Sonnet (It. sonetto), a poem consisting of 14 iambic decasyllabic or endecasyllabic lines, rhyming in a peculiar manner. The first 8 lines make two quatrains, and the remaining 6 two tercets. There are two rhymes in the quatrains, the 1st, 4th, 5th, and 8th lines rhyming together, and also the 2d, 3d, 6th, and 7th. This is the best arrangement, as the Italians hold, but others occur, and sometimes, even in Petrarch, the rhymes are alternate. In the tercets great liberty is allowed; the rhymes may be either two or three, and they may be arranged at the will of the poet, but never in couplets. There are but few Italian precedents for the form which the English poets prior to Milton gave to the sonnet. From the difficulty of continuing the same rhyme, they made it consist of three quatrains and a final couplet, each quatrain usually having its own two alternate and independent rhymes. The Anacreontic sonnet is composed of octo-sylla-bic lines. It is doubtful whether the sonnet was the invention of the Italians, or was derived by them fromearlier Provencal poets.
The oldest extant specimens are in Italian, by Lodovico Vernaccia (about A. D. 1200), and by Piero delle Vigne, chancellor of the emperor Frederick II.,.who flourished early in the 13th century; the first who gave to it the arrangement which was subsequently adopted as its legitimate form was Guittone d'Arezzo (died in 1294); and it was carried to its highest excellence by Petrarch. The Italian sonnet was introduced into Spain by the marquis of Santillana in the 15th century, and during the two following centuries it was regarded there with extravagant favor. It never found much favor in France, and fell into ridicule in the 17th century through the bouts rimes, or blank sonnets, in which the rhyming words were first chosen and arranged, while the subject was to be selected and the body of the sonnet to be written afterward. In Germany the sonnet has been chiefly cultivated by the poets of the romantic school. The earlier English form of the sonnet was introduced by Surrey and Wyatt in the reign of Henry VIII.; and there are numerous sonnets by Sidney, Spenser, Shakespeare, Daniel, Drayton, Drum-mond, and others. Milton returned to the genuine Italian form, but did not always adhere to it.
From the time of Milton for nearly a century few sonnets were written in England. It was revived in the Italian form by Edwards, Gray, and T. Wharton, while Bowles, Charlotte Smith, and Helen Maria Williams reverted to the easier form of the old English sonnets. - See "The Sonnet: its Origin, Structure, and Place in Poetry, with original Translations from the Sonnets of Dante and Petrarch," by Charles Tomlinson (London, 1874).