In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Sonnet and Sonnet Sequence

  • Introduction
  • Journals
  • Databases and Reference Resources
  • Edmund Spenser
  • John Milton and Lady Mary Wroth

British and Irish Literature Sonnet and Sonnet Sequence
John Roe
  • LAST REVIEWED: 20 September 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 20 September 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0083


Although our brief here is to concentrate on the fortunes and achievements of the sonnet (and sonnet sequences) in Renaissance England, it is necessary to look first to its antecedents abroad, particularly in Italy. Giacomo da Lentini is credited with being the first poet to write the fourteen-line sonnet, but it was his Italian compatriot Francesco Petrarca (or Petrarch) who became its most celebrated and inspiring practitioner. Petrarch famously perfected the art of the sequence, though the description “sonnet sequence” is slightly inaccurate. Petrarch interspersed his famous Canzoniere (loosely translated as song book) with other lyric forms, principally the canzone, but with the sestina and ballata also. However, 317 of the 366 poems making up the collection are sonnets, and they develop the theme of Petrarch’s love for Laura. The name sonnet gives no indication as to its form or appearance. It means simply “little sound” or “song” (sonetto) in Italian. Why fourteen lines? It is not just a question of the number of lines; it is also a matter of their length and order. In English, the line length is ten syllables in iambic pentameter, corresponding to the Italian hendecasyllabic (eleven-syllable) form. Petrarch’s predilection for fourteen lines makes perfect sense if you think how a short poem may best be divided into two parts. The exact division of 7/7 is in fact an unwieldy combination: seven lines give limited flexibility, whereas eight lines divide neatly into two quatrains; equally, six lines divide into two tercets. We may further distinguish between the shape and ordering of the Petrarchan and the Shakespearean sonnet. (Although Shakespeare made his version famous, he did not in fact invent it; that was largely Surrey’s doing.) In Petrarch, these rhyme abba abba in the octave and variously as cde cde or cde dce, and so on, in the sestet. The Shakespearean order is of three quatrains of varying rhyme followed by a final couplet. In other words, the sestet is disguised in the Shakespearean sonnet form. The Petrarchan sonnet maintains an interesting division between the octave and the sestet, and usually the sestet develops or varies a statement made in the octave. The transitional point between the two, that is, the move from line 8 to line 9, is known as the volta or turn. Although the Shakespearean sonnet does not maintain so obvious a formal division between octave and sestet, nonetheless the same kind of transitional move may be observed.


Some of the major authors covered here have their own journals, which are further scholarly resources. For example, three prominent publications are devoted exclusively to Shakespeare: Shakespeare Quarterly, Shakespeare Survey, and Shakespeare Studies. All aspects of the works receive critical attention, and articles on the sonnets appear often. Milton Quarterly and Milton Studies perform a similar function for Milton, as do Sidney Journal and Spenser Studies for their authors. The George Herbert Journal and the John Donne Journal may also be mentioned in this context.

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