A Brief History of the Sonnet


Originally an Italian form, the sonnet has remained vital since its development in the 13th century. Francesco Petrarch was one of the form’s original masters; in the 14th century, the Italian poet brought the sonnet to prominence through the poems he wrote in admiration of a woman named Laura. Petrarch’s contributions to the sonnet are both formal and conceptual.

The Petrarchan sonnet, like all true sonnets, consists of fourteen lines. The first eight lines comprise the octave and the final six form the sestet. The octave presents and develops some type of conflict for the speaker, which in the case of Petrarch, is often related to the nature of desire or the cruelty of love. The volta, or the poem’s turn, typically appears at the beginning of the sestet and introduces a markedly different tone from that of the octave. Finally, the sestet offers reflection on and sometimes resolution to the conflict of the poem. The lines are in iambic pentameter and the rhyme scheme is generally one of the following two patterns: ABBA ABBA CDECDE or ABBA ABBA CDCDCD.

Petrarch also adds his use of figurative language and the Petrarchan conceit, an exaggerated comparison between a woman’s features and an object. For instance, in Sonnet LIV, Petrarch compares Laura’s eyes to a “golden citadel.” Additionally, Petrarch popularized the theme of inaccessible love pervasive in his sonnets. The highly personal nature of his sonnets transform the tradition of love poetry, and the love of a virtuous and ideal woman that they display provides an example of how one might better love God.

Petrarch influenced Sir Thomas Wyatt, who brought the Petrarchan sonnet to England in the 16th century. Wyatt translated much of Petrarch’s work, and he consistently utilizes the Petrarchan conceit, as in the sonnet “Whoso List to Hunt,” in which the sought after doe represents a woman. In Wyatt’s case, that woman might have been Anne Boleyn. The doe wears a collar that proclaims, “Noli me tangere, for Caesar’s I am.” Like Petrarch’s speaker, Wyatt’s speaker’s love is not attainable. Wyatt also made modifications to the Petrarchan sonnet’s rhyme scheme and meter in order to better suit the English language.

During the Renaissance period, William Shakespeare continued in the Petrarchan tradition with his highly personal sonnets. However, the form of the Shakespearean sonnet differs from that of the Petrarchan model. Although Shakespeare’s lines are iambic pentameter, his sonnets are made up of three quatrains and a final couplet, and his rhyme scheme is as follows: ABABCDCDEFEFGG. He also departs from Petrarch’s tendency to idealize the object of his affection. In Sonnet 130, for instance, which is a response to Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” Shakespeare undermines this Petrarchan convention and use of blason: “I love to hear her speak, yet well I know / That music hath a far more pleasing sound.” And later, in the poem’s final couplet, Shakespeare’s point seems to be that love does not require romantic conceit in order to be real.

The sonnet has persisted over several hundred years, and many contemporary poets continue to utilize the form. However, most take liberties, and any poem of fourteen lines is likely to be named a sonnet. These sonnet variations may display no dominant meter, and they may employ slant rhyme or no rhyme at all. Take, for example, Derek Walcott’s “The Morning Moon,” which adheres to the sonnet form in that it has fourteen lines and uses somewhat regular pentameter; however, the lines are unrhymed, and they vary in length. The stanzas in “The Morning Moon” are tercets and stand alone lines. Successful contemporary sonnets expand the form in a multitude of ways. Ted Berrigan’s The Sonnets, for example, does not at all resemble the sonnets of Petrarch or Shakespeaere in form; however, these sonnets share subject matter with those that came before them. In the introduction to “The Art of the Sonnet,” Stephen Burt notes that the best contemporary sonneteers remind us that we are connected to a history, that, in fact, we are not unlike the generations that came before us. We love the same, we share similar fears, and we all grieve.