he term “sonnet” is derived from the Italian word for little song. A sonnet is a poem that typically has fourteen lines. The structure of the poem varies depending upon what type of sonnet it is.
Sonnets are broken down into two major groups: Petrarchan (Italian) and Shakespearean (English). The Italian sonnet was invented by Giacomo de Lentini. But no one remembers that because he was overshadowed by people like Petrarch and even Michelangelo. The Petrarchan sonnet is made of an octave (two quatrains or four lined segments) which sets out the problem; followed by a sextet (six lined segment) which presents the resolution to the problem. The standard rhyme scheme in a Petrarchan sonnet is a-b-b-a, a-b-b-a for the octave; and for the sextet c-d-e-c-d-e or c-d-c-c-d-c.
Milton wrote a number of sonnets in the Petrarchan mode. So I’ll use one for illustration as I can’t translate Italian.
On His Blindness
When I consider how my light is spent (a)
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide, (b)
And that one talent which is death to hide, (b)
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent (a)
To serve therewith my Maker, and present (a)
My true account, lest he returning chide; (b)
“Doth God exact day-labor, light denied?” (b)
I fondly ask; but Patience to prevent (a)
That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need (c)
Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best (d)
Bear his mile yoke, they serve him best. His state (e)
Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed (c)
And post o’er land and ocean without rest; (d)
They also serve who only stand and wait.” (e)
Shakespearean sonnets are written in iambic pentameter. This means that there are ten syllables per line and every other syllable is accented. (I think meter is a topic I’ll reserve for another day). The rhyme scheme is typically a-b-a-b, c-d-c-d, e-f-e-f, g-g. So there are three quatrains followed by a couplet. In a Shakespearean sonnet, the third quatrain introduces a thematic turn known as a “volta.” The couplet provides a fresh look at the theme or summarizes it. The example I will give is my favorite poem.
Let me not to the marriage of true minds (a)
Admit impediments, love is not love (b)
Which alters when it alteration finds, (a)
Or bends with the remover to remove. (b)
O no, it is an ever fixed mark (c)
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;(d)
It is the star to every wand’ring bark,(c)
Whose worth’s unknown although his height be taken.(d)
Love’s not time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks(e)
Within his bending sickle’s compass come, (f)
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, (e)
But bears it out even to the edge of doom: (f)
If this be error and upon me proved, (g)
I never writ, nor no man ever loved. (g)
So what’s the contest? Write me a sonnet. It can be on any theme that you like any style that you like. Email it to me. When the contest closes I’ll put them on the blog and let everyone vote on their favorite. The winner will receive a literary mug from Barnes & Noble. I’ll give you guys longer for this task. This contest will close on March 23, 2008 at 11:59. Happy writing.