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A Brief History of the Sonnet

BACKGROUND: A Brief History of the sonnet.

By the 1200's, the sonnet form (from the Italian sonneto , "little song") was set well enough to be defined as Italian poets were writing them: 14 lines are divided into an 8-line problem statement that is resolved in the last 6 lines.

As in the sample at the right, a shift in tone was typical in lines 8-9 because of this structure.

In the 1500's, William Shakespeare and many others adapted the form to include two more rhymes at the ends of lines than the Italian form used. Although there is still an echo of the shift in tone in lines 8-9, the last two lines of the English sonnet rhyme together and cap off the previous 12 lines.

Usually about love, sonnets often are written about beauty but also about the effects of time and mortality.

Poets of many languages still write sonnets.

Click here to listen to the sample Italian-form sonnet.

Gli occhi di ch'io parlai si caldamente was one of many written by Francis Petrarch to express grief over the death of "Laura," an unidentified woman who became his ideal of love.

The eyes that drew from me such fervent praise,
The arms and hands and feet and countenance
Which made me a stranger in my own romance
And set me apart from the well-trodden ways;

The gleaming golden curly hair, the rays
Flashing from a smiling angel's glance
Which moved the world in paradisal dance,
Are grains of dust, insensibilities.

And I live on, but in grief and self-contempt,
Left here without the light I loved so much,
In a great tempest and with shrouds unkempt.

No more love songs, then, I have done with such;
My old skill now runs thin at each attempt,
And tears are heard within the harp I touch.

(Translated by Edwin Morgan. In Maynard Mack and others, eds. World Masterpieces, 6th ed. Vol. 1, Literature of Western Culture Through the Renaissance. New York: Norton, 1992.)

Do You "Hear" This Sonnet?

typehand.gif (8738 bytes)Re-open your word processor to apply some of the traits listed above, left, for an Italian sonnet to the sample on the right. Either read the poem to yourself a few times, or click on the underlined prompt above the sample to listen with Real Player.  Jot down your best guess for these questions:

  • What is the "problem" stated in the first 8 lines?
  • In what sense is the problem "resolved" in the last 6 lines?
  • So what shift in attitude seems to occur in lines 8-9 of the sample (the end of the second "stanza" and the opening of the third)?
  • Theme: What relationship among love, beauty, time, and mortality is depicted by this poem?

For sample answers to these questions, click here.

If there's a lesson to this page, it's that structure and meaning in a poem (as in any work of art) are intimately related.  Also, if you do notice a change or "turn" in lines 8-9, the relationship between meaning and structure are not accidental nor incidental--professional poets use structure to bring out their ideas.

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