“Professor Cole, who invented the sonnet?”

I was flabbergasted. Not because it was such a crazy question–no, it seemed like a perfectly good question. I just couldn’t believe that after 10+ years of teaching, I’d never been asked it before.

And I didn’t know the answer. It was like being asked why the sky is blue, or why the moon is round. Sonnets are so fundamental, so basic to literary knowledge, that they seem simply always to have existed— created, perhaps, on the fifth day, somewhere after musk oxen and before aardvarks. Why did God make sonnets? Well …. because. Just because.

This question, which a student asked me last fall, is actually one of the reasons why I embarked on the Weekly Poem Project. While I’ve never professed to know much about poetry, I realized how very little I actually knew.

Over the past few weeks I’ve indulged in a number of short, humorous forms: the limerick, the double-dactyl, the grook. Writing these forms, and finding about them, has been fun. But a challenge with these very short forms is that you have room to express one idea. No more, no less. And it’s hard to do that and use exactly the number of lines and syllables you’ve been allotted. I have found myself yearning for a bit more real estate–more words, more lines–to play around with.

So I believe it’s time to tackle the sonnet. Pretty much everyone knows that a sonnet has 14 lines and is written in iambic pentameter. Anyone who had an English teacher worth his (or more likely, her) salt also knows that there are two main kinds of sonnet–the English (or Shakespearean, or Elizabethan) and the Italian (or Petrarchan). So– why English and Italian?

Well, according to Ernest Hatch Wilkins’ appropriately titled The Invention of the Sonnet (1959), the sonnet originated in Italy, by a 13th-century Italian poet named Giacomo de Lentini. The form became quite popular, and in the 14th century, Francesco Petrarca (a.k.a. Petrarch) wrote several hundred of them, the vast majority treating his idealized, unrequited love for “Laura,” perhaps the noblewoman Laura de Noves, whom Petrarch supposedly glimpsed in an Avignon church in 1327. Laura’s famous inaccessibility seems quite understandable based on this context: she was married; Petrarch was a priest; and of course, in church, he was supposed to be expressing his love of God, not woman! So what could Petrarch do, but sublimate his inappropriately earthly longings into poetry?

As for the form itself–the Italian sonnet, in fact, was not written in iambic pentameter (10 syllables, five iambs). It was written with eleven syllables per line–called a hendecasyllable–where the final syllable of each line is unstressed. Why this variation? Well, just listen to the language. Can you think of a single word in Italian that ends with a stressed syllable? We say “Rome”; they say “ROM-a.” This is a salutary reminder that poetry is not an abstract concept, but very much tied to speech, the body. (This is why we teachers make you read out loud–so that you can feel the poem, or play, or even story, not just think about what it “means.” It’s really not just that we’re trying to humiliate you, though of course that could be part of it as well.) Here’s a sonnet by Petrarch in Italian, followed by an unrhymed English translation:

a  Era il giorno ch’al sol si scolorato
b  per la pietà del suo factore i rai,
b  quando ì fui preso, et non me ne guardai,
a  chè i bè vostr’occhi, donna, mi legaro.
a  Tempo non mi parea da far riparo
b  contra colpi d’Amor: però m’andai
b  secur, senza sospetto; onde i miei guai
a  nel commune dolor s’incominciaro.
c  Trovommi Amor del tutto disarmato
d  et aperta la via per gli occhi al core,
e  che di lagrime son fatti uscio et varco:
c  Però al mio parer non li fu honore
d  ferir me de saetta in quello stato,
e  a voi armata non mostrar pur l’arco.

It was the day the sun’s ray had turned pale
with pity for the suffering of his Maker
when I was caught, and I put up no fight,
my lady, for your lovely eyes had bound me.
It seemed no time to be on guard against
Love’s blows; therefore, I went my way
secure and fearless–so, all my misfortunes
began in midst of universal woe.
Love found me all disarmed and found the way
was clear to reach my heart down through the eyes
which have become the halls and doors of tears.
It seems to me it did him little honour
to wound me with his arrow in my state
and to you, armed, not show his bow at all.

Of course, when people in England started writing sonnets during the 16th century—yes, it took two centuries for the sonnet “craze” to spread to the dark reaches of England— they adapted the form to the English language, which contains many many words ending with stressed syllables. (You can see this even in the translation above– 11 of the 14 lines end with a stressed syllable.) Iambic pentameter ends with a stress. So there you have it. Interestingly, in French, sonnets are written with twelve syllables per line, called an alexandrine. Any of you know why?

One of the first English sonneteers, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (note: Shakespeare did not invent the Shakespearean sonnet; as with Petrarch, he is simply the poet most identified with the form), made further adaptations to the Italian, drastically changing its rhyme scheme. As you can see above, the Italian sonnet follows an abba abba cde cde rhyme scheme; the first 8 lines are called the octave, and the final 6 lines the sestet. The turn, or volta, a shift in tone or subject, occurs between the octave and the sestet (often this take the form of the posing of a question or conundrum in the octave, and an answer or conclusion in the sestet). The form developed by the Earl of Surrey and the other Elizabethans, including Shakespeare, was divided into three quatrains and a couplet, rhyming abab cdcd efef gg. And the turn, as one might deduce based on the shifting rhyme scheme, occurs with the couplet. By way of a refresher, here’s a classic example:

a  When I do count the clock that tells the time,
b  And see the brave day sunk in hideous night;
a  When I behold the violet past prime,
b  And sable curls all silver’d o’er with white;
c  When lofty trees I see barren of leaves
d  Which erst from heat did canopy the herd,
c  And summer’s green all girded up in sheaves
d  Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard,
e  Then of thy beauty do I question make,
f  That thou among the wastes of time must go,
e  Since sweets and beauties do themselves forsake
f  And die as fast as they see others grow;
g  And nothing ‘gainst Time’s scythe can make defense
g  Save breed, to brave him when he takes thee hence.

Now why would anyone have thought to change the rhyme scheme? Again, it has to do with differences between the English and Italian languages. Many words in Italian share the same endings–and thus, rhyme. English, being the mongrel language that it is, has many more word endings. So it’s much harder to write a poem that uses only 5 (or 4) different rhyming sounds, as in the Italian form, versus 7. You can try this for yourself.

One final point: there are more kinds of sonnets than just English and Italian. John Milton adapted the form; so did Edmund Spenser; Wordsworth and Keats, also. In fact, there are many more than two kinds of sonnet. A boon for the poet; a source of horror for undergraduates studying for that poetry midterm. It’s too bad that sonnets have left such a bad taste in people’s mouths from their experience of them in school. Billy Collins, former poet laureate, captures the common attitude toward sonnets, in his appropriately named poem, “Sonnet” (worth listening to Collins reading this poem as well):


All we need is fourteen lines, well, thirteen now,
and after this one just a dozen
to launch a little ship on love’s storm-tossed seas,
then only ten more left like rows of beans.
How easily it goes unless you get Elizabethan
and insist the iambic bongos must be played
and rhymes positioned at the ends of lines,
one for every station of the cross.
But hang on here while we make the turn
into the final six where all will be resolved,
where longing and heartache will find an end,
where Laura will tell Petrarch to put down his pen,
take off those crazy medieval tights,
blow out the lights, and come at last to bed.

Personally, I find sonnets both fascinating and beautiful, despite the iambic bongos (or maybe because of them). I am going to give myself 2 weeks to write 2 sonnets, one in the “standard” Shakespearean form, and another in one of the other forms (haven’t decided which, yet).

Oh yes– and I nearly forgot– here’s my grook. I meant to do a drawing to accompany it, but didn’t quite get around to it. I think I was thinking about the recently completed Tour de France when I wrote this. I mean, does anyone seriously applaud the winner? Floyd Landis, anyone? Lance Armstrong?

We Are the Champions

Those who win
Will win, and win

Those who lose
Will often have
More friends.


One thought on “Seriously: sonnets.

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