Verse > Anthologies > Hunt and Lee, eds. > The Book of the Sonnet
Hunt and Lee, comps.  The Book of the Sonnet.  1867.
An Essay on the Cultivation, History, and Varieties of the Species of Poem called the Sonnet
II. Of the Nature and Properties of the Sonnet, particularly the Sonnet called Legitimate
THE LITTLE species of poem called a sonnet, which is limited in general to fourteen lines, and is rhymed and arranged according to particular laws, made its first known appearance at the beginning of the twelfth century, and in Italy. Like almost all the forms of Italian poetry, it is supposed to have originated in Provence; and it derived its name, like the composition called a Sonata, from being sounded or played; that is to say, accompanied by a musical instrument. To sound, in Italian, still means to play music; and the sonnet, of old, was never without such accompaniment. The Canzone, or Ode, like the Canzonetta, or Song,—the Chanson and Chansonette of the French,—might be chanted, or sung, with the voice only; and so might the Canto, or division, of the narrative poem; as was the case with the stanzas of Tasso, that were sung up to a late period by the Venetian gondolier. The Ballata, or ballad,—from ballare, to dance, whence our word Ball,—a species of song, the name of which has strangely wandered from its first meaning, might be danced to, also with the voice only. The Madrigal, sometimes called Madriale, or Mandriale, a small, irregular set of verses, often of the briefest and humblest description, and so named, according to the received opinion, from Mandra, or Mandria, a sheepfold, but more probably, I conceive, from the song of the mother (madre), or nursery song, implied nothing directly musical either way; though it subsequently came to mean a particular species of vocal composition in parts. But the sonnet, agreeably to its appellation, was never heard without the sounding of the lute or the guitar. This connection, as we shall see, lasted a long time; and when it ceased, it left upon the little poem a demand for treatment more than commonly musical, and implying, so to speak, the companion which it had lost.  1
  When I first began this Essay, I had entered more at large into these and other matters relative to the name and rise of the sonnet; such as a late etymology from the French word Sonnette, a sheep-bell; the strange, pedantic question, whether the species of poem originated in the Pindaric Ode, or in the Greek or Latin Epigram, things either too long or too short, and quite out of the beat of its early writers; the demand of a certain logical mode of treatment, which it was long the fashion to consider indispensably necessary; and, lastly, certain recondite musical analogies, which a late enthusiast on the subject, Mr. Capel Lofft, found between its fourteen lines and the gamut.  2
  Two of these points, however, are scarcely worth the mention here given them; and the other two, which contain germs of truth, may be briefly despatched.  3
  The fourteen lines of the Sonnet Proper, or what is called the Legitimate Sonnet, that is to say, the one written according to the laws which have prevailed in Italy ever since the time of Petrarca, are divided into two distinct portions, Major and Minor, each of which is subdivided into two also. The Major division consists of eight lines, called the Octave, which possesses but two rhymes; the Minor, of six lines, called the Sestette, which possesses never more than three; and the subdivisions or halves of these eight lines are called Quatrains, and those of the six lines Terzettes. The two rhymes of the Major division almost invariably occupy the same places; the two or three rhymes of the Minor may be varied at pleasure, but seldom close with a couplet.  4
  A few glances, however, at the sonnets themselves will be worth a hundred directions of this kind; only the student is to bear in mind, that the music of the lines is to be at once as sweet and as strong and as varied as possible, and that there should be something of a difference of tone discernible in the Major and Minor portions, as there is in the divisions of music so called, or in the two strains of an air or melody.  5
  The logical notion of the treatment of this construction of verse arose in the times when Aristotle and the schoolmen were all in all with men of letters; and it was probably not unassisted by the musical instinct which perceives questions, and replies, and solutions, in tones and cadences. The musical notion, as pushed to its excess by Mr. Lofft, 1 would appear to have been suggested to him by his confusion of Friar Guittone of Arezzo, who is understood to have first given the sonnet its right modulation, with another Friar of the same name and place, who flourished a long time before him, and who was supposed to be the inventor of counterpoint.  6
  The logical notion prevailed so long with critics of a certain scholarly and conventional turn of mind, that, so late as towards the middle of the last century, Quadrio, one of the most distinguished of them, tells us, that the business of the first quatrain of the sonnet is to state the proposition of it; of the second quatrain to prove the proposition; of the first terzette to confirm it, and of the second terzette to draw the conclusion; 2 and the good Father Ceva, in his selection of pieces of this kind for the use of schools, likens the sonnet to a syllogism, in which, if the conclusion is not strictly drawn from the premises, the whole is a mere play of words and of rhymes. 3  7
  That such a system could never prevail over the manifest temptations to be more free and easy, need hardly be observed. The sonnet was too obvious a resource for expressing any emotion whatsoever, to be restricted to formalities so pedantic; and accordingly it finally obeyed no laws in general but those that are essential to all good poetry, with the exception of such as were necessary to render it what it was, and to secure for it that completeness, and that freedom from blemish, which alone can render a small thing precious.  8
  On the other hand, it would be rash to affirm that logic had no involuntary concern, or music no artistical concern, in forming the sonnet. There is an instinct of music in every kind of verse; and there is, or ought to be, a beginning, a middle, and an end in every kind of composition. Reason must naturally reason, and emotion speak, as well and consistently as it can; and music is only emotion singing. The poets who flourished while the sonnet was maturing were all, more or less, musicians as well as poets; the minstrels, their predecessors, had invariably, in the first instance, written both the words and the music of their compositions, though the tasks gradually became divided; but every poet played on the lute or guitar; every poet accompanied his chant or his recitation with it; and the more musical the poet, the more he would feel the musical capabilities of what he composed. One improvement in this respect would produce another; verses, like musical bars, would be found to have their claims on variety of accent and pause; and final satisfaction of the ear might, naturally enough, suggest the settlement of a determinate amount of size in the sum total. Theories on such points may be pushed to extremes by enthusiasts, and niceties of intention be attributed where they did not exist; but as verse itself is often written without a knowledge of prosody, and music itself composed with little insight into the subtleties of its grammar, so feeling alone might have suggested those analogies of majors and minors, of tones, modulations, cadences, and harmonical progressions, the reality of which in sonnets of masterly execution will be admitted, more or less, by every good ear which is not unacquainted with the terms of the musical art.  9
  A sonnet is, in fact, or ought to be, a piece of music as well as of poetry; and as every lover of music is sensible of the division even of the smallest air into two parts, the second of which is the consequent or necessary demand of the first; and as these parts consist of phrases and cadences, which have similar sequences and demands of their own, so the composition called a sonnet, being a long air or melody, becomes naturally divided into two different strains, each of which is subdivided in like manner; and as quatrains constitute the one strain, and terzettes the other, we are to suppose this kind of musical demand the reason why the limitation to fourteen lines became, not a rule without a reason, but an harmonious necessity.  10
  Readers, however, who may wish to write sonnets at once, notwithstanding they may have had little acquaintance with the art, are not bound to think of all which is here said, or of any portion of it, till the interest they take in their work incite them to do so. Ear and other qualifications may suffice them to begin,—may suffice them always, if excellent; though, in that case, the more they can do, the more they will wish to know what can be done. The greatest poets, as we shall see presently, even in regard to a sonnet, have ever been the greatest students of their art. I do not say that lesser poets, far lesser, cannot study it too. All I say is, that the greatest poets invariably study it; and with results of course in proportion.  11
  The majority of the persons who look into this book will be no “scorners” of sonnets; perhaps none of them will; but should such a person be among them, the following summary of the conditions requisite to a perfect sonnet may show him what he has undertaken to scorn. For a sonnet, like everything else, is to be judged according to what properly and thoroughly constitutes it, and not from specimens that fall short of its requirements. The student need not be alarmed by the summary. Perfection, as a sine qua non, is to be demanded of nobody; and many a sonnet has lasted and been found beautiful, that had no pretensions to it. Still perfection is to be aimed at: it has often, in this small shape, been realized; points of it may be attained, if not all; some points must be always attempted, such as unforced rhymes, and unsuperfluous words; and the student will do well always to bear in mind what has been said by a critic not given to the sentimental,—that “one sonnet without a fault is alone worth a long poem.” 4  12
  The sonnet, then, in order to be a perfect work of art, and no compromise with a difficulty, must in the first place be a Legitimate Sonnet after the proper Italian fashion; that is to say, with but two rhymes to the octave, and not more than three in the sestette.  13
  Secondly, it must confine itself to one leading idea, thought, or feeling.  14
  Thirdly, it must treat this one leading idea, thought, or feeling in such a manner as to leave in the reader’s mind no sense of irrelevancy or insufficiency.  15
  Fourthly, it must not have a speck of obscurity.  16
  Fifthly, it must not have a forced rhyme.  17
  Sixthly, it must not have a superfluous word.  18
  Seventhly, it must not have a word too little; that is to say, an omission of a word or words, for the sake of convenience.  19
  Eighthly, it must not have a word out of its place.  20
  Ninthly, it must have no very long word, or any other that tends to lessen the number of accents, and so weaken the verse.  21
  Tenthly, its rhymes must be properly varied and contrasted, and not beat upon the same vowel,—a fault too common with very good sonnets. It must not say, for instance, rhyme, tide, abide, crime; or play, gain, refrain, way; but contrast i with o, or with some other strongly opposed vowel, and treat every vowel on the same principle.  22
  Eleventhly, its music, throughout, must be as varied as it is suitable; more or less strong, or sweet, according to the subject; but never weak or monotonous, unless monotony itself be the effect intended.  23
  Twelfthly, it must increase, or, at all events, not decline, in interest, to its close.  24
  Lastly, the close must be equally impressive and unaffected; not epigrammatic, unless where the subject warrants it, or where point of that kind is desirable; but simple, conclusive, and satisfactory; strength being paramount, where such elevation is natural, otherwise on a level with the serenity; flowing in calmness, or grand in the manifestation of power withheld.  25
  Go now, you who undertook to scorn the sonnet, and see if you had not better have made yourself a little more acquainted with what you scorned.  26
Note 1. In his collection of sonnets entitled “Laura,” Vol. I., Preface, p. v. [back]
Note 2. Della Storia e della Ragione d’ Ogni Poesia, (Milano, 1742,) Tom. III. p. 16. [back]
Note 3. Scelta di Sonetti, (Torino, 1735,) p. 42. [back]
Note 4. “Un sonnet sans défaut vaut seul un long poëme.”—BOILEAU. [back]

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