A sonnet is a classic form of poetry with 14 lines, a specific rhyme scheme and relatively rigid thematic rules structure. The Italian sonnet is a specific type of sonnet, also called the Petrarchan sonnet for the poet who wrote in this form. Some modern poets continue to write sonnets.
The sonnet was developed by an Italian poet in the 1300s. The most famous early writer of sonnets was Petrarch, also considered the father of humanism. In the 1500s, the Italian sonnet was translated into English, but because English and Italian have different rhythms, the meter was changed to better accommodate the English language. This resulted in the English sonnet, made popular by Shakespeare.
Lines and Rhymes
The structure of an Italian sonnet is intricately related to the theme. The sonnet has 14 lines divided into two sections differentiated by rhyme scheme and theme. The first section is eight lines long and is called an octave. The rhyme scheme looks like this: abbaabba, with each different letter representing a different rhyme in the last word of the line. The final six lines are called the sestet, and are marked by a different rhyme scheme and a change in subject. The rhyme theme of the sestet varies. One example of a rhyme scheme in a sestet is cdcdcd. It is at the beginning of the sestet that the volta, or turn, occurs. While the octave presents an idea or presents a problem, the sestet either presents an alternative idea or a solution.
Italian sonnets were traditionally romantic --Italian is, after all, a romance language. In about 300 sonnets, Petrarch addressed his love, Laura, and in the process developed popular ideas about romance. For example, he suggested that suffering from unrequited love was suffering from an actual illness, and often made comparisons between love and religious symbols and experiences such as angels, prayer and devotion. Petrarch's romantic notions became popular subjects in poetry, even when the sonnet came to England. Eventually, though, the ideas became old and tired, and were mocked in sonnets such as Shakespeare's "My Mistress' Eyes are Nothing like the Sun."
Italian sonnets in English are composed using a meter called iambic pentameter. An iamb is a metrical "foot" consisting of one unstressed, or short, syllable and one stressed, or long, syllable. An iambic line has a rhythm like this: daDUM, daDUM, daDUM. In the word pentameter, "penta-" means five. So, a line of iambic pentameter has five iambs. The opening line of the Declaration of Independence is written in iambic meter: "We HOLD these TRUTHS to BE self-EVIdent ... " In simpler terms, this means that when you write a sonnet, each line should have 10 syllables that alternate between being unstressed and stressed -- meaning that the lines should have the following rhythm: daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM.