It is generally agreed that "sonnet" is an abbreviation of the Italian sonetto, a short strain (literally, a little sound), that word being the diminutive of suono = sound. The sonetto was originally a poem recited with sound, that is, with a musical accompaniment, a short poem of the rispetto kind, sung to the strains of lute or mandolin. Probably it had an existence, and possibly even its name, at a period considerably anterior to that where we first find definite mention of it, just as the irregular stanzaic form known as the ballad existed in England and Scotland prior to any generally accepted definition thereof. As to its first birthplace there is some uncertainty: it has been asserted to have been a native of Provence, that mother of poets, but some have it that the sonnet is an outcome of the Greek epigram. This idea is certainly not defensible, but while it has been ridiculed as unworthy of entertainment the scoffers seem generally to have had in mind the modern epigram, a very different thing: the essential principle of the ancient epigram was the presentment of a single idea, emotion, or fact, and in this it is entirely at one with the rival that has supplanted it--but in technique it was much simpler. It is much more likely that the stornello was the Italian equivalent of the sonnet--that fleeting bar of verbal melody, which in its narrow compass of two lines presents one fact of nature and one metaphorical allusion based thereon. The stornello stands in perhaps even closer relationship to the ancient epigram than the rispetto to the modern sonnet. To readers interested in the true epigram, and unacquainted with recent translations of or works thereon, I may recommend Dr. Richard Garnett's delightful little volume, Idylls and Epigrams (Macmillan), and Mr. William Watson's Original Epigrams, with its admirable Note. Housman compares the epigram and the sonnet to the well-known Grecian architectural types, the Ionic column and the Corinthian--the former a specimen of pure and graceful beauty, the latter of more elaborate but still of equally pure and graceful genius. A very far-fetched theory is that the sonnet is an Italian shadow of the ancient ode, its divisions corresponding with the strophe, antistrophe, epode, and antepode. It is not in the least likely that this may have been its origin; it is scarcely more probable that its source may have been the ancient epigram; in all likelihood it was of Sicilian birth, gradually forming or being moulded into a certain recognised type, and apparently the outcome of the stornelli which every contadino sang as he pruned his olive-trees or tended his vines. It ought to be mentioned, also, that another origin has been claimed for the word, viz., that it is the French sonnette and that its parentage may be primarily ascribed to the tinkling sheep-bells of Provençal days. The stornello is the germ of its popular allies, the sestina rima, ottava rima, and the rispetto. The stornello consists of two lines, or it may be of four, on two rhymes; and from this metrical type issues in time the sonnet. The sestina rima is the original quatrain with an added couplet on a new rhyme; the ottava rima is an expansion of the original form into six lines on two rhymes, with a concluding couplet as in the sestina; in the rispetto, as accurately characterised by Mr. J. A. Symonds, the quatrain is doubled or prolonged indefinitely, and is followed by an additional system of one or more couplets which return or reflect upon the original theme: the quatrain or its expansion is composed upon two rhymes--the prolongation, or return, is composed upon two other rhymes. In the sonnet the germinal four lines have developed into two quatrains, still on two rhymes: and the prolongation invariably consists of six lines, on either two or three rhymes, with some freedom of arrangement.
Like a plant of steady growth, the seedling of the sonnet, having fallen into suitable ground somewhere about the middle of the thirteenth century, gradually forced its obscure and tortuous way towards the light. Considerably before the close of the thirteenth century we find it in fulfilled bud, in due time to open into the mature Petrarcan flower, the perfected stock whence such a multiplicity of varieties has come. Many buds did, indeed, arise about the same period, and there is still preserved at Milan (according to Muratori, in his Perfetta Poesia) a manuscript Latin treatise on poems in the Italian vernacular--Poetica volgare--written in the year 1332 by a learned and ingenious judge of Padua named Antonio di Tempo, wherein mention is made of sixteen distinct species of sonnet, most of them posterior to the unfolding of the finest and most energetic bud, but some anterior thereto. To carry on the metaphor a little further, the gardener who tended and cultivated this choice bud was a certain clerical poet known widely as Fra Guittone d'Arezzo--not the least worthy among the illustrious little band which that small Italian town has produced. At the same time, such honour as is due must be rendered to a little known predecessor in the art, the author of the sonnet beginning Però ch'amore, which, as Mr. Symonds has pointed out, is presumably the earliest extant example of this metrical structure. The poet in question was Pier delle Vigne, Secretary of State to Frederick II. of Sicily, and while his little poem differs from the typical Italian sonnet in that the rhyme-arrangement of the octave is simply that of two ordinary conjoint quatrains, or two rhymes throughout, it is a true example in all other particulars. Fra Guittone flourished during the greater part of the thirteenth century, and he it was who first definitely adopted and adhered to what was even then recognised as the best modern form for the expression of an isolated emotion, thought, or idea. His sonnets are not only the model of those of his great successor, Petrarca, but are also in themselves excellent productions, and especially noteworthy when considered in relation to the circumstances under which they came into existence. From the work of Guittone d'Arezzo--whom Capel Lofft called the Columbus of poetic literature, from his having discovered the sonnet even as the Genoese navigator discovered America--to that of the sweetest-voiced of all Italian poets, there is a considerable step. The period was eminently an experimental one, and in sonnet-literature as elsewhere. While the Guittonian sonnet remained the most admired model, many variations thereof and divergences therefrom became temporarily popular, exerting an unfortunate influence by allowing free scope to slovenly or indifferent workmanship. But Petrarca and Dante laid an ineffaceable seal on the Guittonian form, not prohibiting minor variations, and even themselves indulging in experimental divergences: in the hands of the one it gained an exquisite beauty, a subtle music abidingly sweet, and in those of the other a strength and vigour that supplied as it were the masculine element to the already existent feminine. Tasso and the other great Italians followed suit, and the sonnet became the favourite Italian poetic vehicle, as it remains to this day, though, alas! but the body still lives, the soul having fled or--it may be--lying in a profound and apparently undisturbable trance. Mr. Symonds has objected that this statement can hardly be taken literally in view of the excellent poems of Stecchetti and the Veristi, but, broadly speaking, it can hardly be doubted that the sonnet in Italy has fallen upon evil days when it is mostly to be found adorning young ladies' albums, or as an accompaniment to presents of flowers and confectionery. In due course Camoens in the South, Bellay and the early French poets in the West, and Surrey and Spenser in England, turned towards this form as birds towards a granary unroofed by the wind. Concerning Mr. Hall Caine's theory that the English sonnet is an indigenous growth, I shall have something to say later on.
It will be well to consider the sonnet in a three-fold aspect: the aspect of Formal Excellence, that of Characteristic Excellence, and that of Ideal Excellence. By the first I refer to technique simply; by the second to individuality, expression; by the third to the union of imagination, suggestiveness, melody of word and line, and harmony of structure. The section of this introductory note devoted to the consideration of Formal Excellence may be comprehensively headed Sonnet-Structure.