A sonnet is a form of poem that originated in Europe, mainly Italy, with the poet Giacomo da Lentini being credited with its invention. The most recognisable form of sonnet is that which contains 14 lines and in Italian is known as a “sonetto”, meaning “little sound”.
By the thirteenth century, it was known for being a poem of 14 lines that follows a strict rhyming scheme and a very specific structure. William Shakespeare is one of the most well-known sonnet writers, writing 154 in total, not including those that appear in his plays, with one of his most famous starting “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?..” referencing one of the four seasons in a comparison to the beauty of his love just as Denny Bradbury talks of the “Crisp clear air of deepest winter” making her heart “leaden blue” in her poem “Winter Soul from her new collection “De-versify”.
There are many types of sonnets – the Italian (Petrarchan Sonnet – divided into two stanzas, the octave and the answering sestet), Dante’s variation, Spenserian Sonnet, the Urdu sonnet, the Occitan Sonnet, the Modern Sonnet and the English (Shakespearian) Sonnet – three quatrains and a couplet – all of which consist of the 14 lines, with each line made up of ten syllables and written in iambic pentameter, in which a pattern of an unstressed syllable is followed by a stressed syllable and is repeated five times.
The purpose behind a sonnet is to show two related, yet differing things, developing a specific idea in each quatrain or octave with each idea being closely linked to the ideas portrayed in the other quatrains/sestet.
The three main types of Sonnets are the Italian, Spenserian and English sonnets, with the English sonnet being the easiest in terms of its rhyming scheme, calling for pairs of rhyming words rather than groups of four.
A Sonnet is constructed in such a way that its fourteen line dialectical form allows the poet to examine the nature and possible ramifications of two contrasts – be that ideas, emotions, beliefs, actions, states of mind or images – in such a way that the two are juxtaposed, with the tensions sometimes being resolved and in other cases just created but with no resolution. This contrast can be shown at any point in the fourteen line stanza.
One example where the essential element of the sonnet, known as the “volta” meaning the “turn” in subject matter and the introduction of something new occurs can be seen in Sonnet LXXI by Sir Philip Sidney where he delays the reveal of the volta until the final, fourteenth line for dramatic effect. He devotes thirteen lines to extolling how Reason shows that Virtue is the path to follow but concludes with:.
“But,ah,” Desire still cries, “give me some food” – a final line which counteracts Reason’s arguments by stating that Desire is not beholden to Reason.
Sonnets in varying interpretations continue to inspire modern poets today, often only recognisable in the 14 line form it is renowned for.