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About the Sonnet

Chris Baldick

Sonnet: a lyric poem comprising 14 rhyming lines of equal length: iambic pentameters in English, alexandrines in French, hendecasyllables in Italian. The rhyme schemes of the sonnet follow two basic patterns.

(1)    The Italian sonnet (also called the Petrarchan sonnet after the most influential of the Italian sonneteers) comprises an 8-line 'octave' of two quatrains, rhymed abbaabba, followed by a 6-line 'sestet' usually rhymed cdecde or cdcdcd. The transition from octave to sestet usually coincides with a 'turn' (Italian, volta) in the argument or mood of the poem. In a variant form used by the English poet John Milton, however, the 'turn' is delayed to a later position around the tenth line. Some later poets--notably William Wordsworth--have employed this feature of the 'Miltonic sonnet' while relaxing the rhyme scheme of the octave to abbaacca. The Italian pattern has remained the most widely used in English and other languages.

(2)    The English sonnet (also called the Shakespearean sonnet after its foremost practitioner) comprises three quatrains and a final couplet, rhyming ababcdcdefefgg. An important variant of this is the Spenserian sonnet (introduced by the Elizabethan poet Edmund Spenser), which links the three quatrains by rhyme, in the sequence ababbabccdcdee. In either form, the 'turn' comes with the final couplet, which may sometimes achieve the neatness of an epigram.

Originating in Italy, the sonnet was established by Petrarch in the 14th century as a major form of love poetry, and came to be adopted in Spain, France and England in the 16th century, and in Germany in the 17th. The standard subject-matter of early sonnets was the torments of sexual love (usually within a courtly love convention), but in the 17th century John Donne extended the sonnet's scope to religion, while Millton extended it to politics. Although largely neglected in the 18th century, the sonnet was revived in the 19th by Wordsworth, Keats, and Baudelaire, and is still widely used. Some poets have written connected series of sonnets, known as sonnet sequences or sonnet cycles: of these, the outstanding English examples are Sir Philip Sidney's Astrophel and Stella (1591), Spenser's Amoretti (1595), and Shakespeare's Sonnets (1609); later examples include Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850) and W. H. Auden's 'In Time of War' (1939). A group of sonnets formally linked by repeated lines is known as a crown of sonnets. Irregular variations on the sonnet form have included the 12-line sonnet sometimes used by Elizabethan poets, G. M. Hopkin's curtal sonnets of 10-1/2 lines, and the 16-line sonnets of George Meredith's sequence Modern Love (1862).

Lyric [li-rik]: In the modern sense, any fairly short poem expressing the personal mood, feeling, or meditation of a single speaker (who may sometimes be an invented character, not the poet). In ancient Greece, a lyric was a song for accompaniment on the lyre, and could be a choral lyric sung by a group, such as a dirge or hymn; the modern sense, current since the Renaissance, often suggests a songlike quality in the poems to which it refers. Lyric poetry is the most extensive category of verse, especially after the decline since the 19th century in the West--of the other principal kinds: narrative and dramatic verse. Lyrics may be composed in almost any metre and on almost every subject, although the most usual emotions presented are those of love and grief. Among the common lyric forms are the sonnet, ode, elegy, haiku, and the more personal kinds of hymn. Lyricism is the emotional or song-like quality, the lyrical property, of lyric poetry. A writer of lyric poems may be called a lyric poet, a lyricist, or a lyrist. In another sense, the lyrics of a popular song or other musical composition are the words as opposed to the music; these may not always be lyrical in the poetic sense (e.g. in a narrative song like a ballad).

Pentameter [pen-tamm-it-er]: A metrical verse line having five main stresses, traditionally described as a line of five 'feet.' In English poetry since Chaucer, the pentameter--almost always an iambic line normally of 10 syllables--has had a special status as the standard line in many important forms including blank verse, the heroic couplet, ottava rima, rhyme royal, and the sonnet. In its pure iambic form, the pentameter shows a regular alternation of stressed and unstressed syllables, as in this line by Percy Bysshe Shelley:

If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

There are, however, several permissible variations in the placing of stresses, which help to avoid the monotony of such regular alternation; and the pentameter may be lengthened from 10 syllables to 11 by a feminine ending. In classical Greek and Latin poetry, the second line of the elegiac distich, commonly but inaccurately referred to as a 'pentameter' is in fact composed of two half-lines of two and a half feet each, with dactyls or spondees in the first half and dactyls in the second.

Rhyme scheme: The pattern in which the rhymed line-endings are arranged in a poem or stanza. This may be expressed as a sequence of recurrences in which each line ending on the same rhyme is given the same alphabetic symbol: thus the rhyme scheme of a limerick is given the notation aabba. Rhyme schemes may follow a fixed pattern, as in the sonnet and several other forms, or they may be arranged freely according to the poet's requirements. The simplest rhyme schemes are those of rhyming couplets (aabbcc, etc.) and of the common quatrain forms (abab, abcb, abba), while those of ottava rima, rhyme royal, the Spenserian stanza, and the French fixed forms are far more intricate.

From The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. New York: Oxford UP, 1990. Copyright 1990 by Chris Baldick.

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