A sonnet is a poetic form of a specific number of lines with a tightly controlled rhyme scheme. Sonnets were invented by the Italian poet Giacomo Da Lentini in the 13th century. The original form of the sonnet, now known as the Petrarchan sonnet, contains two stanzas, that when put together formed an “argument.” This form is named after the most famous medieval Italian poet, Petrarch, but others including Dante also wrote sonnets.
A Petrarchan sonnet consists of an octave (eight lines) that forms the proposition of the argument, and is then followed by a sestet (six lines) that proposes a resolution to the problem. In English, the sonnet was adopted and made famous by William Shakespeare. Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets, all of which contain three quatrains, four line stanzas, followed by a couplet. Shakespearean sonnets were always composed in iambic pentameter, which is the same poetic meter he used in his plays.
Sonnets fell out of fashion after Shakespeare, reappearing during the French Revolution. British romantic poet Wordsworth wrote numerous sonnets. Once poets began adopting free verse in the 19th century, the sonnet was seen as a somewhat quaint and old-fashioned poetic form. Many modern poets, including e.e. cummings, wrote sonnets, indicating a continued fascination with the form and structure. Some modern poets even write word sonnets, which have one word per line, which provides for a visual impact.