The sonnet poem has held a significant role in English literature. In the 16th century alone, bards and poets across western Europe crafted more than 300,000 sonnets. From the 14th to the 18th centuries, various forms of the sonnet emerged, the two major styles comprising the Petrarchan sonnet and those from the Elizabethan era. The differences between these two developments are subtle, and Elizabethan sonnets, which came after Petrarchan sonnets, did not part completely with Petrarchan conventions but rather sought to emulate them and experiment with them, adding subtle modifications.
Origin of the Sonnet
The Italian poet Petrarch first popularized the sonnet in the 14th century. The poem's popularity spread across Europe, including to England, where Shakespeare and other Elizabethans picked it up over the next few centuries. It largely fell out of use in the 17th century until other poets such as Wordsworth picked it up again in the 1700s. "Elizabethan" sonnets refer to sonnets written in England during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I; some Elizabethan poets established their own variations of the sonnet form, such as William Shakespeare -- the "Shakespearean" sonnet -- and Edmund Spenser -- the "Spenserian" sonnet.
"Sonnet" derives from the Italian word "sonnetto," which means little song. Sonnets take romantic love as their primary topic, although the Petrarchan sonnet focused mainly on courtly love, while Elizabethan sonnets did not limit themselves to this type of expression. Elizabethan sonnets also incorporated the physical aspects of love. Shakespeare in particular pushed the limits of traditional topics for a sonnet and sometimes wrote about a "Dark Lady," as opposed to the virtuous, unapproachable women in Petrarch's poems.
Petrarch, Shakespeare and Sir Philip Sidney all used 14 lines in their sonnets, but how they structured those lines varied. The structural conventions of a Petrarchan sonnet include an octave, two four-line sets of "a-b-b-a" rhymes, followed by a sestet, six lines of "c-d-e-c-d-e" or "c-d-c-d-c-d" rhymes. A change in mood or tone accompanied the progression from the octave to the sestet. Shakespearean sonnets, on the other hand, followed an "a-b-a-b-c-d-c-d-e-f-e-f-g-g" pattern, written in iambic pentameter -- five sets of beats that emphasize the second syllable -- concluding with a rhyming couplet. Spenser structured his sonnets "a-b-a-b-b-a-b-c-d-c-d-e-e."
Examples of the Form
Some of Petrarch's more famous sonnets include "If no love is, oh God, what fele I so?" and "Ways apt and new to sing of love I'd find." Both portray a narrator agonizing over unrequited love of a beautiful, angelic lady the narrator can only observe from a distance. Famous sonnet series "Astrophel and Stella," by Elizabethan poet Sidney, follows the conventions of Petrarchan poetry closely. In contrast, Shakespeare's sonnet 130 pokes fun at the angelic-lady stereotype, describing his beloved's breasts as "dun" and joking that "black wires grow on her head." Despite the lady's imperfections, the sonnet declares her lovely in the rhyming couplet at the end, presenting a realistic view of romance and attraction, as opposed to Petrarch's impossibly ethereal ladies.