Sonnets and sonnet CXXXVIII

I suppose I could have worked it out but I didn’t realise that the word ‘sonnet’ comes from  the Italian word sonetto, which means “a little sound or a song; although I knew it was an old verse form I didn’t realise either or I had forgotten that Sir Thomas Wyatt first introduced the form to England,. It is traditionally,  a fourteen-line poem written in iambic pentameter, which uses different rhyme schemes and also is strictly structured and is organised thematically.

The sonnet associated with Wyatt is what is called the Petrarchan, sonnet, obviously because it is named after the Italian poet Petrarca, who we know as Petrarch. This style of sonnet has two stanzas, the first of eight lines and then the six remaining lines of the fourteen which make up the form. The first stanza sets out a notion, the second responds or reacts to it, and there are particular rhyme patterns too.

Shakespeare’s form of the sonnet is different; his pattern is of three quatrains (sets of four lines) and a couplet which is usually like a conclusion or comment or retort to the content of the twelve previous lines. After Shakespeare came many other poets who were supreme in their use of this form, Milton, Spenser, Donne, Barrett Browning through to the twentieth century with Rilke and Lowell, and right up to the present day.

Here is the master, Shakespeare:


When my love swears that she is made of truth,
I do believe her though I know she lies,
That she might think me some untutored youth,
Unlearned in the world’s false subtleties.
Thus vainly thinking that she thinks me young,
Although she knows my days are past the best,
Simply I credit her false-speaking tongue:
On both sides thus is simple truth suppressed:
But wherefore says she not she is unjust? 
And wherefore say not I that I am old?
O! love’s best habit is in seeming trust,
And age in love, loves not to have years told:
Therefore I lie with her, and she with me,
And in our faults by lies we flattered be.

by William Shakespeare




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