Up Close – Glancing upon poetry history: the sonnet

What I intend to talk to you about today, dear reader, is the well-known poetry form of the sonnet – and to be more specific, I will try to offer you a small summary of its history.

Nowadays this form may seem obsolete to many people, especially because of the explosion of the free verse style brought to light by the 20th century. We have to remember though that the sonnet was the main form through which so many centuries poets tried to demonstrate their value. It was not, and it still is not easy to create a poem by building the ideas on the harshness of such a fix form. One has to know that its difficulty resides not only in the technical details, but also in the language richness that it requires.

After its birth during the Middle Age, the sonnet continued to develop until it reached its zenith during the Renaissance, becoming thus a high performance bar, one of the most refined examples of poetic skill.

The term of “sonnet” comes either from the French “sonnet” or the Italian “sonetto” – some say that initially, in the Provencal tradition, the sonnet was a text that was recited or sung with an instrumental accompaniment. So, somehow, the origin of the sonnet is related to the musical culture. BUT, what we cannot help asking ourselves is: in what language were sonnets first written in history?

G. Menage (1613-1692) and P. L. Ginguéné (1748-1816), who were the first known researchers in this field, believed that a very important hint regarding the answer to this question was the sound – “son” – of the alternate rhymes. But that idea was shaken by the fact that the French “son” was strongly related to the Italian “suono”, which was also sometimes reduced to “sono” or even “son”. Ginguéné pleaded also for an Italian origin, claiming that the patent of the form belonged to the person of Pier delle Vigne.

The only thing that is sure was that the official sonnet came to life when the Provencal and the Italian spirits resonated together. That moment probably occurred at the Court of Frederic the Second, king of Sicily and emperor of Germany (1194-1250). Frederic, a poet himself, used to welcome in his entourage many of the troubadours, trouvers and minnezängers of that time.

We know, therefore, that during the 13th century, the sonnet found itself for the first time under its finished form. In addition, we know that the roots of it belong to the Sicilian folklore of the 10th century, the Provencal culture and that there are even some Arabic influences in it.

After knowing a glorious period in Italy, the tradition of writing sonnets began to fade in that country. An overall look upon the history of this form will show us though that this tradition was never completely lost – it was only transferred from one nation to another. Starting from the two fathers from Frederic’s Court, Giacomo da Lentini and Pier delle Vigne, authors like Dante, Petrarca, Pierre de Ronsard, Charles Baudelaire, August von Platen, Th. Wyatt, E. Spencer, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Gongora, and so many others have marked its evolution with their creative genius.

The difficulty of the form does not reside only in the fixed structure, but also in the fact that the language used was imposed to not repeat the words – except, of course, for the conjunctions, prepositions or any other liaison particle – precisely in order to prevent it from falling into the trap of the ordinary.

Basically, a sonnet is a poem with 14 lines, often written in iambic pentameter, but not obligatory. The most known types of sonnet that became somewhat traditional in time are differentiated by structural details, mainly by the rhyming scheme:

–          the Italian (Petrarchan) sonnet – The rhyme scheme used is a-b-b-a, a-b-b-a, c-d-e-c-d-e or c-d-c-c-d-c.

–          the Occitan sonnet – employs the rhyme scheme a-b-a-b, a-b-a-b, c-d-c-d-c-d

–          the English (Shakespearean) sonnet – using the following scheme: a-b-a-b, c-d-c-d, e-f-e-f, g-g

–          the Spenserian sonnet – which rhyming pattern is a-b-a-b, b-c-b-c, c-d-c-d, e-e

–          the Modern sonnet – coming as a reaction against the tendency to forget about this form, the Modern sonnet attempts, by various experiments of some of the world’s most brilliant poetic minds, to carry on the tradition of this jewel belonging to universal literature.

The high complexity of sonnets is barely revealed by this article. Nevertheless, what the lines above attempt to provide is a tiny glance upon the rich background of such a wonderful element of poetry, crossing time to reach our knowledge today.

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4 thoughts on “Up Close – Glancing upon poetry history: the sonnet

  1. Oh the beautiful sonnet. I never knew there was Arabic influence within the sonnet. I have wrote two sonnets in my life with major help from Shan and Luke. The iambic pentameter throws my mind into a spinning state of confusion. Thank goodness there are people that study and grasp this dying poetic form to keep it alive for it’s song to be cherished still to this day.

  2. Hi Liliana, Many thanks for giving the five different sonnet definitios. For me the sonnet has always been too complicated to even attempt because my ear just doesn’t hear the dum-dee-dum-dee-dum of the words which makes me feel extremely dumb! Perhpas if I were to look at it more as writing a song than a poem it would work for me. I have copied the rhyme schemes above and writing a sonnet is going into my poetry bucket list.

  3. This is a tough form for me as well, and I thought you presented the form wonderfully. I so enjoy hearing a sonnet read…but I do have trouble getting the flow just right. Anyone have any tips to assist in that department? When writing form, how do you guys stick to the rules, so to speak?

  4. Personally I’ve tried several variants of sonnet, but I managed to feel comfortable only in the Shakespearian version. I think what one has to keep in mind is the fact that, due to the fix form, the sonnet is quite a musical piece actually. So if you have the slightest musical sense, you’ll find your way around it somehow. Just think about the iambic pentameter: ta-TAM/ ta-TAM/ ta-TAM/ ta-TAM/ ta-TAM (/ta) [the last (/ta) is random). You don’t have to fully respect that – after all, it would become monotonous to have 14 lines fully respecting that pattern. But what if you had slight rhythm variations, like:

    ta-TAM/ ta-TAM/ ta-TAM/ ta-TAM/ ta-TAM
    ta-TAM/ ta-ta/ ta-TAM/ ta-TAM/ ta-TAM
    ta-TAM/ ta-TAM/ ta-TAM/ TAM-TAM/ ta-TAM
    ta-TAM/ ta-TAM/ ta-TAM/ ta-TAM/ TAM-TAM

    every now and then?! For instance, this is the first quatrain of my latest sonnet, “corrosion”:

    “an old typewriter’s chink disrupts with shyness [ta-TAM/ TAM-TAM/ ta-TAM/ ta-TAM/ ta-TAM/ ta]
    the cyanotic flow of midnight’s death – [ta-ta/ ta-TAM/ ta-TAM/ ta-TAM/ ta-TAM]
    slow poison for the flowers, summer’s dryness [TAM TAM/ ta-ta/ ta-TAM/ ta-TAM/ ta-TAM/ ta]
    is sucking all the water from their breath.“ [ta-TAM/ ta-TAM/ ta-TAM/ ta-ta/ ta-TAM]

    It’s obvious that it’s not following the rhythm pattern. The idea is to make it sound natural, not to force the message into patterns.
    What is indeed a difficult thing, is to not repeat words – however that too is a rule that can be bent, because often repetition is figure of style used to emphasize something.
    My personal advice – do not let yourselves intimidated by this form. True, it’s an old form. Even truer, it’s not an easy one. But it’s not undoable, and believe me it’s much easier than the sestina :).

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