Sonnet Poetry Form: Weave Love in Fourteen Lines

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Here’s what the Sonnet poetry form is:

A sonnet is a fixed 14-line verse poem that originates from 13th-century Italy.

The Petrarchan (or Italian) sonnet and the Shakespearean (or English) sonnet are the two principal forms of sonnets.

So if you want to learn all about the Sonnet poetry type, then you’ve come to the right place.

Read on!

Sonnet Poem Type: Simply Explained

Forms of Poetry: The Sonnet

what is a sonnet

Sonnets, generally speaking, are 14-line poems.

In recent history, this generalization has more and more become the norm, with some poets identifying any poem with 14 lines as a sonnet.

But it’s important to recognize that the form has a much richer history within traditional formal poetry, where it was one of the most omnipresent forms of the time.

This article will assume that you’ve already built up the necessary vocabulary to discuss formal poetry.

If you don’t know what iambs, meters, or rhyme schemes are, then I suggest bulking up your understanding of the terminology of formal poetry before continuing.

Those three words, in particular, will be necessary to understand a sonnet.

This is more of an intermediate topic that does require a sturdy foundation before you can really delve into it.

Naturally, the most famous sonnets we think of today are those of William Shakespeare.

It’s safe to say that the form would not have been nearly as popular, nor as prevalent in our classrooms, had he not written a fair treasure trove of sonnets to sift through.

Perhaps as a result of his extraordinary fame, the sonnet has struggled to move past the century in which he lived.

Even sonnets written today are often about love, and indeed when we think of traditional flowery love poems, it is often Shakespeare’s many sonnets that first come to mind.

The word “sonnet” can be traced to the Italian sonneto, literally a “little song.”

Basic Properties of a Sonnet

properties of a sonnet
Rhyme StructureStrict; Divided into two sub-form
MeterIambic Pentameter
OriginIambic Pentameter
PopularityFlourished through the Renaissance; revitalized by William Shakespeare
ThemeAlmost exclusively love poems

How Are Sonnets Structured?

The two most popular forms of a sonnet in the English language are the Shakespearean sonnet and the Petrarchan sonnet.

These forms are also called the English and Italian sonnet, respectively.

Both have 14 lines and are traditionally written in iambic pentameter.

Although sonnets of different meters have popped up from time to time since experimentation is a natural tradition of poetry.

This means each line is typically ten syllables with a distinctive rhythm, giving sonnets their trademark ‘musical’ effect.

The main difference between an English sonnet and an Italian sonnet is in the rhyme scheme.

Shakespearean sonnets utilize a rhyme scheme of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG.

The three quatrains often reflect the poem’s main theme (typically love) from three angles, while the rhymed couplet wraps everything up in a neat little bow at the end.

Italian sonnets instead use a rhyme scheme of ABBAABBA for the first octave, followed by a sestet that can vary but is most commonly CDCDCD or CDECDE.

Note that the Italian sonnet’s rhyme scheme is much more demanding, expecting the poet to repeat the end sounds far more times consecutively than an English sonnet.

This is reflective of the differences in our languages.

Due to the nature of Italian conjugations, it’s far easier to rhyme in Italian than it is in English, so a form specifically designed with the limitations of English in mind became our norm.

Naturally, however, many poets wanted to experience the sonnet in a form closer to its Italian roots.

Thus we ended up with two distinct rhyme schemes for what is ultimately the same form.

The octave in a Petrarchan sonnet tends to pose the topic as a question to be answered or a problem to be solved, with the sestet acting as the conclusion in which the expression of feelings moves from explorative to concrete.

One unique property of sonnets is the volta (which simply means “turn” in Italian).

Sonnets traditionally feature a moment in which the poet’s thoughts go through a dramatic shift.

In love poems, for example, this might entail shifting from expressing deep romantic feelings to envisioning a future together.

Notably, this turn tends to come much later in the English sonnet (around the couplet at the end) than in an Italian sonnet, where it often happens when the octave switches out into the sestet.

This tends to make English sonnets more exploratory and inquisitive, with the conclusions of the couplet coming off as whimsical or even flippant, while Italian sonnets tend to boast more cohesion throughout the poem.

Example of a Sonnet

Sonnet 18 by William Shakespeare

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 dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;
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.

Behold, the most cliched example of a sonnet possible.

Jokes aside, the above example is easily one of the most famous English sonnets in history and we see all of the typical features we expect from an English sonnet.

The poem is written in Iambic pentameter, features the standard rhyme scheme, and the volta even happens right around the expected point towards the end of the poem.

This is, in every way, a fairly standard English sonnet.

Take note, in particular, of how the first three quatrains each have their own subtheme.

The first quatrain lovingly compares the subject to nature, then the second criticizes nature for being inferior, while the third quatrain goes even further by claiming the subject’s beauty is supernaturally eternal.

Next, let’s look at an Italian sonnet.

How do I love thee? by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

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.

In keeping with our theme, this is another 14-line love poem.

As with Shakespeare’s poem, we see that all of the trends of the form are followed to precision.

Sonnets are a form that has often been held synonymous with formal poetry.

Thus, it’s quite rare for poets to break the traditions of the form, since it would spark a debate over whether what they’ve written is a ‘true’ sonnet.

Interestingly, Browning’s sonnet features an unusually late volta for an Italian sonnet.

Most of the poem reads much the same way, focused on ways that the speaker can express her love, and it’s only in the last few lines that we sense a slightly darker tone emerging.

It is in line 10 where we start to see this turn, as the love is expanded upon as “a love I seemed to lose.”

This gives the feeling of complexity that wasn’t featured until now and that complexity is compounded in subsequent lines, where topics of loss and death come to the forefront.

With such a delay in the turn, the poem ends up feeling like an interesting compromise between an Italian sonnet and an English sonnet, though it is by design strictly Petrarchan.

History of Sonnets

Sonnets got their start in Italy and their invention is typically credited to Giacomo da Lentini in the 13th century.

These sonnets were written to express courtly love and poets of the Sicilian School were the first to spread the form.

As you would expect from a form that was originally designed to express love, the form stuck hard to its roots for centuries and even today struggles to break free into other topics, as its history is so entrenched in romance.

During the Renaissance, sonnets were the premiere love poem.

Writing a sonnet for someone was akin to giving a love interest a handwritten love note and many writers would even write intricate sonnets for unrequited love, either for publication or to express their feelings privately.

Note that there is some contention over whether the sonnet’s origin can truly be reduced to one man and his friends and colleagues, as it has been shown to be consistent with the evolution of Arabic poetry.

Regardless, the above narrative does reflect the prevailing perspective at the time of this article’s writing.

Sonnets didn’t actually enter the English language until about the early 16th century, carried in by Thomas Wyatt and the Earl of Surrey.

It should be noted that Surrey created the rhyme scheme we now associate with the English sonnet, which would later become an obsession of William Shakespeare.

Tips for Writing a Sonnet

While you could just start hammering away at your keyboard, there are a few things you may want to decide first.

The first thing to determine is, as always, your topic.

It’s traditional for sonnets to be about love, of course, but what kind of love? Spiritual? Romantic? Puppy love?

For whom is the sonnet written, if there is a specific person?

Alternatively, you could be experimental and write about a love that breaks away from romance.

Love of nature. Love for humanity. Love of God.

You could even discard the notion that sonnets have to be about love entirely and choose a topic all your own.

Once you have your main theme, you need to decide whether this will be an English or Italian sonnet.

This will inform the structure of the poem and will give you some idea of how difficult the rhyme scheme will be. (Italian sonnets tend to be more demanding.)

If you’re writing an English sonnet, then you might want to brainstorm different perspectives or thoughts that apply to the love you feel, so that you can divide them up into quatrains.

In either form, consider the volta.

What conclusion do you want to express and what examples or thoughts can naturally lead up to it?

Of course, the hardest part of writing a sonnet is easily keeping it in iambic pentameter.

If you’re going to stick strictly to the traditional meter of a sonnet, then make sure you’re counting syllables as you write.

It can be helpful to count them out as you go, trimming and bloating the individual lines until they match the meter.

Don’t be afraid to write a line with 8-12 syllables first, then chisel at it.

It’s surprisingly easy to mold lines around a length once you get a feel for it, by replacing words with syllables, removing unneeded words, or adding an extra adjective here and there.

Sonnets definitely take practice, but they’re not as insurmountable as they first appear.

Hang in there and take it one line at a time.

Remember that no one starts out as a talented poet who can easily stick to any meter and rhyme scheme.

Even the most skilled writers you can think of had to crawl before they could walk.

Poet’s Note

Pen lays on paper.

Just because Shakespeare was obsessed with writing love poems doesn’t mean all of your sonnets need to be romantic in nature.

Feel free to write them that way if you’re feeling it, though.

I just want to emphasize that you don’t have to follow traditions set by other writers.

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