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The Sonnet Form

Iambic Pentameter

Italian Sonnet Form - Petrarch

The original form of the sonnet, according to [Williams86], was the Italian sonnet, developed by the fourteenth-century poet Petrarch. It consisted of an eight line octet (also known as the "Italian octave") and a six line sestet (also known as the "Sicilian sestet"). Each section of an Italian sestet has a specific rhyme scheme and a specific purpose.

The rhyme scheme for the octet is ABBA ABBA, and the purpose of the octet is to present a situation or a problem. The rhyme scheme for the sestet can be either CDECDE or CDCDCD, and the purpose of the sestet is to comment on or resolve the situation or problem posed in the octet.

When this (or any sonnet form) is used in English, it is traditionally in iambic pentameter, and, as Williams writes, "the tradition is a strong one."

Spenserian Sonnet Form

[Williams86] next describes the Spenserian Sonnet, a sonnet variation developed in the sixteenth century by English poet Edmund Spenser. While few poets have used this form, it serves as a bridge between the Italian sonnet and the form used by Shakespeare.

In a Spenserian sonnet, the rhyme scheme used is ABAB BCBC CDCD EE, and there does not appear to be a requirement that the initial octet sets up a problem which the closing sestet answers. Instead, the form is treated as three quatrains (linked by the connected rhyme scheme described above) followed by a couplet. Again, iambic pentameter is used.

English Sonnet Form - Shakespeare

The English Sonnet is a form, which Williams says was "developed by Shakespeare himself to accommodate the Italian sonnet to relatively-rhyme poor English, avoiding the requirement for triple rhymes in the sestet." Williams goes on to say that "the rhetorical pattern of the poem changes slightly… as the… situation or problem presented in the octave is now dealt with tentatively in the next four lines and summarily in the terminal couplet. Some English sonnets… develop through a series of three examples in three quatrains with a conclusion in the couplet." So the content of an English Sonnet is not coupled as closely to the form as it is in the Italian Sonnet.

The rhyme scheme of the English sonnet is ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. As noted, Shakespeare has eliminated the close linking, via rhymes, of the individual quatrains, presumably to allow more flexibility in English, which does not provide as many rhyming possibilities as Italian.

One of the interesting elements of Shakespeare's sonnets is the "enjambment" of "phrases" with "sonnet lines." This is done frequently in Shakespeare's plays (which use a great deal of non-rhymed iambic pentameter, a form known as "blank verse"); less frequently in the sonnets. In an "enjambed" line, the textual phrases extend beyond the end of the sonnet lines, and a textual phrase begins or ends in the middle of a line of iambic pentameter.


The "Blues Sonnet" Form

[ Turco86 ] describes an interesting variation on the sonnet, which he calls the Blues Sonnet. He describes the blues sonnet as "a triplet stanza derived from the Black jazz tradition of lamentation or complaint, rhyming Aaa. Usually written in loose iambic pentameter measures, the second line [is] an incremental repetition of the first line, and the third line is a synthetic parallel giving a consequence of the first two lines." An example, in strict iambic pentameter:

The ABAB rhyme scheme of the quatrains in Shakespeare's sonnets offer many possibilities for "extracting" blues sonnets; for example, the first and third lines, with a minor modification, of Sonnet 43:

Maintained by: Charles Wolff
Last Updated: 6/5/98