What Are Sonnets, Anyway? (Part Three)

So, what is the sonnet, then?  Assuming we don’t accept Dr. Johnson’s definition—just this once—we can summarize as follows:

A sonnet is a poem consisting of fourteen lines of rhymed iambic pentameter in closed syntax, where the rhymes conform to a specified scheme.

Poets will, with some historical warrant, refer to almost any sonnet-like poem as a sonnet; in some periods the word has been used for most kinds of short poems (as in Donne’s Songs and Sonnets, though unlike his Holy Sonnets, which all meet the typical definition).  One could plausibly choose to define “sonnet” very broadly, treating a poem as a sonnet to the extent it approximates some or all of these basic features.  Thus a sixteen-line poem in iambic tetrameter with a typical Shakespearean sonnet’s rhyme scheme, a free verse poem fourteen lines long with heavy enjambment, or any number of modifications might be thought of as sonnets.

Personally, though, I prefer to keep up a distinction between poems which allude to the sonnet form and poems properly called sonnets.  Such a distinction will have fuzzy borders, of course; but it does seem worthwhile to look carefully at whether a poem meets all three parts of the basic definition, even if it also modifies one of more of them.  Readers and critics will want to know, in any case, whether a given poem has stopped short of consistent sonnet form, or whether the modification to the form serves some specific purpose.  It also matters whether a “sonnet-like” poem should be thought of as a sonnet with specific innovations, a new variant of the sonnet, or some other form of poem arranged to allude to a sonnet.

Briefly, then, and without spoiling the more detailed discussion in the book I’m working on, let’s define the three basic elements of the definition:  fourteen lines, rhymed iambic pentameter, and closed syntax.  Fourteen lines is easy enough; the rest of the terms describe relations of sound and sense to those lines.  It is often handy to know that lines in English poems are frequently grouped by rhymes, so that a “quatrain” is a group of four lines identified by a rhyme pattern; an “octave” eight lines; a “sestet” six lines; and a “couplet” four lines.

Rhyme in its most common and consistent sense means that exactly the same sounds are repeated from the last stressed syllable to the end of the word or phrase; two lines rhyme if the sounds at their ends rhyme, and only those end rhymes are counted for purposes of the sonnet’s rhyme scheme (as with most other English formal verse).  As a quick primer, the following pairs do rhyme:

do you care? —- over there!
under the water —- dad with daughter
what I wish is —- Do the dishes!
instigator —- refrigerator

and the following do not rhyme:

Walter Pater —- Darth Vader
what a pair! —- put away our
turn the light off —- whooping cough
What he sees is —- try to free us

There are additional kinds of rhyme, of course; I’ll be looking at some of them in my book.

In future posts, we’ll continue by looking at the rhythmic and grammatical rules for constructing a sonnet.