The sonnet is a 14-line lyric poem that has its origins in medieval Italy. The term comes from the Italian sonnetto, meaning “little sound or song.” While the sonnet has become a prevalent literary form in a number of languages and has acquired different forms (most notably the Shakespearean or English sonnet form), the first sonnets followed what is now known as the Italian or Petrarchan form, consisting of hendecasyllabic (or 11-syllable) lines arranged into an octave (or eight-line section) followed by a sestet (or six-line part). Typically there is a turn of thought or volta beginning with the sestet, so that a conventional sonnet might ask a question in the octave to be answered in the sestet, or introduce a situation in the octave to be interpreted in the sestet, or express a desire or complaint in the octave that is assuaged in the sestet— any two-part progression that involves a pivotal change that can occur in the sestet of the poem. The earliest extant sonnets are credited to GIACOMO DA LENTINO, a notary attached to the imperial court of Frederick II in Sicily, who flourished between 1215 and 1233. Giacomo’s sonnets rhymed abababab cdecde; the following is Frederick Goldin’s translation of one of Giacomo’s earliest:
   The basilisk before the shining mirror
   dies with pleasure;
   the swan sings with greatest rapture
   when it is nearest death;
   at the height of its pleasure the peacock
   gets upset when it looks at its feet;
   the phoenix burns itself all up
   to return to be reborn.
   I think I have become much like these creatures,
   I who go gladly to death before her beauty
   and make my song lusty as I approach the end;
   in merriment I suddenly despair,
   burning in fire I am made new again in joy
   because of you, whom I long to return to, gentlest one.
   (Goldin 1973, 219, ll. 1–14)
   Like most of the later Italian sonnets, this one is about love, and plays on the COURTLY LOVE convention of dying for love of one’s lady. The turn of thought accompanying the sestet’s change of rhyme involves the speaker’s comparison of himself with the fantastic animals he has introduced in the octave.
   The sonnet form was picked up and used by many later poets of the Italian Middle Ages. In particular the Tuscan poet GUITTONE D’AREZZO altered the form in the later 13th century to create the abbaabba rhyme scheme for the octave, a pattern that became standard in all later Italian sonnets. The great Tuscan poets Guido GUINIZELLI and Guido CAVALCANTI utilized this form, and DANTE included love sonnets in both his Rime and his VITA NUOVA. But it was Francis PETRARCH whose influence spread the sonnet form across Europe and gave his name to the traditional Italian sonnet form. CHAUCER was the first to translate a Petrarchan sonnet into English, in the Canticus Troili embedded in the first book of his courtly ROMANCE, TROILUS AND CRISEYDE, but Chaucer did not copy Petrarch’s form. The marquis de Santillana (1398–1458) introduced the sonnet form into Spain, and it became popular in France and England during the Renaissance, with Sir Thomas Wyatt first imitating Petrarch’s form and style in English the early 16th century.
   ■ Goldin, Frederick, ed. and trans. German and Italian Lyrics of the Middle Ages: An Anthology and a History. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1973.
   ■ Kleinhenz, Christopher. The Early Italian Sonnet: The First Century (12201321). Lecce, Italy: Milella, 1986.
   ■ Wilkins, Ernest Hatch. The Invention of the Sonnet, and Other Studies in Italian Literature. Rome: Edizioni de Storia e letteratura, 1959.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

(of fourteen lines) / , ,

Look at other dictionaries:

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