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Sonnet in Poetry: Definition of Sonnet and Its Types

Sonnet in Poetry: Definition of Sonnet and Its Types

Definition:

A sonnet is a type of poem that typically consists of 14 lines written in a specific rhyme scheme and meter. Traditionally, sonnets explore themes of love, beauty, and the passage of time. It usually takes a turn, called “volta”,  about 8 lines in, and then resolves the issue by the end.

Types of Sonnet:

There are different types of sonnets, but the two most famous kinds are the Italian (or Petrarchan) sonnet and the English (or Shakespearean) sonnet.

  • 1. Italian Sonnet: This type of sonnet has 14 lines divided into two parts: an octave (eight lines) and a sestet (six lines). The octave usually presents a problem or situation, while the sestet offers a resolution or commentary. The rhyme scheme of an Italian sonnet is typically ABBAABBA for the octave and either CDECDE or CDCDCD for the sestet.
  • 2. English Sonnet: This type of sonnet also has 14 lines, but it follows a different structure. It consists of three quatrains (four-line stanzas) followed by a final rhymed couplet (two lines). The rhyme scheme of an English sonnet is usually ABABCDCDEFEFGG. English sonnets often explore a theme, build on it through the quatrains, and then conclude or provide a twist in the final couplet.

Gist:

  • Both types of sonnets have their own unique characteristics and ways of expressing ideas and emotions. They have been used by famous poets throughout history to capture the complexities of human experiences and emotions in a structured yet beautiful form. 

History:

  •  The sonnet form was introduced to English literature in the early 16th century by Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey. They adapted the Italian form of the sonnet into English, establishing the foundation for its development in English poetry. William Shakespeare, one of the most renowned playwrights and poets in English literature, popularized the English (or Shakespearean) sonnet. He wrote 154 sonnets, characterized by a specific rhyme scheme (ABABCDCDEFEFGG) and a thematic structure often revolving around love, beauty, time, and mortality. Shakespeare’s sonnets are celebrated for their emotional depth and linguistic richness.  Another influential poet, Edmund Spenser, contributed to the evolution of the sonnet form with his creation of the Spenserian sonnet. He used a rhyme scheme similar to Shakespeare’s but with linking rhymes between quatrains (ABAB BCBC CDCD EE), adding complexity and musicality to the form. During the 17th and 18th centuries, the sonnet remained a popular form among poets, although its usage varied. John Donne, for example, employed the sonnet form but often deviated from traditional structures, experimenting with themes and language. In the Romantic period, poets like William Wordsworth, John Keats, and Percy Bysshe Shelley revitalized the sonnet form. They explored themes of nature, imagination, and human emotion, infusing the sonnet with new vitality and expressiveness. The sonnet continued to evolve in the Victorian era and beyond, with poets such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Gerard Manley Hopkins experimenting with form and subject matter. Modernist and contemporary poets have also engaged with the sonnet, pushing its boundaries and exploring new possibilities while still honoring its rich tradition.

Iconic Examples of Sonnet:

  • 1. Sonnet 18 (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”) by William Shakespeare: This is one of Shakespeare’s most well-known sonnets, celebrated for its exquisite imagery and enduring declaration of love.
  • 2. Sonnet 130 (“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun”) by William Shakespeare: In this sonnet, Shakespeare playfully subverts conventional love poetry by describing his mistress in realistic terms, challenging traditional notions of beauty.
  • 3. Sonnet 29 (“When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes”) by William Shakespeare: This sonnet explores themes of despair and redemption, as the speaker finds solace in the thought of his beloved.
  • 4. Sonnet 116 (“Let me not to the marriage of true minds”) by William Shakespeare: Often quoted at weddings, this sonnet eloquently expresses the enduring nature of true love, unaffected by time or circumstances.
  • 5. “How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Ways” (Sonnet 43) by Elizabeth Barrett Browning: This sonnet, part of Browning’s collection “Sonnets from the Portuguese,” is celebrated for its heartfelt expression of love and devotion.
  • 6. “Death Be Not Proud” (Holy Sonnet 10) by John Donne: A powerful meditation on mortality, this sonnet challenges the inevitability of death and affirms the triumph of eternal life.
  • 7. “On His Blindness” (Sonnet 19) by John Milton: Written after Milton had gone blind, this sonnet reflects on the poet’s struggle with his loss of sight and his faith in God’s purpose.
  • 8. “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley: Although not a traditional sonnet, “Ozymandias” follows the sonnet’s thematic structure and is admired for its vivid imagery and exploration of the transience of power and human achievement.

Sonnet’ MCQs

1. Which poet is credited with popularizing the sonnet form in English literature?

a) William Shakespeare

b) John Keats

c) Emily Dickinson

d) Robert Frost

2.How many lines does a traditional Shakespearean sonnet contain?

a) 12

b) 14

c) 16

d) 18

3.Which of the following is NOT a characteristic feature of a Petrarchan (Italian) sonnet?

a) Octave and sestet

b) Rhyme scheme ABBAABBACDCDCD

c) Volta or turn in thought between the octave and sestet

d) Iambic tetrameter

4.In a Shakespearean sonnet, what is the typical rhyme scheme of the three quatrains?

a) ABBA ABBA CDE CDE

b) ABAB CDCD EFEF

c) ABABCDCDEFEFGG

d) ABABBCCDDEEFFGG

5.Which sonnet form consists of three quatrains and a final rhymed couplet?

a) Spenserian sonnet

b) Petrarchan sonnet

c) Shakespearean sonnet

d) Miltonic sonnet

6.Who is considered the author of the first sonnet sequence in English literature?

a) Sir Philip Sidney

b) Geoffrey Chaucer

c) Edmund Spenser

d) John Donne

7.How many syllables are typically in each line of a sonnet written in iambic pentameter?

a) 5

b) 10

c) 12

d) 14

8.Which poet wrote the famous sonnet “How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Ways”?

a) Elizabeth Barrett Browning

b) William Wordsworth

c) Percy Bysshe Shelley

d) John Milton

9.Which of these is a common theme found in sonnets?

a) Nature

b) Love

c) Death

d) All of the above

10.In a Petrarchan sonnet, what is the typical rhyme scheme of the octave?

a) ABBAABBA

b) ABABCDCD

c) ABCBCDCD

d) ABABBCCD

11.Which poet is known for his innovative use of the Spenserian sonnet form?

a) Edmund Spenser

b) John Milton

c) William Wordsworth

d) John Keats

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