The first sonnets were written by a Sicilian lawyer named Giacomo da Lentino, during the first part of the thirteenth century. The form soon became very popular and was publicised through the works of many well-known Italian poets, such as Cavalcanti, Dante and Petrarch, thus becoming known as the Petrarchan sonnet form. It soon spread through Europe and finally to England during the sixteenth century, through Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, who developed it slightly.
Soon after, Shakespeare realised the limitations of such a strict format and therefore developed and changed it further, creating the Shakespearean form. However, not everyone agreed with his indifference towards tradition; John Milton and Wordsworth soon reverted to the strictly disciplined Petrarchan form again, preferring it to the relatively ‘free and easy’ style of Shakespeare. Through time, many poets have experimented with different styles and techniques, and by the twentieth century, writers such as Elizabeth Jennings wrote such undisciplined poetry that it could only be recognised as a sonnet by the fourteen lines.
The word ‘sonnet’ comes from the Italian word sonnetto, meaning ‘little sound’ or ‘song,’ and the standard form consists of fourteen lines and a strict but variable rhyme scheme. The underlying stresses in each line are usually iambic pentameters but variation does occur in most poetry in order to make the rhythm more interesting. The Petrarchan sonnet form has a very strict format and rhyme scheme, and the content almost always consists of one of three themes: love, time or change.
In the first eight lines, known as the octave, there are only two rhyming sounds, so the poet needs four ‘a’ rhymes and four ‘b’ rhymes. Also, an idea or problem is usually argued or discussed in the octave, and then resolved in the sestet (the last six lines). This change in thought or development of an argument is called the volta. Rhyme schemes are variable in the sestet, and combinations such as cdcdcd, cdecde, and ccdccd are all permissible. The Shakespearean form of the sonnet reduces the number of rhyming words needed because it is divided into three quatrains and a rhyming couplet at the end.
The most common rhyme schemes are abab cdcd efef gg and abba cddc effe gg, but some variation is allowed. In this form the volta after the octave is sometimes recognised, but not always. An idea is generally expressed in the first quatrain, developed and argued in the second and third, and resolved in the rhyming couplet at the end. The first sonnets written in English were by Sir Thomas Wyatt, and he used the Petrarchan form. He wrote about thirty sonnets altogether, ten of them translations of Petrarch.
In some of his sonnets, however, he introduced the rhyming couplet at the end, which is never found in the true Petrarchan form. In the octave of his sonnet “Divers doth use, as I have heard and know,” he describes how men “mourn and wail” when their ladies decide that they do not love them anymore, in order to “pease their painful woe. ” Some turn against the women who no longer love them and call them “false. ” However, the format is changed slightly because there is a development of his ideas after the first four lines, and therefore the octave could be divided into two quatrains.
In the first four lines, Wyatt tells us how many men never stop mourning in an attempt to cope with their grief when “that to change their ladies do begin. ” In the second four lines, the idea is changed because, instead of men just being upset that their women “hate where love hath been,” they “call them false,” and condemn the lady. However, true to the Petrarchan form, there is a marked turn of thought after the octave, which is emphasised by the word ‘but’ – “But as for me, though that by chance indeed.
” In the sestet Wyatt says that he, unlike other men, “will not wail, lament, nor yet be sad,” even though his lady no longer loves him. He will not be upset with her, nor “call her false,” because he accepts that women often change their minds. The rhyme scheme is one that would be expected from a Petrarchan sonnet – abbaabba cddcdd (except for the rhyming couplet at the end), as is the theme of love and change. In the sonnet “Divers thy death that do diversely bemoan” by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, we can see that he realised to an extent how limited the Petrarchan form was.
This is shown by the rhyme scheme of abab cdcd efef gg, because Italian is much richer in rhyming words than English, and this format makes it easier to find words that rhyme. Also, he is not as strict with the rhythm because his lines do not all have the usual ten syllables, such as “Some that watched with the murderer’s knife,” which has only nine. This use of three quatrains and a rhyming couplet was adopted by Shakespeare and thus became known as the Shakespearean sonnet form. Shakespeare was fortunate enough to be able to see the work of both Wyatt and Howard, and to use and expand their ideas.
His sonnets, unlike earlier ones, do not revolve around one female figure. Instead, they are written to a young blonde aristocrat, a mysterious ‘dark lady’ and a rival poet. He saw the potential in the sonnet, if only some of the strict rules attached to it could be broken. Therefore, he divided it into three definite quatrains and a rhyming couplet at the end, his usual rhyme scheme being abab cdcd efef gg. He also does not always recognise the volta after the octave; instead he uses all of the first twelve lines to argue his case, and resolves the problem in the rhyming couplet.
In sonnet XVIII – “Shall I compare thee… ,” there are four definite parts. In the first quatrain Shakespeare defines the subject; we know as soon as he asks the question “Shall I compare thee to a Summers day? ” that the sonnet will be a comparison between his lover and summertime. He then says how his lover is “more lovely and more temperate” than summer, and points out that it has many imperfections and only lasts for a very short time. This idea is explored more fully in the second quatrain.
Shakespeare points out the negative aspects of summer, such as, “Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,” giving us the general impression that there is hardly ever a day when some variable is not quite right. In the third quatrain there is a shift in focus, showing the Petrarchan turn of thought after the octave. Shakespeare says that his lover is better than summer, because his beauty is constant, and can defeat time because it is immortal, as we see where it says, “Nor shall death brag thou wandr’st in his shade. ” This poses the question: how can his beauty be made immortal? Our answer is found in the rhyming couplet at the end.