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Video:What is a Sonnet?

with Milo De Prieto

The Sonnet is one of the most famous poetic forms and was used to great affect by Shakespeare himself. Learn about Italian and Elizabethan sonnets in this how-to video from About.com.See Transcript

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Transcript:What is a Sonnet?

Hello, I'm Milo for About.com, and today we are talking about what is a sonnet. 

The Petrarchan, or Italian, Sonnet

Sonnet comes from the Italian word sonnetto and it means little song. There are two types: the Elizabethan sonnet and the Petrarchan sonnet. The Petrarchan sonnet originated in Italy and is considered the original sonnet, also known as the Italian sonnet. 

The Italian sonnet has 14 lines, which are divided, into two parts. The first part is called an octave and it contains the first eight lines. The rhyming pattern of the octave is ABBAABBA and it is used to introduce a problem, present a situation or talk about a desire. The second part of the Italian sonnet, which is called a sestet, is composed of the remaining six lines of the poem. The rhyming pattern of the sestet is usually CDECDE or CDCCDC but it is more flexible so other patterns are often used. In the sestet the writer comments on the problem introduced in the octave or proposes a solution to the problem. 

The Elizabethan, or Shakespearean, Sonnet

The Elizabethan sonnet, also known as the Shakespearean sonnet has 14 lines like the Italian sonnet but it is divided and structured a bit differently. The 14 lines are broken down into 3 quatrains, which means 4 lines, and a couplet, which means 2 lines. 

The first quatrain's rhyme pattern is ABAB and the subject matter is introduced here. The second quatrain's rhyme pattern is CDCD and here the theme of the poem is developed. The third quatrain's rhyme pattern is EFEF and here the theme is developed further and completed or rounded off. The couplet's rhyme pattern is GG and this is the conclusion of the poem. 

Iambic Pentameter in a Sonnet

It's required that each line contains 10 syllables and that those syllables are sequenced as follow: unstressed syllable - stressed syllable - unstressed  - stressed and so on. This way of establishing the poem's rhythm is known as the Iambic pattern. 

Here is an example of one of Shakespeare's most famous sonnets: 

"Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?"

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?

Thou art more lovely and more temperate:

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,

And summer's lease hath all too short a date:

Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,

And often is his gold complexion dimm'd;

And every fair from fair sometime declines,

By chance or nature's changing course untrimm'd;

But thy eternal summer shall not fade

Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;

Nor shall Death brag thou wander'st in his shade,

When in eternal lines to time thou growest:

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,

So long lives this, and this gives life to thee. 

William Shakespeare became the most famous writer to utilize the Elizabethan sonnet and thus the reason it is also known as the Shakespearean sonnet. 

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