The poetic genre of the sonnet is of Italian origin. It first made its inroads into English poetry in the fifteenth century.
Its construction attains perfection towards the end of the same century at the hands of Petrarch and Dante. It attains melodious sweetness. In the perfect Italian type it consists of fourteen decasyllabic lines. They are divided into two groups of eight and six lines.
The former is the octave and the latter is sestet. The octave is made up of two quatrains and the sestet of two tersest. The rhymes throughout are unequally blended. In the octave only two rhymes are admissible. The tierce admits three pairs of rhymes. Keats’ sonnet, On the Grasshopper and Cricket is a good instance of this.
The sestet, c d e c d e rhymes respectively. The sonnet deals with a single idea, which is elaborately dealt with throughout. It is complete in itself. The main idea is stated in the first quatrain and illustrated and elaborated in the second. Then follows a pause or caesura. The thought takes a turn at this point. The sestet reflects the mood of the poet.
The sonnet of Keats states its theme in the first line itself. It is that the poetry of the earth is never dead. It is elaborated in the rest of the octave. The sestet begins with a turn in the thought stating that the poetry of the earth is unceasing even on a winter evening. The poem ends with a note on the warmth of the cricket’s song.
In the early part of the sixteenth century Surrey and Wyatt ushered the sonnet form into English Spenser, Phillip Sydney, Drayton and others variously experimented with the form. They intro- a variety of changes in the arrangement of the rhymes.
The central pause was abolished. The net was closed with a couplet. During the later periods the sonnet attained a significant place in (her literature. At the hands of Shakespeare it became the premier vehicle of poetic expression. It red from the Italian type almost in every respect. It followed the fourteen-line limit and the principle nifty of thought was. The distinction of octave and sestet is altogether ignored. The arrangement of as was entirely different.
The Shakespearean sonnet is made up of three decasyllabic quatrains Ming alternatively followed by a conclusive couplet. The rhyme scheme was Ababa, ceded; fee dg g. Shakespeare brought into it a degree of perfection, which has never been equaled in English try. The sonnets of Shakespeare sparkle with the real feeling and experience of the man himself; them he lays bare the joys, sorrows and inner workings of his heart.
In his use of the sonnet form, Milton differed altogether from the Shakespearean model. He chose Italian model as he had recognized the melodious beauty of the sonnets of Petrarch and Dante. He pated their arrangement of the rhymes in the quatrain while varying slightly in the sestet.
He also piped the caesura. He allowed no break in the melody between the two halves of the poem. It parted to his sonnets an exalted sonority.
Wordsworth rejuvenated the sonnet form and restored it to its original place in the Romantic Age ha new beauty and sweetness peculiarly his own. Since Wordsworth, Rossetti and Miss Brown may be mentioned as the most significant contributors to the sonnet.