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Writers have love been fascinated by literary forms that impose a rigorous discipline – forms whose rhythmical patterns, rhyme schemes, and a limited number of lines force meticulous shaping of material. The Japanese, for example, love to write the ultrabrief Haiku, composed of only seventeen carefully chosen syllables. In English, the sonnet has been the most popular and durable short poetic form.

All sonnets (except some maverick modern ones) are made up of fourteen lines of iambic pentameter – five two syllable feet, each foot made up of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. Sonnets fall into two groups, according to their rhyme scheme. The Italian sonnet is usually rhymed abbaabba/cdecde, forming basically a two-part poem of eight lines and six lines respectively. These two parts are played off against each other in an infinite variety of ways. Sometimes the latter part extends or narrows the first; sometimes it opposes or reverses it. This form of sonnet is sometimes called Petrarchan, after the Italian poet Francesco Petrarch who perfected the form and wrote extensively in it.

The Shakespearean or English sonnet is usually rhymed abab/cdcd/efef/gg, presenting a four-part structure in which an idea or theme is developed in three stages (through variation, extension, alternation, etc.) and them brought to a conclusion in the final or fourth part. This final couplet may be used in a variety of ways: to summarise, to emphasise, to make quick application, to suddenly narrow focus, or even to pull a surprise reversal. It is perhaps most effective when it presents the unexpected, leaving the reader with a comic twist or a tragic reminder that has strong emotional impact.

The sonnet has endured because it does a great deal in little space. Because of the discipline it demands, it challenges the writer and rewards the reader. Its attraction for both writer and reader is in the strictness of the form, but the form is pleasurable, ultimately, not for itself but for what it can do in shaping and conveying significant experience.

contributed by Gifford, Katya

6 May 2002

Caudate Sonnet
Curtal Sonnet
Elizabethan Sonnets
Petrarchan or Italian Sonnets
Reverse Sonnet
Sonnet Redoublé
Sonnet Sequence
Spenserian Sonnets
Submerged Sonnet
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