A page from the "Poetry through the Ages" exhibit...

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The sonnet reigns supreme.

The sonnet reigns as the most popular and adaptable of poetic forms. No fewer than 20 variations of the 14-line form have been published since Salvatore di Giacomo first banded together two quatrains and two tercets. Some curtail to 10 lines (Curtal Sonnets), others expand to 16 lines, and still others close with half-lines. Many people find that the most enjoyable way to read the form is the Crown of Sonnets, consisting of seven sonnets in which the last line of one serves as the opening line of the next; John Donne’s Holy Sonnets is a prime example of this type of construction.

While there is a wide variety of sonnet adaptations, six variations are the most prominent: Petrarchan, Curtal, Spenserian, Shakespearean, Miltonic, and terza rima.

Petrarchan sonnet.

Francesco Petrarch refined the earliest Sicilian sonnet forms of two fused quatrains and two fused tercets into an ababcdcd-efefgg rhyme scheme, with 10 syllables per line, and defined sonnet writing for more than two centuries. Sir Thomas Wyatt brought it to England, but William Shakespeare shepherded the Petrarchan form into the limelight.

From Visions
Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374)

Being one day at my window all alone,

So manie strange things happened me to see,
As much as it grieveth me to thinke thereon.
At my right hand a hynde appear’d to mee,
So faire as mote the greatest god delite;
Two eager dogs did her pursue in chace.
Of which the one was blacke, the other white:
With deadly force so in their cruell race

They pincht the haunches of that gentle beast,

That at the last, and in short time, I spide,
Under a rocke, where she alas, opprest,
Fell to the ground, and there untimely dide.
Cruell death vanquishing so noble beautie
Oft makes me wayle so hard a desire.

(Trans. Edmund Spenser)

Dante Alighieri (1265-1321)

Ye ladies, walking past me piteous-eyed,

Who is the lady that lies prostrate here?
Can this be even she my heart holds dear?
Nay, if it be so, speak, and nothing hide.
Her very aspect seems itself beside,
And all her features of such altered cheer
That to my thinking they do not appear
Hers who makes others seem beatified.

‘If thou forget to know our lady thus,

Whom grief o'ercomes, we wonder in no wise,
For also the same thing befalleth us,
Yet if thou watch the movement of her eyes,
Of her thou shalt be straightaway conscious.
O weep no more; thou art all wan with sighs.

(Trans. D.G. Rossetti)

Curtal sonnet.

The 10-line, two-stanza Curtal Sonnet actually pre-dated the Petrarchan form, but was only used by the more masterful structural poets. A good example is embedded within the 29 movements of Dante’s La Vita Nuova.

From La Vita Nuova
Dante Alighieri (1265-1321)

And now (for I must rid my name of ruth)

Behooves me speak the truth
Touching thy cruelty and wickedness:
Not that they be not known; but ne'ertheless
I would give hate more stress
With them that feed on love in every sooth.

Out of this world thou hast driven courtesy,

And virtue, dearly prized in womanhood;
And out of youth’s gay mood
The lovely lightness is quite gone through thee.
(Trans. D.G. Rossetti)

Spenserian sonnet.

The first poet known to modify Petarch’s form, Sir Edmund Spenser kept the structure but introduced an abab-bcbc-cdcd-ee rhyme scheme.

From Amoretti
Edmund Spenser (c. 1552-1599)

What guile is this, that those her golden tresses

She doth attire under a net of gold;
And with sly skill so cunningly them dresses,
That which is gold or hair, may scarce be told?
Is it that men’s frail eyes, which gaze too bold,
She may entangle in that golden snare;
And being caught may craftily enfold
Their weaker hearts, which are not yet well aware?
Take heed therefore, mine eyes, how ye do stare
Henceforth too rashly on that guileful net,
In which if ever ye entrapped are,
Out of her bands ye by no means shall get.
Folly it were for any being free,
To covet fetters, though they golden be.

Shakespearean sonnet.

Shakespeare refined Petrarch’s form by blending the 14 lines together and, like Spenser, creating a less obvious division of lines. However, Shakespeare modified the rhyme scheme into abab-cdcd-efef-gg.

From Sonnets
William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

From fairest creatures we desire increase,

That thereby beauty’s rose might never die.
But as the riper should by time decease,
His tender heir might bear his memory:
But thou, contracted to thine own bright eyes,
Feed'st thy light’s flame with self-substantial fuel,
Making a famine where abundance lies,
Thyself thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel.
Thou that art now the world’s fresh ornament
And only herald to the gaudy spring,
Within thine own bud buriest thy content
And, tender churl, mak'st waste in niggarding.
Pity the world, or else this glutton be,
To eat the world’s due, by the grave and thee.
To Fanny
John Keats (1795-1821)

I cry your mercy–pity–love!–aye, love!

Merciful love that tantalizes not,
One-thoughted, never-wandering, guileless love,
Unmasked, and being seen–without a blot!
O! let me have thee whole,–all–all–be mine!
That shape, that fairness, that sweet minor zest
Of love, your kiss,–those hands, those eyes divine,
That warm, white, lucent, million-pleasured breast,–
Yourself–your soul–in pity give me all.
Withhold no atom’s atom or I die,
Or living on perhaps, your wretched thrall,
Forget, in the mist of idle misery,
Life’s purposes,–the palate of my mind
Losing its gist, and my ambition blind!

Miltonic sonnet.

In an effort to bring the sonnet back into vogue after a half-century lull, John Milton used an 8-line/6-line format and simplified the rhyme scheme into abbaabba-cdcdcd, which many Romantic poets later adopted for their larger works.

To Cyriack Skinner (Milton’s pupil)
John Milton (1608-1674)

Cyriack, this three years’ day these eyes, though clear

To outward view, of blemish or of spot,
Bereft of light, their seeing have forgot;
Nor to their idle orbs doth sight appear
Of sun or moon or star throughout the year,
Or man or woman. Yet I argue not
Against Heaven’s hand or will, nor bate a jot
Of heart or hope, but still bear up and steer

Right onward. What supports me, dost thou ask?

The conscience, friend, to have lost them overplied
In liberty’s defense, my noble task,
Of which all Europe talks from side to side.
This thought might lead me through the world’s vain mask
Content, though blind, had I no better guide.

Terza rima sonnet.

Another original creation of Dante, the terza rima sonnet is a rare but superb form that blends four quatrains and a rhyming couplet with a terza rima rhyme scheme. The most noteworthy example is in one of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s most famous poems, "Ode to the West Wind."

Ode to the West Wind
Percy Bysshe Shelley (1795-1825)

First Movement

O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being,
Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing.

Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,

Pestilence-striken multitudes: O thou,
Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed

The winged seeds, where they lie cold and low,

Each like a corpse within its grave, until
Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow

Her clarion o'er the dreaming earth, and fill

(Driving sweet buds like flocks to feed in air)
With living hues and odours plain and hill:

Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere;

Destroyer and preserver; hear, oh hear!