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'The Day Dream', oil on canvas by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, England, 1880. Museum no. CAI.3

'The Day Dream', oil on canvas by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, England, 1880. Museum no. CAI.3

Sonnet form

Sonnets are short rhyming poems, normally of 14 iambic pentameter lines – an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one (iambic) and with lines of ten syllables, five of them stressed (pentameter).

Characteristics of the sonnet

There have been many variations on the basic sonnet form.  Petrarchan sonnets are harder to write than Shakespearean sonnets and are much less common.

Italian/Petrarchan sonnet

  • is traditionally divided into octet (first eight lines) and sestet (last six lines)
  • contains just five rhymes
  • the octet rhymes abbaabba
  • there is more than one possible rhyme scheme for the sestet: cdecde, cdcdcd, cdccdc, cdedce, etc
  • unlike the English sonnet, it never ends with a couplet
Traditionally:
  • the octet contains a statement or description of a problem, situation or event
  • the sestet provides a response or resolution

The following example, by the poet and artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti, is about one of his own paintings, The Day Dream, which is now in the collections of the V&A.

THE thronged boughs of the shadowy sycamore
Still bear young leaflets half the summer through;
From when the robin 'gainst the unhidden blue
Perched dark, till now, deep in the leafy core,
The embowered throstle's urgent wood-notes soar
Through summer silence. Still the leaves come new;
Yet never rosy-sheathed as those which drew
Their spiral tongues from spring-buds heretofore.

Within the branching shade of Reverie
Dreams even may spring till autumn; yet none be
Like woman's budding day-dream spirit-fann'd.
Lo! tow'rd deep skies, not deeper than her look,
She dreams; till now on her forgotten book
Drops the forgotten blossom from her hand.

The Day Dream, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1880

English/Shakespearean sonnet

  • contains seven rhymes in the following scheme: ababcdcdefefgg
  • is traditionally divided into three quatrains (sets of four rhyming lines) with a couplet at the end

The presence of the couplet at the end has a marked effect on sonnets that follow this pattern.

  • the ending is usually emphatic
  • there is nearly always a break in the structure between the third quatrain and the couplet
  • the couplet itself quite often has a crisp, pithy quality: summing up what has been said already, or offering an ironic new reflection

The English sonnet sometimes follows the pattern of statement in the octave [first two quatrains] followed by a response. However, it often does not.

In the past, poets have often written sequences of sonnets. A sonnet sequence combines the intensity of the short poem with scope for developing a narrative or a wider exploration of a theme.

These two sonnets were part of a project by the V&A and the Poetry Book Society to commission new works inspired by the British Galleries 1500–1900.
Blackened convex mirror known as a 'Claude glass' inside a leather case, England, UK, 18th century. Museum no. P.18-1972

Blackened convex mirror known as a 'Claude glass' inside a leather case, England, UK, 18th century. Museum no. P.18-1972

A lady might pretend to fix her face,
but scan the room inside her compact mirror –

so gentlemen would scrutinize this glass
to gaze on Windermere or Rydal Water

and pick their way along the clifftop tracks
intent upon the romance in the box,

keeping untamed nature at their backs,
and some would come to grief upon the rocks.

Don't look so smug. Don't think you're any safer
as you blunder forward through your years

straining to recall some aching pleasure,
or blinded by some private scrim of tears

I know. My world's encircled by this prop,
though all my life I've tried to force it shut.

Upon a Claude Glass, by Michael Donaghy, 2003



Antimony cup inside an inner leather box and an outer straw box, by The Antimony Cup Ltd, Peterborough, England, about 1720. Museum no. 1370A-1900

Antimony cup inside an inner leather box and an outer straw box, by The Antimony Cup Ltd, Peterborough, England, about 1720. Museum no. 1370A-1900

It is a poisoned chalice
that we raise –
but as we toast each other's healths,
    and chink
our fragile cups together,
  let us praise
the nation we're creating
   with this drink,
as we beget a finer race
 of men
and draft its customs with this
     alchemy –
eternal Friday nights
   of swirl and churn
of wine and air in this
  antimony.
We sink a cup to purge what makes us
   sick,
and sketch out shapes of Empire
    on the floor,
in splash on spreading splash of pink
    on brick
and blanket; wine and bile. Landlord,
   one more!
One final shot to get
 under our skin.
Sorry, gents, it's time.
                                     Better out than in.

Antimony, by Antony Dunn, 2002

History of the sonnet

The sonnet originated in 14th-century Italy. The Italian form was perfected by the poet Petrarch, who gave his name to it. It arrived in England in the mid-16th century and is still much used by poets writing in English.

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