History of the Sonnet Form
Characteristics of Major Sonnet Forms
- 13th Century: The #sonnet is invented in Italy and named for the Italian word sonetto, meaning “little song.”
- 14th Century: The
famous Italian poet Francesco Petrarch develops the sonnet to a high form when
he writes about an idealized lady named Laura.
- 16th Century: Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey, introduce the sonnet to England. They adjust the rhyme scheme and meter to accommodate the English language. This new art form strongly influences numerous English poets including Edmund Spenser, Phillip Sidney, Mary Wroth, and William Shakespeare.
- 1609: Shakespeare’s collection of 154 sonnets is published. He uses these sonnets to practice writing during a time when the theaters are unpopular in England. His collection demonstrates how talented he is at both following Petrarchan conventions and changing them to suit his dramatic purposes.
Characteristics of Major Sonnet Forms
Number of Lines
Rhyme scheme of first octave
Rhyme schemes of last sextet
Petrarchan Sonnet Structure
Iambic pentameter (each line contains 5 iambs—a weak syllable followed by a strong syllable)
English Sonnet Structure
Notable English Sonneteers
Sir Thomas Wyatt
More English Sonneteers
Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Edna St. Vincent Millay
John Crowe Ramson
Most Famous Sonnet
Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm'd;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature's changing course, untrimm'd;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st;
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
Emma Lazarus’ (American) Petrarchan Sonnet
on The Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor
The New Colossus
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
W. H. Auden (English Poet) Sonnet
In Time of War
He turned his field into a meeting-place,
And grew the tolerant ironic eye,
And formed the mobile money-changer’s face,
And found the notion of equality.
And strangers were as brothers to his clocks,
And with his spires he made a human sky;
Museums stored his learning like a box,
And paper watched his money like a spy.
It grew so fast his life was overgrown,
And he forgot what once it had been made for,
And gathered into crowds and was alone,
And lived expensively and did without,
And could not find the earth which he had paid for,
Nor feel the love that he knew all about.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning (American) Sonnet
How do I love thee?
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.