A sonnet is a lyric poem of fourteen lines, following one or another of several set rhyme-schemes. Critics of the sonnet have recognized varying classifications, but to all essential purposes two types only need be discussed if the student will understand that each of these two, in turn, has undergone various modifications by experimenters. The two characteristic sonnet types are the Italian (Petrarchan) and the English (Shakespearean). The term sonnet is derived from the Provençal word sonet and the Italian word sonetto, both meaning little song. By the thirteenth century, it had come to signify a poem of fourteen lines following a strict rhyme scheme and logical structure. The conventions associated with the sonnet have changed during its history. The first, the Italian form, is distinguished by its bipartite division into the octave and the sestet: the octave consisting of a first division of eight lines rhyming abbaabba
and the sestet, or second division, consisting of six lines rhyming cdecde, cdccdc, or cdedce.
On this twofold division of the Italian sonnet Charles Gayley notes: "The octave bears the burden; a doubt, a problem, a reflection, a query, an historical statement, a cry of indignation or desire, a Vision of the ideal. The sestet eases the load, resolves the problem or doubt, answers the query, solaces the yearning, realizes the vision." Again it might be said that the octave presents the narrative, states the proposition or raises a question; the sestet drives home the narrative by making an abstract comment, applies the proposition, or solves the problem. So much for the strict interpretation of the Italian form; as a matter of fact English poets have varied these items greatly. The octave and sestet division is not always kept; the rhyme-scheme is often varied, but within limits--no Italian sonnet properly allowing more than five rhymes. Iambic pentameter is essentially the meter,...