Italian Sonnet vs English Sonnet

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A comparison between the two.


sonnet: A lyric poem consisting of a single stanza of fourteen iambic pentameter lines linked by an intricate rhyme scheme. (Refer to meter and rhyme.) There are two major patterns of rhyme in sonnets written in the English language:

1. The Italian or Petrarchan sonnet (named after the fourteenth-century Italian poet Petrarch) falls into two main parts: an octave (eight lines) rhyming abbaabba followed by a sestet (six lines) rhyming cdecde or some variant, such as cdccdc. Petrarchs sonnets were first imitated in England, both in their stanza form and their subjectthe hopes and pains of an adoring male loverby Sir

Thomas Wyatt in the early sixteenth century. (See Petrarchan conceit.) The Petrarchan form was later used, and for a variety of subjects, by Milton, Wordsworth, Christina Rossetti, D. G. Rossetti, and other sonneteers, who sometimes made it technically easier in English (which does not have as many rhyming possibilities as Italian) by introducing a new pair of rhymes in the second four lines of the octave.

2. The Earl of Surrey and other English experimenters in the sixteenth century also developed a stanza form called the English sonnet, or else the Shakespearean sonnet, after its greatest practitioner. This sonnet falls into three quatrains and a concluding couplet: abab cdcd efef gg. There was a notable variant, the Spenserian sonnet, in which Spenser linked each quatrain to the next by a continuing rhyme: abab bcbc cdcd ee.

John Donne shifted from the hitherto primary subject, sexual love, to a variety of religious themes in his Holy Sonnets, written early in the seventeenth century; and Milton, in the latter part of that century, expanded the range of the sonnet to other matters of serious concern. Except for a lapse in the English Neoclassic Period, the sonnet has remained a popular form to the present day and includes among its distinguished practitioners, in the nineteenth century, Wordsworth, Keats, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Christina Rossetti, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and in the twentieth century, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Edna St. Vincent Millay, W. B. Yeats, Robert Frost, W. H. Auden, and Dylan Thomas. The stanza is just long enough to permit a fairly complex lyric development, yet so short and so exigent in its rhymes as to pose a standing challenge to the ingenuity and artistry of the poet. The rhyme pattern of the Petrarchan sonnet has on the whole favored a statement of a problem, situation, or incident in the octave, with a resolution in the sestet. The English form sometimes uses a similar division of material, but often presents instead a repetition-with-variation of a statement in each of the three quatrains; in either case, the final couplet in the English sonnet usually imposes an epigrammatic turn at the end. In Draytons fine Elizabethan sonnet in the English form Since theres no help, come let us kiss and part, the lover brusquely declares in the first quatrain, then reiterates in the second, that he is glad that the affair is cleanly ended, then hesitates at the finality of the parting in the third quatrain, and in the concluding couplet suddenly drops his swagger to make one last plea. Here are the third quatrain and couplet:Now at the last gasp of loves latest breath,

When, his pulse failing, passion speechless lies,

When faith is kneeling by his bed of death,

And innocence is closing up his eyes;

Now if thou wouldst, when all have given him over,

From death to life thou mightst him yet recover.

Following Petrarchs early example, a number of Elizabethan authors arranged their poems into sonnet sequences, or sonnet cycles, in which a series of sonnets are linked together by exploring the varied aspects of a relationship between lovers, or else by indicating a development in the relationship that constitutes a kind of implicit plot. Shakespeare ordered his sonnets in a sequence, as did Sidney in Astrophel and Stella (1580) and Spenser in Amoretti (1595). Later examples of the sonnet sequence on various subjects are Wordsworths The River Duddon, D. G. Rossettis House of Life, Elizabeth Barrett Brownings Sonnets from the Portuguese, and the American poet William Ellery Leonards Two Lives. Dylan Thomas Altarwise by Owl-light (1936) is a sequence of ten sonnets which are abstruse meditations on the poets own life. George Merediths Modern Love (1862), which concerns a bitterly unhappy marriage, is sometimes called a sonnet sequence,

even though its component poems consist not of fourteen but of sixteen lines.

On the early history of the sonnet and its development in England through Milton, see Michael R. G. Spiller, The Development of the Sonnet: An Introduction (1992). See also L. G. Sterner, The Sonnet in American Literature (1930); J. B. Leishman, Themes and Variations in Shakespeares Sonnets (1963); Michael R. G. Spiller, The Sonnet Sequence: A Study of the Strategies (1997); Helen Vendler, The Art of Shakespeares Sonnets (1997). Arthur Marotti relates the vogue of the sonnet

sequences to the politics and system of literary patronage in Elizabethan England, in Love Is Not Love: Elizabethan Sonnet Sequences and the Social Order, ELH, Vol. 49 (1982).Abrams, M. H. (2009). A Glossary of Literary Terms. Boston: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.

TheItalian sonnet(also:Petrarchan sonnet) and theEnglish sonnet(also:Spenserian sonnetandShakespearean sonnet) differ not only in their respective formal structures, but also in the way their content is ordered by the introduction of theturn(volta).In terms of structure and rhyme, English poets gradually altered the formal conventions of the Italian sonnet.While the Petrarchan sonnet consists of an eight-lineoctavefollowed by a six-linesestet,Thomas Wyatt(1503-1542) divided his sonnets into anoctavefollowed by aquartet(rhymed:cdcd) and afinal couplet(rhymed:ee). Wyatt, however, retained the Italian sonnet's rhyme pattern in the first two quartets (abba,abba).Edward Spenser(1552-1599) took these changes a little further by introducing the rhyme patternabab bcbcto the initaloctave.This provided relief to the task of finding suitable English rhymes.Finally, theShakespearean sonnetconsists of threequartets, each using the cross-rhyme pattern (abab,cdcd,efef), and afinal couplet(rhymed:gg).

As you can see, the most distinguishing feature of theEnglish sonnetis itsfinal couplet. This structural feature of theEnglish sonnetalso has an effect on how the poem's content is ordered.While in theItalian sonnetthe main division, or break, in the sonnet's content (thevolta) occurs between the initial eight-lineoctaveand the following six-linesestet, theturnof theEnglish sonnetusually comes with thefinal couplet.

Baldick, C. (1996). The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


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