A short history of the sonnet form, with some fun facts about its development
Writing an introduction to the sonnet throws out a number of questions, so in this post we will ask what might be considered the essential questions about the sonnet form, and provide some answers. Who invented the sonnet? What form does the sonnet take? These sorts of questions. They actually throw out some surprising answers…
Who invented the sonnet? H. L. Mencken famously proclaimed, ‘Martinis are the only American invention as perfect as the sonnet.’ The martini was the supreme American invention, just as the Italian invention par excellence was the poetic form known as the sonnet. But who invented the sonnet form? The credit usually goes to Giacomo Da Lentini (also known as Jacopo Da Lentini), a thirteenth-century Sicilian poet. The word ‘sonnet’ comes from the Latin for ‘little sound’. However, it would another medieval Italian poet, Petrarch, who would make the sonnet form more popular when he used it as the vehicle for his masterpieces of courtly love. The Italian sonnet is divided into two main sections, an octave (eight-line section) and a sestet (six-line section). The octave comprises two quatrains that rhyme abba abba, with the sestet rhyming cdecde or some variation on that scheme. At the end of the octave, a change or ‘turn’ in the direction of the sonnet’s argument occurs – the technical name for this is the ‘volta’. However, the volta doesn’t necessarily have to come at the end of the eighth line – it just usually does.
Who invented the English sonnet? Although William Shakespeare is credited with pioneering a new form of sonnet – the ‘English’ or Shakespearean sonnet – he wasn’t the first poet to write sonnets in English. Thomas Wyatt (who wrote poetry about his love for Anne Boleyn) and the Earl of Surrey both pioneered the sonnet in the English language in the mid-sixteenth century at the court of Henry VIII, some 200 years after Petrarch had first popularised the sonnet in medieval Europe. But it was an author named William Baldwin who wrote the first sonnet to be published in English (as he was a publisher as well as a writer, it might be said that he had an advantage here).
Who invented the Shakespearean sonnet? Nor Shakespeare. The ‘English sonnet’, also known as the Shakespearean sonnet, is different from the Italian or Petrarchan sonnet. Although it comprises 14 lines the same as the Petrarchan form, the Shakespearean sonnet has a different internal structure, comprising three quatrains (four-line sections) all rounded off by one final couplet. The rhymes are also more various, with the sonnet rhyming abab cdcd efef gg. The ‘turn’ in Shakespearean sonnets usually occurs at the start of this final couplet. But Shakespeare didn’t come up with this rhyme scheme: Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey was the first to write sonnets like this. Shakespeare didn’t invent the Shakespearean sonnet.
How long is a sonnet? Although the traditional answer is ’14 lines’, this is not always the case. George Meredith, who married the daughter of novelist Thomas Love Peacock, described the subsequent break-up of their marriage in his sonnet sequence Modern Love (1862), where each of the sonnets comprises 16, rather than 14, lines. (For more on Meredith’s fascinating life, see our post on him here.) More recently, Tony Harrison (1937- ) has also written a sequence of 16-line sonnets. In the late nineteenth century, Gerard Manley Hopkins invented the ‘curtal sonnet’, comprising just 11 lines. (If you’re intrigued by this unusual sonnet form, we have more on Hopkins and the sonnet in our interesting facts about Gerard Manley Hopkins.)
What other forms of sonnet are there? There is also the Occitan sonnet and, more recently, the Urdu sonnet. Only one example of the Occitan sonnet is known to survive, preserved in manuscript and written in the 1280s. The Urdu sonnet was largely an invention in the Indian subcontinent in the early twentieth century; many Urdu sonnets adopt the same rhyme scheme as the Shakespearean sonnet.
One of actor Richard Burton’s favourite party tricks was to recite Shakespeare sonnets backwards.
Enjoy these sonnet facts? Check out our pick of ten classic English sonnets and our analysis of Shakespeare’s sonnets. For more literary trivia, we recommend our book crammed full of 3,000 years of interesting bookish facts, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.
For more poetry, see our short introduction to English poetry, told through 8 short poems. And discover more classic poetry courtesy of Gerard Manley Hopkins, master of the sonnet form, here. For a Romantic sonnet, see Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’. For a great war sonnet, discover our analysis of Wilfred Owen’s ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’. For a fine contemporary sonnet, see our analysis of Carol Ann Duffy’s sonnet ‘Anne Hathaway’.