When it comes to writing poetry, there are few forms as iconic and enduring as the sonnet. This is a type of poem that is written in 14 lines and has a specific rhyme scheme. Over the centuries, poets have used the sonnet as a vehicle for expressing everything from love and desire to political frustration and social commentary.
The Origins of the Sonnet
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The sonnet has a rich history that goes back nearly 800 years. It is generally believed to have originated in Italy in the 13th century, and the first significant poet to use the form was Giacomo da Lentini. However, the sonnet did not become popular until the 14th century when Petrarch, a 14th-century Italian poet, wrote over 300 sonnets dedicated to an idealized woman named Laura. These sonnets gained widespread popularity and established the form as one of the most important in the Western literary tradition.
The Structure of the Sonnet
As previously mentioned, a sonnet is a poem of 14 lines. There are two main types of sonnets: the Petrarchan sonnet and the Shakespearean sonnet. The Petrarchan sonnet consists of two parts, an octave (8 lines) followed by a sestet (6 lines). The octave usually presents a problem or situation, while the sestet provides a resolution or conclusion. The Shakespearean sonnet consists of three quatrains (4 lines) followed by a concluding couplet (2 lines). The quatrains generally present three different ideas related to a central theme, while the couplet provides the resolution or conclusion.
Sonnets also have a specific rhyme scheme. In a Petrarchan sonnet, the rhyme scheme is usually ABBAABBA for the octave and CDCDCD or CDEEDE for the sestet. In a Shakespearean sonnet, the rhyme scheme is usually ABAB CDCD EFEF GG.
The Importance of Form in the Sonnet
The form of the sonnet is essential to its meaning. The strict rhyme scheme and the limited number of lines force the poet to be concise and deliberate in their language. This makes every word and every syllable of the poem significant, and the form itself becomes intertwined with the poem’s content.
For example, consider Shakespeare’s sonnet 130:
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go,
My mistress when she walks treads on the ground:
And yet by heaven, I think my love as rare,
As any she belied with false compare.
The poem begins by violating a convention of Petrarchan sonnets by not using an idealizing metaphor to describe the speaker’s lover’s eyes. However, this rejection of convention creates a contrast that highlights the speaker’s love for the woman’s imperfect qualities. The final couplet, which reaffirms the speaker’s love despite his lover’s imperfections, underscores the central theme of the poem and provides a satisfying conclusion.
Common Themes in Sonnets
The sonnet form is incredibly versatile, and poets have used it to explore a wide variety of themes. However, there are a few common themes that recur throughout the history of the sonnet:
- Love: Perhaps the most common theme in sonnets is love. Love sonnets can be joyous and celebratory or bittersweet and mournful. Poets have used the sonnet form to express every conceivable aspect of romantic love, from the ecstasy of new romance to the heartache of lost love.
- Mortality: The sonnet’s brevity makes it a perfect form for contemplating the transience of life. Many sonnets explore the fragility of the human experience and the inevitability of death.
- Nature: Poets have also used the sonnet to explore the beauty and power of nature. Sonnets about nature often reflect upon its majesty and its indifference to human affairs.
- Social Commentary: Finally, the sonnet has also been used as a vehicle for social and political commentary. Many sonnets have criticized society’s injustices and inequalities or commented on significant historical events and figures.
The Legacy of the Sonnet
The sonnet has had a remarkable impact on the history of English literature. It has inspired countless poets over the centuries and has become a symbol of poetic excellence and sophistication. Moreover, the sonnet has transcended its literary origins to become a cultural touchstone. It has appeared in popular music, film, and even advertising.
Perhaps most importantly, the sonnet continues to be a relevant and vital form of poetry today. Contemporary poets continue to write sonnets and use the form to explore new ideas and themes. The sonnet has remained a vital part of the literary canon for over 800 years, and it is likely to continue to inspire and captivate readers for centuries to come.
Sonnets are among the most enduring and iconic forms of poetry, and the strict rules that govern their construction make them a unique and challenging form of artistic expression. Whether exploring the complexities of love or commenting on social injustice, the sonnet remains a vital form of poetry that continues to captivate readers today.
If you are interested in writing a sonnet, remember that the form is just as integral to the poem’s meaning as its content. Embrace the limitations of the form and use them to create something beautiful and enduring.