The sonnet is one of the most famous poetic forms, almost as recognizable as the haiku. It comes in many forms. Over the next few weeks, we’ll examine three of the most famous sonnet types. Let’s begin with the Italian sonnet.
The History of the Italian Sonnet
When most people think of sonnets, only one name comes to mind: William Shakespeare. Some may even – erroneously – believe the Bard created the sonnet form.* But sonnets have existed since the early Renaissance, centuries before Shakespeare’s time. And despite Shakespeare’s lasting influence on English literature, the Italian sonnet remained popular – perhaps even more popular – with English-speaking poets for centuries.
The Italian sonnet rose to prominence in the 13th and 14th century. Michelangelo used the form in his poetry, as did Divine Comedy author Dante Alighieri. Petrarch was the most well-known sonneteer during this period, to the extent that Italian sonnets are sometimes referred to as Petrarchan sonnets.**
Parts of an Italian Sonnet: The Octave and the Sestet
Italian sonnets consist of two parts: an octave and a sestet.
As its name suggests, the octave consists of eight lines. It always has an ABBAABBA rhyme scheme.
The sestet has six lines, and, unlike the octave, its rhyming pattern changes according to the whim of the writer. Some sestets have three rhyming sounds while others have only two. CDCDCD, CDECDE, and CDECED are all common patterns found in Italian sonnets.
While the sestet’s rhyming scheme is flexible, an Italian sonnet never ends in a couplet. That is a convention used in English and Spenserian sonnets.
Parts of an Italian Sonnet: The Argument
Poetic rules dictate that, in any rhyming poem, a change of rhyme pattern corresponds to a change in subject or tone. Thus the Italian sonnet’s octave and sestet are also its problem and conclusion. The problem and conclusion form what is known as the poem’s argument.
But what does this mean?
In an Italian sonnet’s octave, the speaker outlines a problem, question, or concern. Then, in the conclusion, the speaker presents a solution to the problem, or an answer to the question.
The ninth line – that is, the first line of the sestet – is commonly known as the volta, or turn. This is where the shift from problem to solution happens. The volta is of utmost importance, and, much like a thesis statement in an academic essay, you can use it to make sure you are on the right track when writing an Italian sonnet.
An Example of an Italian Sonnet
Here is Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Italian sonnet, “What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why.” Notice the rhyme pattern in the sestet and how the poet crafts her argument.
What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning; but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply,
And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain
For unremembered lads that not again
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.
Thus in winter stands the lonely tree,
Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,
Yet knows its boughs more silent than before:
I cannot say what loves have come and gone,
I only know that summer sang in me
A little while, that in me sings no more.
* Shakespeare did not invent the sonnet, nor did he even create the English sonnet’s rhyming pattern, credit for which belongs to Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey.
** The same is the case with Shakespeare and the English sonnet, a.k.a. the Shakespearean sonnet.