One of the most popular forms in poetry, the sonnet has taken on quite the transformation since its creation. Sonnet, derived from the Latin for little sound, was popularised by Petrarch in the fourteenth century when he wrote about his ‘beautiful and unattainable love-object’ (Raymond, Mark, …Opening the Sonnet’s Crypt, p. 727) Laura with the use of 14 lines in an abba abba octet followed by a cdecde sestet that can interchange in its variating rhyme.
In the mid-sixteenth century, writers like Thomas Wyatt and the Earl of Surrey had started to write sonnets in English, but it wasn’t until the Elizabethan period that the English or Shakespearean sonnet we know so familiarly today came to light. This form has a slight variation on the Petrarchan form by having three quatrains consisting of abab cdcd efef finished off with the couplet gg. Although this, in contemporary terms, is the most well-known form, ‘the peak of Elizabethan enthusiasm for sonnet sequences had already waned’ (p. 728) by this point. In-fact, the sonnet had started to become more and more neglected. It probably reached its lowest point when, in Augustan Literature, Alexander Pope termed it ‘a natural or morbid Secretion from the brain’ (p. 730).
Nevertheless, in the Romantic era the sonnet took on a revival that seemed to favour marginal individuals such as the ‘‘Cockney’ upstarts like Keats and Leigh Hunt’ (p. 732) and female poets like Charlotte Smith, Mary Robinson and Anna Seward. The sonnet, flirting with death, reinvigorated the poets using them and allowed them to breathe new life into the form, able to bring it away from the cliché’s of love and death and use it to respond to more natural themes such as Smith’s ‘To the Moon’ and Keats’ ‘Sonnet on the Sea’. This revival is summed up by ‘Dante Gabriel Rossetti [, who] would put it in the
mid-nineteenth century, [that] the sonnet is ‘a moment’s monument’ (p. 727).
Further down the timeline, we see writers more willing to experiment with the form that can be seen moving in a different, almost opposite direction. In the one hand, we have Gerard Manley Hopkins’ ‘Curtal’ sonnets which have been mathematically attuned to make the English sonnet closer to its Petrarchan predecessor with the introduction of 10 and a half lines; whilst on the other side of the coin, Tony Harrison wrote sonnets such as ‘Book Ends’ which included local dialect, the use of sixteen lines and interchanging
Today, the sonnet still has major appeal and, indeed, relevance to our society. We’ve seen, especially as it’s matured, that it is a fully flexible form willing its writer to produce little sounds in varying degrees of pitch and tone. It would be too difficult to base the fundamental structure of the sonnet on its syllables, lines, rhyme or length: the sonnet, to my mind, is a loose structure that has the ability to expand the smallest idea or image or, equivalently, condense the largest image or idea.
I shall end with my take on a sonnet, written about Picasso:
A Pear-Shaped Cube
In the morning I arise
to wait and play for my knight
the green guitar.
Still not awake I splash on canvas
meditative colours for your
arrival. I must confess
I have changed but still
retain a skill
to encapsulate your mood:
not just knight but
muse. So, if you wake
I will play a cube
aubade; it may now however
have become slightly pear-shaped.