When most people think of English traditional poetry, it is extremely likely that they’ll think of sonnets. The sonnet form has been around for hundreds of years. Initially Italian (like most forms of modern poetry), the sonnet form became extremely popular around the 16th century.

Even the word “sonnet” can be terrifying to modern poets. The strict rhyme structure and overall poem length of the English sonnet it something of a deterrence in the face of the freedoms offered by free verse and vers libre.

Mastering the sonnet is incredibly difficult, and I don’t know anyone who would say that we’re currently in a golden age of the sonnet form. Those fourteen lines – or thirteen lines (depending on your approach to an English sonnet or typical Italian sonnet) – can be incredibly powerful forms in a typical rhyme scheme.

What Is A Sonnet?

If you’re looking for a simple sonnet definition, a traditional sonnet is a fourteen-line poem, typically expressed in iambic pentameter. Iambic pentameter means that each line has 10 syllables, and those syllables follow an unstressed/stressed pattern. So, the first syllable is unstressed, the second is stressed, the third is unstressed and so on.

For a great stretch of English history, including some classrooms today, sonnets have been regarded as the premier form of poetry in the English language.

What Defines A Sonnet?

A sonnet is a poem that follows a specific structure. It is typically 14 lines long with an octave (8 lines) and a sestet (6 lines), and it uses a specific rhyme scheme. The octave typically introduces a problem or question, while the sestet provides the answer or resolution.

This is rarely as simple as simply posing a question and answer, however, like a poetic FAQ. Instead, the sonnet often relies on the reader searching for the question themselves. This added depth required when reading a truly great sonnet is an effective tool for investing the reader in the world the sonnet is describing or defining.

Who Invented The Sonnet?

The sonnet’s invention is typically attributed to the thirteenth century Italian poet, Giacomo Da Lentini. Sonnet, and the word sonnets, comes from the Italian word sonetto (which translates to Sound, Melody).

What Are The Traits Of A Sonnet?

In order to be classified as a typical sonnet, a poem must use iambic pentameter and follow one of several specific rhyme schemes. Additionally, sonnets are typically 14 lines long, often with an octave (8 lines) and a sestet (six-line stanza).

However, over the years, sonnets have been adapted, played with and altered – like all forms of poetry and art. As such, even settling on the defining characteristics of a modern sonnet can be extremely difficult.

Are All 14 Line Poems Sonnets?

No. Not all 14-line poems are sonnets. In fact, the vast majority of 14-line poems are not sonnets. A sonnet consists of 14 lines, in one of a few specific rhyming patterns, almost always following iambic pentameter.

Sonnets are a specific type of poem with a very specific structure and rhyme scheme. As long as a poem has those two elements, it can technically be called a sonnet – even if it doesn’t follow the traditional structure or iambic pentameter.

What Are The Different Types Of Sonnets?

There are four main types of sonnets: the Petrarchan, the Shakespearean, the Spenserian, and the Miltonic. There are also dozens of other sonnet structures and types of sonnets, often based on variations of the four categories above.

The Petrarchan sonnet is named after the Italian poet, Francesco Petrarch, (or Petrarca), who popularized this type of sonnet in the 14th century. It follows a rhyme scheme of abbaabba, and the octave (the first eight lines) introduces a problem or question, which is resolved in the sestet (the last six lines).

The Shakespearean sonnet is named after William Shakespeare, who popularized this type of sonnet in the 16th century. It also follows a rhyme scheme of abbaabba, but the lines are grouped into three quatrains and a couplet. The first two quatrains introduce a problem or question, which is resolved in the third quatrain, and the final couplet provides a resolution or conclusion.

Poulter’s Measure sonnets are an unusual variation of the Shakespearean sonnet. They are in iambic tetrameter instead of pentameter and are typically 12 lines long, divided into 3 quatrains and a couplet. The first three quatrains present the problem or question, while the couplet provides the answer or resolution.

The Spenserian sonnet is named after Edmund Spenser, who popularized this type of sonnet in the 16th century. It follows a rhyme scheme of abababcb, and the octave introduces a problem or question, which is resolved in the sestet. The Spenserian sonnet is rarely mentioned today, with more attention being given to the sonnets written by other Italian, English and even German poets.

The Miltonic sonnet is named after John Milton, who popularized this type of sonnet in the 17th century. Milton’s sonnets followed a rhyme scheme of ababcdcdefef, and the octave introduces a problem or question, which is resolved in the sestet.

How Are Petrarchan Sonnets Structured?

Italian sonnets, or Petrarchan sonnets, are 14 lines long with an octave (8 lines) and a sestet (final six lines). The octave presents the problem or question, while the sestet typically provides the answer or resolution. A Petrarchan sonnet is quite a rare thing today, whether you’re an English, American or Italian poet.

Petrarch’s sonnets are often read quite critically today, for their opinions on ideal beauty. Although he’s often credited with perfecting the sonnet, his opinions on the ideal woman, with blonde hair, a high forehead, pale skin and a long neck is just one example of a long line of art being used to define a perfect beauty, which is at odds with modern, progressive opinion.

How Is A Shakespearean Sonnet Structured?

Shakespearean sonnets, also called English sonnets, are written in iambic pentameter and are typically 3 quatrains (four lines) and a couplet (2 lines). The first three quatrains present the problem or question, while the final couplet provides the answer or resolution.

What’s The Difference Between Petrarchan & Shakespearean Sonnets?

The main difference between a Petrarchan sonnet and Shakespearean sonnet is the way the poem’s fourteen lines are grouped together. The Petrarchan sonnet divides its lines between an octave (eight lines) and a sestet (six lines). Shakespeare’s sonnets are also composed of fourteen lines. Most Shakespearean sonnets are divided into three quatrains and a concluding couplet. Shakespearean sonnets typically follow the rhyme scheme “abab cdcd efef gg”. This sonnet form and rhyme scheme is known as the ‘English’ sonnet.

What Makes A Poem A Sonnet?

While the specific structure of a sonnet is important, there are other elements that make a poem a sonnet. In order for a poem to be classified as a sonnet, it must use iambic pentameter and follow a specific rhyme scheme. Sonnets have a reputation for being a poetic form about love, or other infatuation. Nature, too, is a common subject for the sonnet writer. However, there are just as many sonnets about other things.

What Are Some Examples Of Sonnets?

Some of the most famous examples of sonnets are William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18, and Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning is responsible for another of the most famous sonnets in the English language with sonnet 43 – more commonly known as How Do I Love Thee?

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

I love thee to the depth and breadth and height

My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight

For the ends of being and ideal grace.

I love thee to the level of every day’s

Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.

I love thee freely, as men strive for right.

I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.

I love thee with the passion put to use

In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.

I love thee with a love I seemed to lose

With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,

Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,

I shall but love thee better after death.

What Is The Most Famous Sonnet?

While it’s different around the world, the most famous sonnet in the English language is probably William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18, which is often called “Shall I Compare Thee To A Summer’s Day?”.

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 wander’st 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.

This Shakespearean sonnet is one of the most beautiful he ever wrote. As the most famous Elizabethan sonnet today, with the traditional rhyme scheme abab cdcd efef gg, this poem is probably the most famous, and commonly-quoted, 14 lines in the English language.

(I don’t know about you, but I always imagine Hugh Grant reading them. They just seem so quintessentially English to me, ingrained in our very bones, that his overly RP, naturally stuttering voice comes naturally to how I perceive traditional sonnets in the 21st century.)

Why Are Sonnets Numbered, Rather Than Named?

Sonnets are numbered for a range of reasons, but mainly it is to create a sonnet sequence. A sonnet sequence, or sonnet group – or even sonnet cycles, if you prefer – is a collection of sonnets which are written to build upon each other.

Shakespeare, however, was suspected to have simply numbered his sonnets as he wrote them. There is still some argument over this in literary circles, as to whether the sonnets were numbered by position within an overall theme, or simply in the order he wrote them.

What Is The Purpose Of A Sonnet Sequence?

A sonnet sequence is designed to structure multiple sonnets in a longer piece of work, with each sonnet building towards a theme, or even directly answering or contrasting with a preceding sonnet.

The final sonnet in most sonnet groupings should bring some sense of closure or progression to the entire collection.

How Do I Write A Sonnet?

There’s no one correct way to write a sonnet – I think that’s where a lot of people go wrong when they’re starting to write a sonnet. If you’re going to start writing your own sonnets, I think the first main focus should be on the initial couplet. The first couplet (the first two lines) allow you to decide on the pacing of your poem, the rhyme scheme and the initial subject.

It might be tempting to start off your sonnet as a love poem, and make it Shakespearean, simply because “that’s how sonnets are”. However, remember that you’re the one writing today – not Shakespeare.

Just like any poetic form, the sonnet is a platform from which you can work to present your own opinions, discuss the things that you find beautiful and forge your own path through the history of the English sonnet.

Do Sonnets Need To Be In Iambic Pentameter?

Modern sonnets, particularly those inspired by the freedom offered by free verse and vers libre, don’t necessarily need to follow the rules of those gone before. However, if you write sonnets with a focus on the traditional, then you should write in iambic pentameter. Each line of your sonnet’s structure should be composed of 10 feet, following the strict unstressed and stressed syllable structure. Sonnets written in stressed and unstressed syllables benefit from the pacing and propulsion that the unstressed, stressed syllable structure provides, but can often sound archaic to our modern ears.

Do Sonnets Have A Strict Rhyme Scheme?

All sonnets should follow a strict rhyme scheme. Depending on which form of sonnet you’re writing, you should follow a different rhyming scheme. Spenserian sonnets, for example, follow a scheme like abab bcbc cdcd ee. It all depends on a which kind of sonnet you’re writing.

Why Shouldn’t I Write A Shakespearean Sonnet?

Quite simply, you’re not Shakespeare. I don’t mean that in a derogatory way – I have quite a complicated relationship with good ol’ Bill, and I think that the world would be a significantly better place if we all took a break from admiring or teaching Shakespeare.

You should write like yourself. Writing like other authors and poets can have a positive impact on your own writing, but when it comes to writing seriously, with real passion and drive, there’s no one who can express your opinions and experiences better than you.

Is A Sonnet A Love Poem?

While sonnets are often associated with love poems, that is not a requirement in order for a poem to be classified as a sonnet. In fact, there are just as many sonnets about other things as there are sonnets about love.

That being said, love is a common subject matter for the sonnet writer because of how powerful and all-consuming the emotion can be. And, when done well, a sonnet about love can be incredibly moving.

Why Is The Ninth Line In A Sonnet Important?

In Italian sonnet writing, the ninth line is (aside from the first line) the only real moment of freedom a poet has within their own work. The ninth line in Italian sonnets don’t need to rhyme with anything. This is known as the Volta, the “place where the poem turns”.

What Is A Stretched Sonnet Form?

A stretched sonnet form is a bit of a hybrid between a sonnet and free verse. As the name suggests, it stretches the traditional rules of the sonnet form, while still maintaining some of the key aspects that make a poem a sonnet.

One of the most common ways to stretch a sonnet is to add an extra line or two, making the poem 15 or 16 lines instead of 14. This allows for a bit more flexibility in terms of rhyme and meter, while still sticking to the overall structure of a sonnet.

Another way to stretch the form is to break from traditional rules around rhyme and meter. This can create a more free-flowing feel to the poem, while still maintaining the key aspects of a sonnet.

What Is A Caudate Sonnet?

A Caudate sonnet, often known as a Tailed sonnet, is an extended sonnet form, with a coda, or tail, added to the end. This form of sonnet was first attributed to Francesco Berni (1497 – 1536). Tailed sonnets were often used for satire and can be anywhere between 17 and 24 lines. Typically, the tail line itself is in iambic trimeter, and any subsequent couplets are written in iambic pentameter.

These sonnets typically follow a rhyme scheme of abbaabbacdcdcd dee (17 lines), or abbaabbacdcdcd dee cff fgg g (24 lines).

Ready To Start Reading & Writing Sonnets?

I hope you’ve found the above article useful, and it’s answered some of your burning questions about the English and Italian sonnet, their history and how modern sonnets are still being written.

If you’ve got any questions about the art of writing a sonnet, or there’s information you think is missing, don’t hesitate to get in touch, or check out some of the other articles we’ve put together!

J.W. Carey
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