Sonnet Definition A sonnet is a fourteen-line poem in iambic pentameter with a carefully patterned rhyme scheme. Other strict, short poetic forms occur in English poetry (the sestina, the villanelle, and the haiku, for example), but none has been used so successfully by so many different poets. The Italian, or Petrarchan sonnet, named after Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374), the Italian poet, was introduced into English poetry in the early 16th century by Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542). Its fourteen lines break into an octave (or octet), which usually rhymes abbaabba, but which may sometimes be abbacddc or even (rarely) abababab; and a sestet, which may rhyme xyzxyz or xyxyxy, or any of the multiple variations possible using only two or three rhyme-sounds. The English or Shakespearean sonnet, developed first by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (1517-1547), consists of three quatrains and a couplet–that is, it rhymes abab cdcd efef gg.
The form into which a poet puts his or her words is always something of which the reader ought to take conscious note. And when poets have chosen to work within such a strict form, that form and its strictures make up part of what they want to say. In other words, the poet is using the structure of the poem as part of the language act: we will find the “meaning” not only in the words, but partly in their pattern as well. The Italian form, in some ways the simpler of the two, usually projects and develops a subject in the octave, then executes a turn at the beginning of the sestet, which means that the sestet must in some way release the tension built up in the octave. (Example: see Wyatt’s “Farewell Love and all thy laws for ever.”) The Shakespearean sonnet has a wider range of possibilities. One pattern introduces an idea in the first quatrain, complicates it in the second, complicates it still further in the third, and resolves the whole thing in the final epigrammatic couplet.
(Example: see Shakespeare’s Sonnet 133.) You can see how this form would attract writers of great technical skill who are fascinated with intellectual puzzles and intrigued by the complexity of human emotions, which become especially tangled when it comes to dealing with the sonnet’s traditional subjects, love and faith. Although the two types of sonnet may seem quite different, in actual practice they are frequently hard to tell apart. Both forms break between lines eight and nine; the octave in the Italian frequently breaks into two quatrains, like the English; and its sestet frequently ends in a final couplet. In addition, many Shakespearean sonnets seem to have a turn at line nine and another at the final couplet; and if a couplet closes an Italian sonnet, it is usually because the poet wanted the epigrammatic effec t more characterstic of the Shakespearean form. It behooves the reader to pay close attention to line-end punctuation, especially at lines four, eight, and twelve, and to connective words like and, or, but, as, so, if, then, when, or which at the beginnings of lines (especially lines five, nine, and thirteen).