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The sonnet, one of the oldest, strictest, and most enduring poetic forms, comes from the Italian word sonetto, meaning “little song.” In this unit, students trace its origins to the thirteenth century, to the Italian court. Although Giacomo de Lentini is credited with its invention, our primary exploration is though Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch), who was its most famous early practitioner. We then move on to see how the form was adopted and enthusiastically embraced by the English in the Elizabethan period, most notably by Shakespeare, who gave it the structure we commonly think of today: 14 lines of rhymed iambic pentameter.

From here, students then track the history of the sonnet through key literary periods into modern times, where experimental poets have pushed, and are still pushing, the boundaries of what the form is and means. In this unit, students will not only become experts in poetic form, but also have the opportunity to see how concepts and themes have been influenced by societal shifts and seismic literary movements across the canon.