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Sonnet: Article Navigation

Introduction to Sonnet
History of Sonnet
Different forms of Sonnet
Major Sonnet Sequences
Sonnet at Present


Sonnet is a form of writing poems. It has a fixed number of lines, though structures are different. It has fourteen lines, generally divided into certain stanzas and sections guided by arguments and thoughts. It is also a way to adorn beloved’s beauty. With the passage of time, there have been changes its form, meter to make it more compact and present in sequence – Introduction, argument and conclusion.


The tradition of writing sonnet came from Italy, more particular initiated by Petrarch (1304-74); he used to write sonnets to his beloved ‘Laura’. In those days, it was a medium to keep a record of the intense and hazardous service of a lover or beloved. Later it came to different geographical location, manipulated that suited them. In the beginning, it was mere a medium to convey lady love briefly. It was resulted due to self-exploration, personal vehement of thoughts. The sonnet sequence came at prominent during Renaissance (1485-1660). In the time of Wyatt and Surrey, form and meter were adopted;  Sir Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser and William Shakespeare rendered the sequestrated land of sonnet writing. Sonnet sequence was adopted by these poets to present personal longing that characterises dramatic form. Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella Spenser’s Amoretti and greatest sequence of all was Shakespeare’s Sonnet(154).


The prevalent form Rhyme scheme, meter differed in different locations over period of time. In Italy, England and France the practiced forms and styles were: in English the Iambic Pentameter, in French the Alexandrine and in Italian (the original language of sonnetto, ‘little song’) the hendecasyllable. The major rhyme schemes were- abba, abba, cde, cde or cdc, dcd, of Petrarchan; abab, cdcd, efef, gg of Shakespearean sonnet. The major distributions in stanzas and sections; the octave and sestet have special functions in a Petrarchan sonnet. The octave’s purpose is to introduce a problem, express a desire, reflect on a reality, or otherwise present a situation that causes doubt or a conflict within the speaker’s soul and inside an animal and object in story.three Quatrains and a couplet in the last (conclusion).


The major sonneteers over a long span of time have used the form of writing poems. In English, it was Wyatt (1503-1542) and Surrey (1517-1547) has adopted the way later on spread widely, being used by sonneteers. Wyatt and Surrey are the forerunners of the English meter and style, historical, classical epigrams and the stanza forms of Terza Rima. Wyatt like Petrarch wrote about courtly love. Like Wyatt, Surrey borrowed mainly from Petrarch’s Vita sequence Surrey has employed the sonnet form in a wider range as a vehicle for satire, eulogy and aphorism. The first major sonnet cycle (a series of sonnets on a particular theme to a particular individual) was ‘Astrophel and Stella’ written by Sir Philip Sidney(1580-83) and printed in 1591. There followed in rapid succession Daniel’s Delia(1592), Lodge’s Phillis (1593), constable’s Diana(1594), Drayton’s Idea’s mirror(1594). Spenser’s Amoretti (1595) is a series of 89 sonnets, a collection of love sonnets about his courtship of Elizabeth Boyle he also innovated a new form of stanza, in which a ninth line of twelve syllables (alexandrine) is added to eight lines of ten syllables, rhyming ababbcbc c.

The giant of literary world, who was the essence of coming generations. It was William Shakespeare, contributed a new form differed than Petrarchan sonnet. Shakesperean sonnet(1609) traces the course of the writer’s affection for a young man of beauty; in total 154, the first 1-126 urge him to mary to reproduce his beauty (dedicated to an unidentified Fair Youth) and rest of (127-154) sonnets dedicated to a Dark Lady. In the early 17th century the major sonneteers were John Donne and Milton, who both extended the subject matter to religious, political and philosophical themes. John Donne’s Metaphysical approach to explore poetical experiences using ‘far-fetched images’. In sonnet, Milton’s popularity rests on few sonnets that now widely read over the period. Some of them are- On His Blindness, On the Late Massacre in Piedmont and On His Having Arrived at the Age Twenty Three.

After Milton, about hundred years was blank in the history of sonnet. In 18th century, only Thomas Gray’s Ode on the Death of Richard West, Thomas Warton’s To the River London and William Bowles’s At Ostend were acclaimed sonnets. There was a very considerable revival that took place during the Romantic period in English Literature. Wordsworth, Keats, and Shelly all wrote splendid sonnets. Wordsworth’s sonnets are generally thought to be the best, especially his Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September3, 1802, To Toussaint L’Ouverure and On the Extinction of the Ventian Republic. Wordsworth wrote two sequences titled The River Duddon and Ecclesiastical Sonnet. Keats’s most distinguished sonnets are On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer, and his late poem: Bright star! would I were steadfast as thou art. Shelley also wrote two splendid sonnets: Ozymandias and England in 1819.

During the Victorian period a large number of poets reestablished the sonnet form, and in particular the sonnet sequence about love. The major works are – Elizabeth Barret Browning’s ‘Sonnet From the Portuguese (1847-50), Christina Rossetti’s MonnaInnominata(1881) and her brother Dante Gabriel Rosseti’s  ‘The House of Life(1881)”.



In the 20th century, a number of poets writing in english gave composed a variety of sonnets on many different themes. Robert Frost, John Crowe Ransom and WH Auden all composed memorable sonnets. Some of Auden’s best are on public affairs and famous men: for instance, The Ship, his sonnets on AE Husmeman, Arthur Rmbaud and Edward Lear, and his Sonnets from China (1937). Dylan Thomas and George Barker also wrote notable sonnets, as did Robert Lowell.

In the late 1970s, Tony Harrison emerged as an outstandingly talented sonneteer. His sonnet sequence the School of Eloquence(1978) takes language as a kind of ‘Site’ in the class war conflict. Many of his best sonnets are concerned with his native Yorkshire land and there are especially moving ones about his father.

One of the most remarkable of all modern experiments in sonnet form is Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate(1986). This verse novel –it tells a story- comprises 13 chapters and 590 sonnets. The form of sonnet used is that of the Onegin stanza, first devised by Pushkin for his verse-novel Eugene Onegin.

(This article is researched and written by Ravi Kumar, Editor, Ashvamegh.)