English Literature


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The Versatility and History of Sonnets

Sonnets have been beloved in English literature for centuries due to their unique structure and meaning. In this article, we will explore the various types of sonnets and their distinct characteristics.

History of the Sonnet

Sonnets have been a part of poetry since the 12th century, with the first recorded sonnet originating in Italy. The Italian sonnet, also known as the Petrarchan sonnet, was popularized during the Renaissance by Italian poet Francesco Petrarca. In the 16th and 17th centuries, poets like William Shakespeare and Edmund Spenser developed their own versions, known as the Shakespearean sonnet and the Spenserian sonnet, respectively.

While the sonnet has traditionally been associated with love, its strict form has allowed poets to subvert expectations and explore its different forms, from spiritual and sexual love to aesthetic love. One example of this is Claude McKay's poem "America" (1921), in which the traditional love theme of a sonnet is replaced with a commentary on racism and violence in 1920s America. This demonstrates the sonnet's continued relevance and popularity throughout the past few centuries.

Sonnet Form

While there are various types of sonnets, they all share three key characteristics. The first is a strict structure of 14 lines, which can be divided into octaves (8 lines), sestets (6 lines), quatrains (4 lines), or couplets (2 lines), depending on the type of sonnet.

Another crucial characteristic is the use of iambic pentameter, a metrical line consisting of five feet with an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. For example, "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate." The bolded words show the stressed syllables in each foot, often indicated by a dash or line.

Top Tip! The rhythm of iambic pentameter can be visualized as a heartbeat - ba (unstressed) - dum (stressed), ba-dum!

Many sonnets also adhere to a regular rhyme scheme, depending on the form of the sonnet. The rhyme scheme is an essential way to distinguish between different types of sonnets.

Types of Sonnets

There are three main types of sonnets that we will explore: Petrarchan, Shakespearean, and Spenserian.

Petrarchan Sonnet

The Petrarchan sonnet, also known as the Italian sonnet, is the oldest form of sonnet. It is believed to have been introduced to England by Sir Thomas Wyatt in the 16th century and is named after the Italian Renaissance poet, Francesco Petrarca.

While the Petrarchan sonnet shares the three key characteristics of all sonnets, there are some distinct differences. Its structure consists of 14 lines, divided into an octave (8 lines) and a sestet (6 lines). The octave is further divided into two quatrains (4 lines each), which is a unique feature of this type of sonnet. Additionally, the Petrarchan sonnet follows a consistent iambic pentameter rhythm throughout the stanzas.

Furthermore, the Petrarchan sonnet has its own rhyme scheme, following an ABBA-ABBA-CDE-CDE structure, with the octave having one rhyme scheme (ABBA-ABBA) and the sestet following a different one (CDE-CDE).

Petrarchan sonnets are often used to explore themes of romance and love, leading to the misconception that all sonnets are love poems. They also have a tonal shift, known as a volta, which occurs at the end of the octave, serving as the climax of the poem. The sestet then resolves the volta.

Top Tip! The volta can often be identified by words such as "but" and "yet".

Experiencing the Beauty of Sonnets

The beauty of morning is unmissable to any soul with a heart full of life. As William Wordsworth wrote in his sonnet, "Composed Upon Westminster Bridge", 1802:

"Earth has not anything to show more fair: Dull would he be of soul who could pass byA sight so touching in its majesty: This City now doth, like a garment, wearThe beauty of the morning; silent, bare, Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lieOpen unto the fields, and to the sky; All bright and glittering in the smokeless air."

This is a Petrarchan sonnet, following an ABBA-ABBA-CDE-CDE rhyme scheme and written in iambic pentameter. It consists of 14 lines, with a volta occurring in the ninth line, further highlighting the beauty and versatility of the sonnet form.

The sonnet is a popular form of poetry that originated during the Elizabethan period and was heavily influenced by the Petrarchan style. Poets like John Donne and John Milton have also used this form in their works, but it is most famously associated with William Shakespeare's Sonnets. The Shakespearean sonnet, also known as the English sonnet, is composed of fourteen lines and follows a strict structure, written in iambic pentameter. Its rhyme scheme is ABAB-CDCD-EFEF-GG, with a volta often found in the final couplet, allowing for a variety of themes to be explored.In his renowned 'Sonnet 116,' Shakespeare reflects on the true nature of love:"Let me not to the marriage of true mindsAdmit impediments. Love is not loveWhich alters when it alteration finds,Or bends with the remover to remove.O no! it is an ever-fixed markThat looks on tempests and is never shaken;It is the star to every wandering bark,Whose worth's unknown, although its height be taken.Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeksWithin its bending sickle's compass come;Love alters not with its brief hours and weeks,But bears it out even to the edge of doom.If this be error and upon me proved,I never wrote, nor any man ever loved."Similarly, the Spenserian sonnet, developed by Edmund Spenser in the 16th century, also draws from the Petrarchan structure. It consists of three quatrains and a rhyming couplet, written in iambic pentameter. However, its rhyme scheme is slightly different, following the pattern ABAB-BCBC-CDCD-EE. The volta can be found in the second stanza, bringing a turning point or climax to the poem, which is then further developed or resolved in the final couplet.An excellent example of the Spenserian sonnet is Spenser's 'One day I wrote her name upon the strand':"One day I wrote her name upon the strand,But came the waves and washed it away:Again I wrote it with a second hand,But came the tide, and made my pains his prey."Each type of sonnet has its own structure, rhyme scheme, and character, making them distinct from one another. Whether it is the romanticism and grace of the Petrarchan sonnet, the versatility of the Shakespearean sonnet, or the complexity and depth of the Spenserian sonnet, each form has its unique allure, showcasing the power and beauty of the written word.

Petrarchan and Spenserian Sonnets: Uncovering the Crucial Element of the Volta

Sonnets are a popular form of poetry known for their strict structure and intricate themes. Two of the most well-known styles of sonnets are Petrarchan and Spenserian, both of which incorporate a volta as a crucial element to add depth and resolution to the poem. This article will explore the significance of the volta in these sonnet forms and share some popular examples of sonnets that showcase this literary technique.

The Petrarchan sonnet, also known as the Italian sonnet, follows a 14-line structure divided into an octave (8 lines) and a sestet (6 lines). The volta, or turn, occurs at the ninth line, transitioning the poem's tone and message. This turn can be seen as a pivotal moment, where the speaker's perspective shifts or new insight is revealed. One famous example of this is Shakespeare's 'Sonnet 116,' where the volta marks the shift from discussing the concept of love to emphasizing its enduring nature.

On the other hand, the Spenserian sonnet, named after the English poet Edmund Spenser, follows a similar structure but with an added rhyme scheme. The volta in this form typically occurs at the ninth line, like the Petrarchan sonnet, but can also appear at the twelfth line. The volta in Spenserian sonnets serves as a resolution, bringing together the conflicting ideas presented in the octave. An excellent illustration of this can be found in Spenser's 'Amoretti LXXV,' where the volta brings closure to the speaker's struggle with unrequited love.

In conclusion, the volta is a crucial element in Petrarchan and Spenserian sonnets, providing a shift or resolution in the poem's theme. These two forms of sonnets continue to be revered and studied for their use of the volta and its impact on the overall meaning and structure of the poem. So next time you come across a sonnet, pay attention to the volta, as it holds the key to unlocking the poem's deeper significance.

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