Sonnet Definition Essay Research Paper A sonnet

Sonnet Definition Essay, Research Paper

A sonnet is a fourteen-line poem in iambic pentameter with a carefully patterned

rhyme scheme. Other strict, short poetic forms occur in English poetry (the

sestina, the villanelle, and the haiku, for example), but none has been used so

successfully by so many different poets. The Italian, or Petrarchan sonnet,

named after Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374), the Italian poet, was introduced

into English poetry in the early 16th century by Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542).

Its fourteen lines break into an octave (or octet), which usually rhymes

abbaabba, but which may sometimes be abbacddc or even (rarely) abababab; and a

sestet, which may rhyme xyzxyz or xyxyxy, or any of the multiple variations

possible using only two or three rhyme-sounds. The English or Shakespearean

sonnet, developed first by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (1517-1547), consists of

three quatrains and a couplet–that is, it rhymes abab cdcd efef gg. The form

into which a poet puts his or her words is always something of which the reader

ought to take conscious note. And when poets have chosen to work within such a

strict form, that form and its strictures make up part of what they want to say.

In other words, the poet is using the structure of the poem as part of the

language act: we will find the "meaning" not only in the words, but

partly in their pattern as well. The Italian form, in some ways the simpler of

the two, usually projects and develops a subject in the octave, then executes a

turn at the beginning of the sestet, which means that the sestet must in some

way release the tension built up in the octave. (Example: see Wyatt’s

"Farewell Love and all thy laws for ever.") The Shakespearean sonnet

has a wider range of possibilities. One pattern introduces an idea in the first

quatrain, complicates it in the second, complicates it still further in the

third, and resolves the whole thing in the final epigrammatic couplet. (Example:

see Shakespeare’s Sonnet 133.) You can see how this form would attract writers

of great technical skill who are fascinated with intellectual puzzles and

intrigued by the complexity of human emotions, which become especially tangled

when it comes to dealing with the sonnet’s traditional subjects, love and faith.

Although the two types of sonnet may seem quite different, in actual practice

they are frequently hard to tell apart. Both forms break between lines eight and

nine; the octave in the Italian frequently breaks into two quatrains, like the

English; and its sestet frequently ends in a final couplet. In addition, many

Shakespearean sonnets seem to have a turn at line nine and another at the final

couplet; and if a couplet closes an Italian sonnet, it is usually because the

poet wanted the epigrammatic effec t more characterstic of the Shakespearean

form. It behooves the reader to pay close attention to line-end punctuation,

especially at lines four, eight, and twelve, and to connective words like and,

or, but, as, so, if, then, when, or which at the beginnings of lines (especially

lines five, nine, and thirteen).


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