The term sonnet is derived from the Italian word sonetto (from Old Provençal sonet a little poem, from son song, from Latin sonus a sound). By the thirteenth century it signified a poem of fourteen lines that follows a strict rhyme scheme and specific structure. Conventions associated with the sonnet have evolved over its history. Writers of sonnets are sometimes called "sonneteers", although the term can be used derisively.
The sonnet was created by Giacomo da Lentini, head of the Sicilian School under Emperor Frederick II. Guittone d'Arezzo rediscovered it and brought it to Tuscany where he adapted it to his language when he founded the Siculo-Tuscan School, or Guittonian school of poetry (1235–1294). He wrote almost 250 sonnets. Other Italian poets of the time, including Dante Alighieri (1265–1321) and Guido Cavalcanti (c. 1250–1300), wrote sonnets, but the most famous early sonneteer was Petrarch. Other fine examples were written by Michelangelo.
The structure of a typical Italian sonnet of the time included two parts that together formed a compact form of "argument". First, the octave, forms the "proposition", which describes a "problem", or "question", followed by a sestet (two tercets), which proposes a "resolution". Typically, the ninth line initiates what is called the "turn", or "volta", which signals the move from proposition to resolution. Even in sonnets that don't strictly follow the problem/resolution structure, the ninth line still often marks a "turn" by signaling a change in the tone, mood, or stance of the poem.
Later, the abba, abba pattern became the standard for Italian sonnets. For the sestet there were two different possibilities: cde, cde and cdc, cdc. In time, other variants on this rhyming scheme were introduced, such as cdcdcd. Petrarch typically used an abba, abba pattern for the octave, followed by either cde, cde or cdc, cdc rhymes in the sestet. (The symmetries (abba vs. cdc) of these rhyme schemes have also been rendered in musical structure in the late 20th century composition Scrivo in Vento by Elliott Carter, inspired by Petrarch's Sonnet 212, Beato in Sogno.)
The first known sonnets in English, written by Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, used the Italian, Petrarchan form, as did sonnets by later English poets, including John Milton, Thomas Gray, William Wordsworth and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Early twentieth-century American poet Edna St. Vincent Millay also wrote mostly Petrarchan sonnets.
When I consider how my light is spent (a)
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide, (b)
And that one talent which is death to hide, (b)
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent (a)
To serve therewith my Maker, and present (a)
My true account, lest he returning chide; (b)
"Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?" (b)
I fondly ask; but Patience to prevent (a)
That murmur, soon replies, "God doth not need (c)
Either man's work or his own gifts; who best (d)
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state (e)
Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed (c)
And post o'er land and ocean without rest; (d)
They also serve who only stand and wait." (e)
Most Sonnets in Dante's La Vita Nuova are Petrarchan. Chapter VII gives sonnet "O voi che per la via", with two sestets (AABAAB AABAAB) and two quatrains (CDDC CDDC), and Ch. VIII, "Morte villana", with two sestets (AABBBA AABBBA) and two quatrains (CDDC CDDC).
The sole confirmed surviving sonnet in the Occitan language is confidently dated to 1284, and is conserved only in troubadour manuscript P, an Italian chansonnier of 1310, now XLI.42 in the Biblioteca Laurenziana in Florence. It was written by Paolo Lanfranchi da Pistoia and is addressed to Peter III of Aragon. It employs the rhyme scheme a-b-a-b, a-b-a-b, c-d-c-d-c-d. This poem is historically interesting for its information on north Italian perspectives concerning the War of the Sicilian Vespers, the conflict between the Angevins and Aragonese for Sicily. Peter III and the Aragonese cause was popular in northern Italy at the time and Paolo's sonnet is a celebration of his victory over the Angevins and Capetians in the Aragonese Crusade:
An Occitan sonnet, dated to 1321 and assigned to one "William of Almarichi", is found in Jean de Nostredame and cited in Giovanni Mario Crescimbeni's, Istoria della volgar poesia. It congratulates Robert of Naples on his recent victory. Its authenticity is dubious. There are also two poorly regarded sonnets by the Italian Dante de Maiano.
In the 16th century, around Ronsard (1524–1585)), Joachim du Bellay (1522–1560) and Jean Antoine de Baïf (1532–1589), there formed a group of radical young noble poets of the court (generally known today as La Pléiade, although use of this term is debated), who began writing in, amongst other forms of poetry, the Petrarchan sonnet cycle (developed around an amorous encounter or an idealized woman). The character of La Pléiade literary program was given in Du Bellay's manifesto, the "Defense and Illustration of the French Language" (1549), which maintained that French (like the Tuscan of Petrarch and Dante) was a worthy language for literary expression and which promulgated a program of linguistic and literary production (including the imitation of Latin and Greek genres) and purification.
By the late 17th century poets on increasingly relied on stanza forms incorporating rhymed couplets, and by the 18th century fixed-form poems – and, in particular, the sonnet – were largely avoided. The resulting versification – less constrained by meter and rhyme patterns than Renaissance poetry – more closely mirrored prose.
The Romantics were responsible for a return to (and sometimes a modification of) many of the fixed-form poems used during the 15th and 16th centuries, as well as for the creation of new forms. The sonnet however was little used until the Parnassians brought it back into favor, and the sonnet would subsequently find its most significant practitioner in Charles Baudelaire (1821–1867) . The traditional French sonnet form was however significantly modified by Baudelaire, who used 32 different forms of sonnet with non-traditional rhyme patterns to great effect in his Les Fleurs du mal.
When English sonnets were introduced by Thomas Wyatt (1503–1542) in the early 16th century, his sonnets and those of his contemporary the Earl of Surrey were chiefly translations from the Italian of Petrarch and the French of Ronsard and others. While Wyatt introduced the sonnet into English, it was Surrey who developed the rhyme scheme – abab cdcd efef gg – which now characterizes the English sonnet. Having previously circulated in manuscripts only, both poets' sonnets were first published in Richard Tottel's Songes and Sonnetts, better known as Tottel's Miscellany (1557).
It was, however, Sir Philip Sidney's sequence Astrophel and Stella (1591) that started the English vogue for sonnet sequences. The next two decades saw sonnet sequences by William Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser, Michael Drayton, Samuel Daniel, Fulke Greville, William Drummond of Hawthornden, and many others. These sonnets were all essentially inspired by the Petrarchan tradition, and generally treat of the poet's love for some woman, with the exception of Shakespeare's sequence of 154 sonnets. The form is often named after Shakespeare, not because he was the first to write in this form but because he became its most famous practitioner. The form consists of fourteen lines structured as three quatrains and a couplet. The third quatrain generally introduces an unexpected sharp thematic or imagistic "turn", the volta. In Shakespeare's sonnets, however, the volta usually comes in the couplet, and usually summarizes the theme of the poem or introduces a fresh new look at the theme. With only a rare exception, the meter is iambic pentameter.
This example, Shakespeare's "Sonnet 116", illustrates the form (with some typical variances one may expect when reading an Elizabethan-age sonnet with modern eyes):
Let me not to the marriage of true minds (a)
Admit impediments, love is not love (b)*
Which alters when it alteration finds, (a)
Or bends with the remover to remove. (b)*
O no, it is an ever fixèd mark (c)**
That looks on tempests and is never shaken; (d)***
It is the star to every wand'ring bark, (c)**
Whose worth's unknown although his height be taken. (d)***
Love's not time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks (e)
Within his bending sickle's compass come, (f)*
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, (e)
But bears it out even to the edge of doom: (f)*
If this be error and upon me proved, (g)*
I never writ, nor no man ever loved. (g)*
* PRONUNCIATION/RHYME: Note changes in pronunciation since composition.
** PRONUNCIATION/METER: "Fixed" pronounced as two-syllables, "fix-ed".
*** RHYME/METER: Feminine-rhyme-ending, eleven-syllable alternative.
The Prologue to Romeo and Juliet is also a sonnet, as is Romeo and Juliet's first exchange in Act One, Scene Five, lines 104–117, beginning with "If I profane with my unworthiest hand" (104) and ending with "Then move not while my prayer's effect I take" (117). The Epilogue to Henry V is also in the form of a sonnet.
A variant on the English form is the Spenserian sonnet, named after Edmund Spenser (c.1552–1599), in which the rhyme scheme is abab, bcbc, cdcd, ee. The linked rhymes of his quatrains suggest the linked rhymes of such Italian forms as terza rima. This example is taken from Amoretti:
Happy ye leaves! whenas those lily hands
Happy ye leaves. whenas those lily hands, (a)
Which hold my life in their dead doing might, (b)
Shall handle you, and hold in love's soft bands, (a)
Like captives trembling at the victor's sight. (b)
And happy lines on which, with starry light, (b)
Those lamping eyes will deign sometimes to look,(c)
And read the sorrows of my dying sprite, (b)
Written with tears in heart's close bleeding book. (c)
And happy rhymes! bathed in the sacred brook (c)
Of Helicon, whence she derived is, (d)
When ye behold that angel's blessed look, (c)
My soul's long lacked food, my heaven's bliss. (d)
Leaves, lines, and rhymes seek her to please alone, (e)
Whom if ye please, I care for other none. (e)
In the 17th century, the sonnet was adapted to other purposes, with John Donne and George Herbert writing religious sonnets (see John Donne's Holy Sonnets), and John Milton using the sonnet as a general meditative poem. Probably Milton's most famous sonnet is "When I Consider How My Light is Spent", titled by a later editor "On His Blindness". Both the Shakespearean and Petrarchan rhyme schemes were popular throughout this period, as well as many variants.
The fashion for the sonnet went out with the Restoration, and hardly any sonnets were written between 1670 and Wordsworth's time. However, sonnets came back strongly with the French Revolution. Wordsworth himself wrote hundreds of sonnets, of which amongst the best-known are "Upon Westminster Bridge", "The world is too much with us" and "London, 1802" addressed to Milton; his sonnets were essentially modelled on Milton's. Keats and Shelley also wrote major sonnets; Keats's sonnets used formal and rhetorical patterns inspired partly by Shakespeare, and Shelley innovated radically, creating his own rhyme scheme for the sonnet "Ozymandias". Sonnets were written throughout the 19th century, but, apart from Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese and the sonnets of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, there were few very successful traditional sonnets. Modern Love (1862) by George Meredith is a collection of fifty 16-line sonnets about the failure of his first marriage.
Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote several major sonnets, often in sprung rhythm, such as "The Windhover", and also several sonnet variants such as the 101⁄2-line curtal sonnet "Pied Beauty" and the 24-line caudate sonnet "That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire". Hopkin's poetry was, however, not published until 1918. By the end of the 19th century, the sonnet had been adapted into a general-purpose form of great flexibility.
In the United States, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote many sonnets, among others the cycle Divina Commedia (Divine Comedy). He used the Petrarchan rhyme scheme. Emma Lazarus also published many sonnets. She is the author of perhaps the best-known American sonnet, "The New Colossus".
This flexibility was extended even further in the 20th century. Among the major poets of the early Modernist period, Robert Frost, Edna St. Vincent Millay and E. E. Cummings all used the sonnet regularly. William Butler Yeats wrote the major sonnet "Leda and the Swan", which uses half rhymes. Wilfred Owen's sonnet "Anthem for Doomed Youth" is another sonnet of the early 20th century. Spaniard Federico García Lorca also wrote sonnets. W. H. Auden wrote two sonnet sequences and several other sonnets throughout his career, and widened the range of rhyme-schemes used considerably. Auden also wrote one of the first unrhymed sonnets in English, "The Secret Agent" (1928). Robert Lowell wrote five books of unrhymed "American sonnets", including his Pulitzer Prize-winning volume The Dolphin (1973). Half-rhymed, unrhymed, and even unmetrical sonnets have been very popular since 1950; perhaps the best works in the genre are Seamus Heaney's Glanmore Sonnets and Clearances, both of which use half rhymes, and Geoffrey Hill's mid-period sequence "An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England". The 1990s saw something of a formalist revival, however, and several traditional sonnets have been written in the past decade.
Other modern poets, including Don Paterson, Joan Brossa, Paul Muldoon used the form. Wendy Cope's poem "Stress" is a sonnet. Elizabeth Bishop's inverted "Sonnet" was one of her last poems. Ted Berrigan's book, The Sonnets, "is conventional almost exclusively in [the] line count)". Paul Muldoon often experiments with 14 lines and sonnet rhymes, though without regular sonnet meter. The advent of the New Formalism movement in the United States has also contributed to contemporary interest in the sonnet. This includes the invention of the "word sonnet", which are fourteen line poems, with one word per line. Frequently allusive and imagistic, they can also be irreverent and playful. The Canadian poet Seymour Mayne published a few collections of word sonnets, and is one of the chief innovators of the form. Contemporary word sonnets combine a variation of styles often considered to be mutually exclusive to separate genres, as demonstrated in works such as "An Ode to Mary". The Greek poet Yannis Livadas in 1993 invented the so-called "fusion sonnet", which first appeared in a poetry collection entitled The Hanging Verses Of Babylon/Οι Κρεμαστοί Στίχοι Της Βαβυλώνας (Melani Books, Athens 2007), ISBN 978-960-8309-78-4.
The Sonnets to Orpheus are a cycle of 55 sonnets written in 1922 by the Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875–1926). It was first published the following year. Rilke, who is "widely recognized as one of the most lyrically intense German-language poets", wrote the cycle in a period of three weeks experiencing what he described a "savage creative storm". Inspired by the news of the death of Wera Ouckama Knoop (1900–1919), a playmate of Rilke's daughter Ruth, he dedicated them as a memorial, or Grab-Mal (literally "grave-marker"), to her memory.
In the Netherlands Pieter Corneliszoon Hooft wrote sonnets. A famous example is Mijn lief, mijn lief, mijn lief. Some of his poems were translated by Edmund Gosse. More recent examples include Martinus Nijhoff and Jan Kal.
In the Indian subcontinent, sonnets have been written in the Assamese, Bengali, Dogri, English, Gujarati, Hindi, Kashmiri, Malayalam, Manipuri, Marathi, Nepali, Oriya, Sindhi and Urdu languages. Urdu poets, also influenced by English and other European poets, took to writing sonnets in the Urdu language rather late. Azmatullah Khan (1887–1923) is believed to have introduced this format to Urdu literature in the very early part of the 20th century. The other renowned Urdu poets who wrote sonnets were Akhtar Junagarhi, Akhtar Sheerani, Noon Meem Rashid, Mehr Lal Soni Zia Fatehabadi, Salaam Machhalishahari and Wazir Agha. This example, a sonnet by Zia Fatehabadi taken from his collection Meri Tasveer, is in the usual English (Shakespearean) sonnet rhyme-scheme.
Alexander Pushkin's novel in verse Eugene Onegin consists almost entirely of 389 stanzas of iambic tetrameter with the unusual rhyme scheme "AbAbCCddEffEgg", where the uppercase letters represent feminine rhymes while the lowercase letters represent masculine rhymes. This form has come to be known as the "Onegin stanza" or the "Pushkin sonnet."
Unlike other traditional forms, such as the Petrarchan sonnet or Shakespearean sonnet, the Onegin stanza does not divide into smaller stanzas of four lines or two in an obvious way. There are many different ways this sonnet can be divided.
In post-Pushkin Russian poetry, the form has been utilized by authors as diverse as Mikhail Lermontov, Vyacheslav Ivanov, Jurgis Baltrušaitis and Valery Pereleshin, in genres ranging from one-stanza lyrical piece to voluminous autobiography. Nevertheless, the Onegin stanza, being easily recognisable, is strongly identified as belonging to its creator.
John Fuller's 1980 "The Illusionists" and Jon Stallworthy's 1987 "The Nutcracker" used this stanza form, and Vikram Seth's 1986 novel The Golden Gate is written wholly in Onegin stanzas.
The sonnet was introduced into Polish literature in the 16th century by Jan Kochanowski, Mikołaj Sęp-Szarzyński and Sebastian Grabowiecki. Later in 1826 Adam Mickiewicz wrote a series known as Crimean Sonnets, which was translated into English by Edna Worthley Underwood. Sonnets were also written by Adam Asnyk, Jan Kasprowicz and Leopold Staff. Polish poets usually shape their sonnets according to Italian or French practice. The English sonnet is not common. Kasprowicz used a Shelleyan rhyme scheme: aba bcb cdc ded ee. Polish sonnets are typically written in either hendecasyllables (5+6 syllables) or Polish alexandrines (7+6 syllables).
The sonnet was introduced into Czech literature at the beginning of the 19th century. The first great Czech sonneteer was Ján Kollár, who wrote a cycle of sonnets named Slávy Dcera (The daughter of Sláva / The daughter of fame). Kollár was Slovak and a supporter of Pan-Slavism, but wrote in Czech, as he disagreed that Slovak should be a separate language. Kollár's magnum opus was planned as a Slavic epic poem as great as Dante's Divine Comedy. It consists of The Prelude written in quantitative hexameters, and sonnets. The number of poems increased in subsequent editions and came up to 645. The greatest Czech romantic poet, Karel Hynek Mácha also wrote many sonnets. In the second half of the 19th century Jaroslav Vrchlický published Sonety samotáře (Sonnets of a Solitudinarian). Another poet, who wrote many sonnets was Josef Svatopluk Machar. He published Čtyři knihy sonetů (The Four Books of Sonnets). In the 20th century Vítězslav Nezval wrote the cycle 100 sonetů zachránkyni věčného studenta Roberta Davida (One Hundred Sonnets for the Woman who Rescued Perpetual Student Robert David). After the Second World War the sonnet was the favourite form of Oldřich Vyhlídal. Czech poets use different metres for sonnets, Kollár and Mácha used decasyllables, Vrchlický iambic pentameter, Antonín Sova free verse, and Jiří Orten the Czech alexandrine. Ondřej Hanus wrote a monograph about Czech Sonnets in the first half of the twentieth century.
In Slovenia the sonnet became a national verse form. The greatest Slovenian poet, France Prešeren, wrote many sonnets. His best known work worldwide is Sonetni venec (A Wreath of Sonnets), which is an example of crown of sonnets. Another work of his is the sequence Sonetje nesreče (Sonnets of Misfortune). In writing sonnets Prešeren was followed by many later poets. After the Second World War sonnets remained very popular. Slovenian poets write both traditional rhymed sonnets and modern ones, unrhymed, in free verse. Among them are Milan Jesih and Aleš Debeljak. The metre for sonnets in Slovenian poetry is iambic pentameter with feminine rhymes, based both on the Italian endecasillabo and German iambic pentameter.
Akhtar Junagarhi kaa sonnet ghaaliban 1914 kaa hai- Rashid kaa 1930 kaa aur Akhtar Sheerani ne andaazan 1933 se 1942 tak sonnet likhe- isii dauraan 1934 se 1936 tak Zia Fatehabadi ne bhi keii sonnet likhe (Akhtar Junagarhi's sonnet is from the year 1914. Rashid's sonnet is of 1930 and Akhtar Sheerani wrote sonnets between 1932 and 1942. During the period of 1932 to 1936, Zia Fatehabadi also wrote many sonnets)