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The English Sonnet

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The English Sonnet

"The sonnet is the most important, as it is the most perfect, of all modern lyric forms" (Reed, 119). Although the sonnet made a relatively late appearance in English literature, it has become a staple in the lyrical expression of private emotions. The sonnet has been used by every poet from Petrarch, who created the original Italian sonnet, to Shakespeare, who reinvented the sonnet's form. Because the Italian, or Petrarchan, sonnet is the original form, it is the legitimate form and contains particular characteristics that differ from the more recent form, the English, or Shakespearean, sonnet. But it is the English sonnet that is more idolized and glorified by English literature students, and it is this recent sonnet that takes precedence in the poetry of Renaissance and Elizabethan writers such as Sidney and Shakespeare.

From it's beginnings in Italy, the sonnet has been experimented with and often misused. A lot of poets in the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries were not completely sure on what exactly a sonnet was. The English sonnet was created by a poetic translation by Surrey of one of Petrarch's sonnets. When Surrey translated the poem, he did "not employ the Italian sonnet form but a new one, which he devised--three quatrains and a concluding couplet" (Reed, 129). The Petrarch sonnet is divided into an octave and sestet, a total of fourteen lines. The first eight lines express a thought, an emotion, and the remaining six are the explanation or summation of the matter. The first two quatrains follow an abba rhyme scheme and state a proposition, while the concluding two tercets that follow a cde rhyme-scheme prove it.

After Surrey created the English sonnet, it was widely adopted because "it is a much easier and more fluent means of expression" (Reed, 129). Also, the overall consensus of the artificiality and long-windedness of the Petrarchan model gave cause for a more genuine, expressive idiom. Poets of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries generally used an arrangement of three quatrains and an ending couplet. The English sonnet's rhyme scheme is abab cdcd efef gg, but like its father the Petrarchan sonnet, is found in literature in some variation. The greater flexibility in rhyming of the English sonnet is not the main difference between it and its predecessor. What is more important is the storyline and treatment of subject-matter because of the specific line arrangement. Also, the English sonnet uses more logical development by contrast between the first and second quatrains and by example between the second and third. The Petrarchan sonnet on the other hand, struggles to use its second quatrain for constructive development.

The English sonnet set itself apart from the Italian sonnet not only in rhyme scheme and line arrangement, but also by developing more genuine expression of emotions through distinctive



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