are amatory in nature. In the early 17th century, the major sonneteers were John Donne and John Milton, who both extended the subject-matter to religious, political, and philosophical themes.

The sonnet was largely neglected by poets of the Restoration and early 18th-century periods, but underwent a significant revival from the late 18th, in the verse of Charlotte Smith and S. T. Coleridge, then in the early 19th in the work of Wordsworth and John Keats. Wordsworth’s ‘Nuns fret not at their Convent’s narrow room’ (1807) and Keats’s ‘If by dull rhymes our English must be chain’d’ (posthumously published 1848) both comment self consciously on the sonnet’s formal restraints, Keats’s poem exhibiting the unorthodox rhyme scheme abcabdcabdede.

Important Victorian sonneteers include George Meredith, Hopkins, D. G. Rossetti, and E. B.Browning. Major early 20th-century practitioners include W. B. Yeats and W. H. Auden; and the form continues to flourish.