Of special forms of the lyric, the sonnet has been the most widely used by poets in English. Most simply defined, a sonnet is a fourteen line lyric poem, in iambic pentameter, following one of two rhyme schemes. Although some poets have written sonnets using variations from the characteristics indicated-most notably Edmund Spenser who used a variation of one of the set rhyme schemes and George Meredith who used sixteen instead of fourteen lines-the term sonnet is usually limited to poems adhering strictly to the definition. The Italian or Petrarchan sonnet rhymes abbaabbacdecde; there is frequently variation in the use of the c, d, and e rhymes. The English or Shakespearian sonnet rhymes ababcdcdefefgg. (The Spenserian variation is ababbcbccdcdee.)

The Italian sonnet is most characteristically used for a two-part development of its content. The two parts usually correspond to the rhyme divisions, that is, part I is developed in the lines with the ab rhymes and part 2 in the lines with the c, d, e rhymes. Incidentally, the eight lines linked with a, b rhymes are called the octave and the last six lines, linked with c, d, e rhymes, the sestet. In the octave, then, a problem may be stated which is resolved in the sestet or a question may be raised in the octave which is answered in the sestet; the various possibilities for bipartite division are obviously too numerous to be listed. The following sonnet by John Milton illustrates typical bipartite development:

    How soon hath Time, the subtle thief of youth,
    Stolen on his wing my three and twentieth year!
    My hasting days fly on with full career,
    But my late spring no bud or blossom showeth.
    Perhaps my semblance might deceive the truth, 5
    That I to manhood am arrived so near,
    And inward ripeness doth much less appear,
    That some more timely-happy spirits endueth.
    Yet be it less or more, or soon or slow,
    It shall be still in strictest measure even, 10
    To that same lot, however mean or high,
    Toward which time leads me, and the will of heaven;
    All is, if I have grace to use it so,
    As ever in my great task master's eye.

The octave deals with the poet's concern over the swift passing of his life through his twenty-third year, during which time he has not yet produced a significant work; indeed even his appearance belies his age. The resolution of the concern comes in the sestet: his lot, whatever it may be, is in God's jurisdiction.

It must not be assumed, however, that all Italian sonnets use a bipartite development of content conforming to the octave and the sestet. The form can be used in a variety of ways, one of which is illustrated in the following sonnet by William Wordsworth:

    0 friend! I know not which way I must look
    For comfort, being, as I am, opprest,
    To think that now our life is only drest
    For show; mean handiwork of craftsman, cook,
    Or groom!-We must run glittering like a brook 5
    In the open sunshine, or we are unblest;
    The wealthiest man among us is the best:
    No grandeur now in nature or in book
    Delights us. Rapine, avarice, expense, 10
    This is idolatry,, and these we adore:
    Plain living and high thinking are no more:
    The homely beauty of the good old cause
    Is gone; our peace, our fearful innocence,
    And pure religion breathing household laws.

Wordsworth here ignores the division into octave and sestet; the first ten lines make a unit devoted essentially to the evils of the day and the last four lines, a unit devoted to the virtues of living that have disappeared.

The English or Shakespearean sonnet, as its rhyme scheme would suggest, is most characteristically used for a four-part development of its content. The three four-line units linked by the abab, cdcd, and efef rhymes called quatrains-are frequently used for a triple statement of an idea or problem or complaint, for example; the concluding couplet then summarizes the idea or offers a solution to, or resolution of, the problem or reinforces or negates the complaint. In the following sonnet, Shakespeare uses the form most typically:

    That time of year thou mayst in me behold
    When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do bang
    Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
    Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
    In me thou see'st the twilight of such day 5
    As after sunset fadeth in the west,
    Which by and by black night dotb take away,
    Death's second self, that seals up all in rest.
    In me thou sec'st the glowing of such fire,
    That on the ashes of his youth doth lie, 10
    As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
    Consum'd with that which it was nourish'd by.
    This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong
    To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

Each of the quatrains states essentially the same idea-the awareness by the person addressed of the growing age of the poet-but each develops the idea in different terms: the first quatrain compares the poet's age with the late fall of the year; the second quatrain with the late twilight of the day; and the third quatrain with a dying fire. The couplet bears a causal relationship to the main idea stated in the first twelve lines -namely, because the person addressed is aware of the poet's growing age, and not too distant death, his love becomes stronger. This, then, is the typical use of the Shakespearean form, but, as with the Italian sonnet it is by no means the only one; the fourteen lines can be used with infinite variety. Take the following sonnet by Shakespeare as an example of quite different use of the form:

    When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
    I summon up remembrance of things past,
    I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
    And with old woes new wail my dear time's waste:
    Then can I drown an eye, unus’d to flow,
    For precious friends hid in death's dateless night,
    And weep afresh love's long since cancell'd woe,
    And moan th' expense of many a vanish'd sight:
    Then can I grieve at grievances forgone,
    And heavily from woe to woe tell o'er 10
    The sad account of fore-bemoanéd moan,
    Which I new pay as if not paid before.
    But if the while I think on tbee, dear friend,
    All losses are restor'd and sorrows end.

Here the three quatrains are handled much as a single unit, they build up a list of the griefs and grievances of the past. In the couplet there is a complete turn in the content: the mere thought of the dear friend negates all the griefs and grievances. In content, there is as much range in sonnets as there is in the handling of the structure-and as there is in the lyric generally. We have sonnets dealing with love and death, with patriotic themes and religious themes, with philosophic ideas and satirical comments on life. A number of poets in English-most notably Shakespeare, Sidney, Spenser, Rossetti, Mrs. Browning, Meredith, William Ellery Leonard, and Millay-have written a whole series of sonnets dealing with a single subject; such a series is called a sonnet sequence and makes rewarding reading.

One further question about sonnets remains to be answered: Can we at all account for their wide popularity among both poets and readers? After all, since the sixteenth century, poet after poet, including most of our major poets, has turned his hand to sonnet writing at one time or another in his career. The number of sonnets in the standard anthologies of English and American literature looms large. Perhaps the most obvious answer is that the very rigidity of the form - fourteen lines of iambic pentameter rhymed in a set pattern - makes an appeal to the poet; in the sonnet he has ready at hand a form which has proved efficient for the expression of all kinds of diverse content. In a sense, half of his problem of composition is solved: he can concontrate on adapting his material to the strict limits of the form. This presents a challenge, and poets, like other artists, are not unwilling to accept a challenge in composition. Thus, two answers to our question emerge: A ready-made form and a challenge to fill it. Limited as it is in length, the sonnet presses upon the poet the demand for the most concise, the most compressed expression of which he is capable. He is challenged to say as much as he can in a relatively short poem and he must bring to the task all the techniques of poetry at his command; a result is that sonnets are rich in connotative diction and imagerytwo of the means by which the poet can say much in little.

Another answer can be found in the form itself: its structure in either the Italian or the English form lends itself to a neatly balanced expression of content-either in two parts or in four parts or in any of a number of variations on either. Its length, too, is congenial to producing the unity of feeling so characteristic of the lyric. This is not to say that much the same effect could not be achieved in twelve or thirteen or fifteen lines-but not without losing something of the balance achieved by the sonnet. The fact remains that the sonnet has been the choice of poets, again and again, through the centuries since the sixteenth. And therein lies still another reason for its popularity to our day: the writing of sonnets has, become almost a traditional or conventional exercise for poets.

The sonnet is a fourteen-line poem which consists of two parts: an eight-line stanza (octave) followed by a six-line stanza (sestet). Sometimes the two parts are separated; sometimes they are united without a break. But the two parts always join to form a poem of unusual depth and dignity. Different rhyme-schemes have led scholars to give different names to various forms of the sonnet: the Petrarchan sonnet (named after the Italian poet Petrarch), the Shakespearian sonnet, the Miltonic sonnet, and others. But, no matter how the rhymes are distributed, the fourteen lines are built to present a single idea or emotion with great strength. The Shakespearian sonnet is easily recognized, for it ends with a couplet. Many of Shakespeare's concluding couplets are sharply condensed poems in themselves. For example:

    But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
    All losses are restored, and sorrows end.

    For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
    Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.

    If this be error and upon me proved, I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

    Yet do thy worst, old Time. Despite thy wrong,
    My love shall in my verse live ever young.

    So shalt thou feed on Death, that feeds on men;
    And Death once dead, there's no more dying then.

The following two poems are two of the most famous in English literature; both are love poems and both are sonnets. They should be examined for their differences as well as their similarities.

    Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?                a
    Thou art more lovely and more temperate:               b
    Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,          a
    And summer's lease hath all too short a date:          b
    Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,             c
    And often is his gold complexion dimmed;               d    
    And every fair from fair sometime declines,            c
    By chance or nature's changing course untrimmed;       d
    But thy eternal summer shall not fade,                 e
    Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st,           f
    Nor shalt death brag thou wander'st in his shade,      e
    When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st:            f
    So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,           g
    So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.       g
    How do I love thee?  Let me count the ways.            a
    I love thee to the depth and breadth and height        b
    My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight           b
    For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.                 a
    I    love thee to the level of every day's             a
    Most quiet  need, by sun and candlelight.              b
    I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;           b
    I love thee purely, as men turn from Praise.           a
    I love thee with the passion put to use                c
    In my old griefs, and with my childhood's faith.       d
    I love thee with a love I seemed to lose               c
    With my lost saint - I love thee with the breath,      d
    Smiles, tears, of all my life! - and, if God choose,   c
    I shall but love thee better after death.              d

The first, by William Shakespeare, is a Shakespearian sonnet. The rhyme-scheme is simple: four quatrains followed by a couplet. The octave and the sestet are separated; there is a distinct change of thought between the first eight lines and the succeeding six lines. The second, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, is a Petrarchan sonnet. Instead of being simple, like the Shakespearian sonnet, the rhyme-scheme of the Petrarchan is elaborate. The octave is restricted to two rhymes instead of (as in the Shakespearian) four; the sestet has two rhymes instead of three; and all the rhymes are interwoven. The thought is also woven closely together throughout; there is no break in idea between the octave and the sestet.

It might be interesting to examine some sonnets for their differences and similarities. Modern poets use the sonnet almost as frequently as their predecessors; some of them keep strictly to the classic form, others vary it with considerable freedom. Among the most notable are:
Lizette Woodworth Reese: "Tears," "Spicewood," Edwin Arlington Robinson's "Cliff Klingenhagen" and "Calvary," Walter de la Mare's "Peace," Elinor Wylie's "Puritan Sonnet" and "August," Ezra Pound's "A Virginal," Robinson Jeffers' "Compensation," Edna St. Vincent Millay's "Pity Me Not," Countee Cullen's "From the Dark Tower" Merrill Moore's "American" sonnets, Siegfried Sassoon's "Dreamers," Rupert Brooke's "The Soldier," Charles Hamilton Sorley's "Two Sonnets, and C. Day Lewis's "When They Have Lost".

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