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What Is a Sonnet?
The word “sonnet” stems from the Italian word “sonetto,” which itself derives from “suono” (meaning “a sound”). The sonnet form was developed by Italian poet Giacomo da Lentini in the early thirteenth century. Many Italians of the time period wrote sonnets, including Michelangelo and Dante Alighieri. However, the most famous Renaissance Italian poet of sonnets was Petrarch. As such, Italian Renaissance sonnets are typically called “Petrarchan sonnets.”
The format created by Giacomo da Lentini and perfected by Petrarch was adapted by the English poets of the Elizabethan age. These poets included Elizabeth Barrett Browning, John Donne, and the master of the English sonnet, William Shakespeare. So synonymous is Shakespeare with the sonnet format that English sonnets are frequently referred to as “Shakespearean sonnets.”
How Many Lines Does a Sonnet Have?
A sonnet consists of 14 lines. Shakespearean sonnets are typically governed by the following rules:
- The 14 lines are divided into four subgroups
- The first three subgroups have four lines each, which makes them “quatrains,” with the second and fourth lines of each group containing rhyming words
- The sonnet then concludes with a two-line subgroup, and these two lines rhyme with each other
- There are typically ten syllables per line
What Is the Rhyme Scheme of a Sonnet?
A rhyme scheme is the rhyming sequence or arrangement of sounds at the end of each line of poetry. It is typically represented by using letters to demonstrate which lines rhyme with which.
Roses are red—A
Violets are blue—B
Sugar is sweet—C
And so are you—B
A Shakespearean sonnet employs the following rhyme scheme across its 14 lines—which, again, are broken up into three quatrains plus a two-line coda:
ABAB CDCD EFEF GG
What Is Iambic Pentameter?
Each of the fourteen lines of a Shakespearean sonnet is written in “iambic pentameter.” This means a line contains five iambs—two syllable pairs in which the second syllable is emphasized.
As an example, consider the opening line of Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 130”:
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun
With proper iambic emphasis, the line would be read aloud in the following way:
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun
Shakespeare was such a master of iambic pentameter that he even seamlessly inserted it into dramatic action. Consider Juliet’s line in Romeo and Juliet:
“But, soft! / What light / through yon / der win / dow breaks?”
Learn how to write iambic pentameter with David Mamet here.
4 Types of Sonnets
There are 4 primary types of sonnets:
- Petrarchan: The Petrarchan Sonnet is named after the Italian poet Francesco Petrarch, a lyrical poet of fourteenth-century Italy. Petrarch did not invent the poetic form that bears his name. Rather, the commonly credited originator of the sonnet is Giacomo da Lentini, who composed poetry in the literary Sicilian dialect in the thirteenth century. They have 14 lines, divided into 2 subgroups: an octave and a sestet. The octave follows a rhyme scheme of ABBA ABBA. The sestet follows one of two rhyme schemes—either CDE CDE scheme (more common) or CDC CDC. Learn more about Petrarchan sonnets here.
- Shakespearean: A Shakespearean sonnet is a variation on the Italian sonnet tradition. The form evolved in England during and around the time of the Elizabethan era. These sonnets are sometimes referred to as Elizabethan sonnets or English sonnets. They have 14 lines divided into 4 subgroups: 3 quatrains and a couplet. Each line is typically ten syllables, phrased in iambic pentameter. A Shakespearean sonnet employs the rhyme scheme ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. Learn more about Shakespearean sonnets here.
- Spenserian: A Spenserian sonnet is a variation on the Shakespearean sonnet, with a more challenging rhyme scheme: ABAB BCBC CDCD EE.
- Miltonic: “Miltonic” sonnets are an evolution of the Shakespearean sonnet. They often examined an internal struggle or conflict rather than themes of the material world, and sometimes they would stretch beyond traditional limits on rhyme or length.
Dive deeper into the nuances of the four types of sonnets here.
Examples of Sonnets
Some of the most iconic examples of sonnets in the English language are familiar to most—perhaps not in full, but a line or two at the very least.
Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 18” may contain the most famous opening line in all of poetry:
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimmed;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wand’rest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to Time thou grow’st.
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
Sonnets still exist in the contemporary age. These poems bridge classic forms with contemporary themes and a post-modern approach to artistic structure. Wanda Coleman (1946-2013) published a collection called American Sonnets, including this piece:
The gates of mercy slammed on the right foot.
they would not permit return and bent
a wing. there was no choice but
to learn to boogaloo. those horrid days
were not without their pleasure, learning
to swear and wearing mock leather so tight
eyes bulged, a stolen puff or two
behind crack-broken backs and tickled palms
in hallways dark, flirtations during choir practice
as the body organized itself against the will
(a mystic gone ballistic, not home but blood
on the range) as one descended on this effed-up
breeding hole of greeds—to suffer chronic seeings
Was’t hunger or holiness spurred the sighting?
How to Write a Sonnet in 4 Steps
You may not be Shakespeare, Milton, or Wanda Coleman, but you, too can write a sonnet. Here are some tips to get you started:
- Write about something you know. Though not a practitioner of the sonnet, Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez once told The Paris Review, “Write about something that has happened to [you] ... the biggest praise for my work comes for the imagination, while the truth is that there's not a single line in all my work that does not have a basis in reality.” Before obsessing over the right syllable count, rhyme scheme, and the required number of lines, first draw inspiration from your life.
- Pose a question. After reflecting on your lived-experience, what are you left wondering? Or what have you observed recently that has piqued a burning question? Perhaps this can be the opening octave of a Petrarchan sonnet.
- Come to a resolution. Continuing in the spirit of a Petrarchan sonnet, use the latter sestet in your sonnet to offer some type of resolution. Remember that a resolution doesn’t have to mean a solution. Some of life’s most worthwhile queries may not extend any further than an observation.
- Watch your form. Writing a traditional sonnet requires 14 lines of iambic pentameter. Your sonnet can be arranged as a whole or broken up into three quatrains followed, followed by a two-line coda—or an octave followed by a sestet. Be mindful of the form, but in the spirit of John Milton or Edmund Spenser, don’t refrain from taking liberties.
Learn more about reading and writing poetry with US Poet Laureate Billy Collins here.