Many of us probably first came across the sonnet, and likely it was one of Shakespeare’s, in our classes in English literature in high school.
But, after experiencing that exposure, maybe years ago, we might want to refresh our knowledge on what the sonnet is and what place in literature it occupies.
In their book, A Moment’s Monument: The Development of the Sonnet, authors Gertrude M. White and Joan G. Rosen, give us a quick summary of the sonnet’s evolution over time:
“Beginning as the poem of a medieval literary convention, that of courtly love, it has adapted to changes in subject matter, tone, language and structure, while recognizably retaining its own character.” (1)
Technically, the sonnet is often defined by its “stanza” structure with variations such as octave and sestet, , line count, and by the particular sonnet’s rhyme scheme.
The word sonnet itself “comes from the diminutive of of the Italian suono ‘sound’ : sonnetto ‘a little sound.’ As this implies, the terms originally meant any of a variety of short poems accompanied by music; there were at first no fixed requirements for length or for rhyme pattern.” (2)
Today it has come to the point that some critics might argue that the sonnet is barely recognizable in its present form as poets have not felt constrained by tradition in their creative poetic efforts.
From a historical perspective from origins to the modern era, The Encyclopaedia Britannica comments:
“Perhaps the greatest of all sonnet sequences is Shakespeare’s, addressed to a young man and a “dark lady.” In these sonnets the supposed love story is of less interest than the underlying reflections on time and art, growth and decay, and fame and fortune.” (3)
Note: This post is not mean to be viewed as even a summary of the characteristics of the sonnet; rather a quite brief introduction. I hope to post more articles on the sonnet form in future posts.
— Dennis Mellersh
(1) A Moment’s Monument: The development of the sonnet;, Gertrude M. White, Joan G. Rosen, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1972, page 1
(2) Op. Cit. page 1
(3) Online edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica, britannica.com. Thorough, yet not too long article reviewing the history of the sonnet; well written with interesting insights.