This article aims to give you an outline of sonnets, including what they are, their history and some examples of the different kinds of sonnet. Hopefully along the way you'll pick up some tips to help you write sonnets (or write better sonnets!).
What is a sonnet?
- Fourteen lines
- Fixed metre
- Fixed rhyme scheme
- A shift in mood or perspective during the poem
Sonnets are short poems which traditionally have 14 lines, a fixed metre and a fixed rhyme scheme. Despite, or perhaps because of, the formal constraints of sonnets, they often deal with themes of emotions, love, and freedom. The name ‘sonnet’ comes from the Italian meaning ‘little sound’ or ‘little song’
Sonnets usually have two sections; a proposition or argument followed by an answer, solution, or a different way of looking at the original issue. In this, sonnets are similar to Japanese Tanka. Between the two sections, sonnets have a volta or turn - a change in the mood or argument of the poem. The volta is a central feature of the sonnet and is often emphasised by a shift in the rhyme scheme. It causes the reader to re-examine the assumptions of the first part of the poem or casts the whole central idea of the piece in a different light. Because of this, a sonnet can be used effectively to mirror the human thought process or to show the progress of an emotion.
Often contemporary sonnets will not follow the fixed metrical pattern and rhyme scheme of traditional sonnets, but they may still use a sonnet structure by having two distinct sections and a volta.
Sonnets are often grouped by theme in connected groups called ‘sonnet sequences’.
Although sonnets have been written in a variety of different metres, traditionally sonnets in English were most commonly written in Iambic Pentameter.
‘Iambic’ means that the basic repeating sound pattern of the poem, known as the metrical foot, is the Iamb. An Iamb is made of two syllables, an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable ‘da-DUM’ (examples of iambs include absurd, unite, alarm and expand). ‘Pent’ means five, so ‘Pentameter’ means that there are five Iambs in each line of the poem.
Each line of a poem in regular Iambic Pentameter has ten syllables broken up into five feet. These follow the unstressed-stressed pattern.
Example (the bolding indicates the stresses):
In faith I do not love thee with mine eyes,For they in thee a thousand errors note,But 'tis my heart that loves what they despise,Who in despite of view is pleased to dote.
(From Shakespeare’s Sonnet 141)
For a more in-depth explanation of metre and how it works, and of other different types of metre, check out:
Lesson 1 - Basics of MeterQUOTE OF THE DAY
"Life is tons of discipline. Your first discipline is your vocabulary; then your grammar and your punctuation. Then, in your exuberance and bounding energy you say you're going to add to that. Then you add rhyme and meter. And your delight is in that power."
- Robert Frost
As Robert Frost is saying, meter and rhyme are not the most important parts of writing. They are the most intricate when creating poetry, but poems can be written without them. I began my poetry with free verse, and gradually became more and more fixed as I went on to learn more about how meter affects the poem, and how rhyme, alliteration, assonance, and the like also affect the reader's experience with a piece of poetry. And my free verse is all the better for it. Even if you never write another fixed poem after finishing this course, an intricate understanding of the rules of conventional poe
Metre 101So. Metre.
It has become a dirty word in some poetry circles.
It conjures images of withered, grey-haired men laboriously counting out beats and stresses whilst coughing up phlegm because of all the dust in their cramped and quasi-arcane libraries.
It really isn't all THAT bad, trust me.
So, without getting too 'old-man' technical - What is metre? what is it good for?
And, importantly, how does one use it?
Well, let's see if we can come up with some workable and easily understood answers by the end of this.
#1: What is metre?
Technical Language: The most well known metre, 'Accentual Syllabic Metre' is the rhythmic arrangement of syllables and patterns of stresses in a poetic line.
Translation: Metre is a poetic device that allows you to consciously orchestrate the flow of rhythm in a poem by paying attention to the natural rise and fall of the spoken word, and how to align those patterns of word-emphasis in an effective way.
#2: What is metre good for?
A brief history of the sonnet
Sonnets originated in Italy in the 13th century. They are thought to derive from the Sicilian Octave, an eight line form which has only two rhyme sounds throughout, similar to the first eight lines of a traditional Italian sonnet.
One of the most notable early Italian sonneteers was Francesco Petrarch, who wrote sonnets celebrating courtly love and featuring ‘Laura’, a woman with whom he had fallen in love at first sight. Many of Petrarch’s sonnets are in the form of a blason. Blasons are poems which describe the features of the woman about whom the poem is written using metaphors. One example of a Petrarchan sonnet in translation can be found at link. Petrarch also introduced the notion, adopted by many later sonnet-writers, of love as a kind of religious experience.
Italian sonnets, and sonnets written in imitation of the early Italian sonnets, split the 14 lines of the poem into an octave (eight lines) and a sestet (six lines) with the volta or shift after the octave.
Sonnets arrived in England in the 16th century, initially as translations of Italian and French sonnets. By the mid 16th century, sonnets in English were highly fashionable, particularly amongst the aristocracy, owing to their intricacy and the potential for self-aggrandizement. The features and themes which came to characterise English sonnets were established. Sonnets generally had three quatrains (groups of four lines) and ended with a rhyming couplet. A common theme of the 16th century sonnet was unrequited love, or courtly love. Shakespeare, writing in the late 16th century, began to subvert and play upon the sonnet conventions.
From the 17th century onwards, sonnets in English branched away from the traditional themes of love and devotion. John Donne used the sonnet from to explore themes of religious faith and doubt, and the sonnet experienced a revival in the early 19th century when Romantic poets such as Wordsworth used it to criticise the materialism of the age. Early 20th century poets such as Robert Frost and William Butler Yeats tackled a variety of themes using variations on the sonnet form. Frost said, “The sonnet is the strictest form I have behaved in, and only then by pretending it wasn’t a sonnet.”
Contemporary English sonnets rarely follow strict iambic pentameter and rhyme schemes, and don’t always have 14 lines. They are recognisable as a sonnet by the two distinct sections and the volta, by the intricacy of the form, and often by the heavy use of allusion, metaphor and rhetorical tropes.
Types of sonnet
Here are some examples of a few different types of sonnet. There are many others out there. Why not see what other kinds of sonnet you can find?
Petrarchan or Italian sonnet:
- ABBAABBA CDECDE or ABBAABBA CDCDCD rhyme scheme
- The rhyme scheme used in the final sestet varies
- The poem rarely ends with a rhyming couplet.
Petrarchan Sonnet TutorialThe Petrarchan Sonnet, also known as the Italian Sonnet, is the earliest sonnet form, invented in the 13th century. It was refined and popularized by Petrarch, who lent his name to the form. The first English sonnets were also written in this form.
It consists of two parts, an octave and a sestet. The octave follows an ABBAABBA form. The sestet may follow several forms: CDECDE, CDCCDC, or CDCDCD. By English conventions, the meter is iambic pentameter.
"On His Blindness" by John Milton
When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodg'd with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide,
"Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?"
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies: "God doth not need
Either man's work or his own gifts: who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly; thousands at his
Shakespearean or English sonnet:
- ABAB CDCD EFEF GG rhyme scheme
- Usually split into four quatrains (groups of four lines)
- Ends with a rhyming couplet
- The final couplet gives a sense of finality to the poem.
How to: Shakespearean SonnetsWelcome to "A Crash-Course in Shakespearean Sonnets!" Here you'll learn the basic techniques and the bare-minimums needed to create sonnets just like Shakespeare! You'll learn the rules he followed, as well as the rules he didn't follow (so you don't need to either!)
Let's get started:
THE THREE RULES
*** Division of Text ***
Its really quite simple! Each Shakespearean Sonnets is divided into 4 main pieces, and each piece has a different purpose.
(1) The f
- ABAB BCBC CDCD EE rhyme scheme
- Named after Edmund Spenser (1552-1599)
- Tighter rhyme scheme with less variation than Shakespearean sonnets
- Structurally similar to Shakespearean sonnets.
Chestnut Tinted HairMisutahomuzu observes my hair,
I hope that's what he's watching from behind.
I feel a scrutiny within that stare;
So penetrating I could lose my mind.
I can't go on like this, why can't he find
Somebody else to fix under his glare?
I turn around, glare back, respond in kind,
I fix my gaze upon his own short hair.
His mouth falls open, protests tumble out,
Insistently he tries to tell me lies.
He tries to say he's not a drunken lout,
And though I felt the gaze of his blue eyes
Upon my body after I walked past,
T'was chestnut tinted hair he watched, not arse.
- ABCABC DBCDC rhyme scheme
- Devised by Gerard Manley Hopkins
- Ten-and-a-half lines long
- Three quarters the size of a Petrarchan sonnet and shrunk proportionally.
Curtal Sonnet TutorialThe curtal sonnet (sometimes incorrectly called the "curtailed sonnet") is a sonnet form invented by the innovative Victorian poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins. Hopkins, who was intensely interested in the mathematical qualities of the sonnet, devised this form to be exactly 3/4 of a Petrarchan sonnet. The name "curtal" comes from a term originally referring to a horse that had its tail docked.
The form is 10.5 lines long, consisting of a sestet, a quatrain, and a "tail piece" (half of a line). There are no meter requirements, save that the poem is consistent in meter throughout. Iambic pentameter is standard, with a trimeter half-line, but Hopkins originally wrote in neither meter. For this reason, two examples of his are given. The rhyme scheme is listed before the example lines.
Peace (Iambic hexameter with a trimeter half-line)
(A) When will you ever, Peace, wild wooddove, shy wings shut,
(B) Your round me roaming end, and under be my boughs?
(C) When, when, Peace, will you, Peace? I'll
Booze BeautyBooze Beauty
Glory be to God for merry drunks
for Friday happy-hour in a comfy booth
for rum and Coke, Seven and 7-Up,
moonshine and Benedictine brewed by monks,
absinthe legal again, gin, vodka, vermouth,
and all cocktails, served straight, shaken, or up
add lighter liqueurs, triple-sec, St. Germain
but keep base spirits strong (why waste youth?)
with port, Pimm's, or curaçao in the cup
and syrup, seltzer, bitters, or even champagne:
- aBaBccDDeFFeGG rhyme scheme (the lowercase letters represent feminine endings, where more than one syllable rhymes and the line ends with an unstressed rhyming syllable)
- Named after Aleksandr Pushkin
- Also known as Onegin stanzas after the novel in verse in which Pushkin famously used them
- Written in Iambic Tetrameter, which has four Iambs to a line
- No set way of dividing up into groups of lines; more flexible than many sonnet forms
- The Golden Gate, a novel by Vikram Seth, is written entirely in this form.
A Pushkin SonnetThe Empty-Handed Man Explains
Not forgot, I think it's bogus -
chem-trails wafted from the groin
perform hormonal hocus-pocus,
juxtaposing 'brain' with 'loin'.
Then, swift to lose its jizz-ness,
romance knuckles down to business:
passion vowed on bended knee
replaced by kids, the SUV,
mortgage dues and renovations.
What about idyllic smut?
Sure, the urge may linger - but
who's got time, or inclination?
Hence (and wise to keep in mind),
the Romans stoned St. Valentine.
- ABBAABBACDCDCD DEE (CFF FGG) rhyme scheme
- A standard 14 line sonnet with a coda or tail on the end
- The poem is usually 17 to 24 lines long
- Features a standard Petrarchan sonnet in Iambic Pentameter followed by a tail
- The tail is 'half a line' in Iambic trimeter (three Iambs) and a rhyming couplet in Iambic Pentameter
- The tail can be repeated
- It was invented in Italy in the 16th century and was often used for satire.
Example: That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the comfort of the Resurrection by Gerard Manley Hopkins
- Also known as Heroic Crown of sonnets
- A set of 15 sonnets in which the last line of one sonnet is the first line of the next
- The last sonnet is traditionally made up from the repeated lines of the previous 14 sonnets in order
- Sonnets which feature variations in rhyme scheme or metre are sometimes termed ‘nonce sonnets’
- Nonce means ‘once’ or ‘for the one time’
- Nonce sonnets are one-offs which don’t adhere to established sonnet rules
- Defined as “a poem, generally of fourteen lines, rhyming by no set pattern, which suggests the sonnet form by its rhetorical unity and closure and by the intricacy of its construction,” (from The Robert Frost Encyclopedia, Eds. Nancy Lewis Tuten, John Zubizarreta)
- Many contemporary sonnets can be classed as nonce sonnets.
- ABACBC DEDFEF AD or ABACBC DEDFEF CF rhyme scheme
- The underlining here indicates that the whole line is repeated
- Can include the use of a regular metre, although it is not required.
Three Cornish Sonnets
Getachew's back from climbing some mountain.
James knows him well enough to call him 'Geech'.
He shakes my hand firmly, and I must look wanton
as he offers to get me girls. He is rake-thin.
We hang in his room and we talk, but not much.
Then 'Geech' plays us the themesong from Darkman.
It's the first song on his personal mixtape,
which is mostly hip-hop. His room's a pantry
of magazine cuttings and boardgames. No socks, sweep
of cast-offs, not a single coat-hanger.
James says, "It's good to be in your country
again," and we hang a while longer.
Then Geech plays us the themesong from Darkman
again, and we hang a while longer.
In the day, we buy some golden, brioche-
like bread and assorted pick & mix, share it
out. My hair is well-liked, the thrash
of rain is welcome, my boots are shined,
I read Rilke, who is a pretty good poet,
and there is a heady, gingersweet wind.
At night, we hit bars and drink local brew.
When one of us stumbles we cheer, "Ziggy-zag!"
In a restaurant, I arm
All the sonnets
- See how many different kinds of sonnet you can find in this piece:
Epic- WIPShe hums a tuneless melody, a sigh,
A graceless melancholy’s lasting note
Unnoticed in its soft pronouncement: rote,
And yet unlearned—That innate reply.
So heartsick, she allows the swelling cry
to bloom. It stifles something of her throat,
Her hollow voice—which little may devote
To narrative, but that beginnings lie
In verse—made dull by common tragedy.
There’s nothing glorious in this. No song
Of some uncommon skill escapes her lips;
No eloquent articulation slips
Through form to follow
Today we all are dying, Grace thinks when
His box disappears underground. Today
Submits to Time's exacting measure in
Its relegated blinks, so heartbeats weigh
But scant against the poppies in her hand;
Today exhausts a horizontal brume,
Its comprising banks most savage reprimand
The haze of recollection-like perfume.
Today she does not venture to glory
The last repose—today her sibling lies
Alone, consigned to faulted memory.
Groups on dA where you can find sonnets and tutorials:
- formfindsfunction (gallery at formfindsfunction.deviantart.c…)
- Crowns-of-Sonnets (gallery at crowns-of-sonnets.deviantart.c…)
- Fixed-Form-Poetry (gallery at fixed-form-poetry.deviantart.c…)
- Rhyme-and-Reason (gallery at rhyme-and-reason.deviantart.co…)
Off-site sonnet resources and information:
- Sonnets.org - Sonnet central. An archive of sonnets and information about sonnets
- Poets.org - Sonnets, articles about sonnets, a glossary and more
- Poetryfoundation.org - Browse a list of excellent contemporary sonnets.
- Have you ever written a sonnet?
- What did you find easiest or most difficult about sonnet writing?
- What is your favourite sonnet to read?
- Which of the different types of sonnet do you prefer?
- Do you think you'll try writing a sonnet in future?
- A sonnet in lolspeak:
A Sonnet in Lolspeak ~A Sonnet in Lolspeak~
Dey sez we kittehs iz not gud wif speach,
Dat we spellz bad, dun yuse teh grammerz well,
An even sumtiems dey get madz and yell
Dat we shud tawk liek normulz, tryna preech
Dere "propur" ingleesh in dere kommentz on
Teh YooToobs and such playses on teh net
Cuz dey (tho we did nothinz) wanna get
Us off teh webz. Dey's mean an want us gawn.
But kittehs dun so eesly get deterrd,
O noes, an so dey griypes and griypes and griypes
But stilz we stays and stilz we can has tipez,
An tipez in lolspeek, yoosinz ar weerd wurds.
So tho dey will complayns, try as dey mey
We iz not leevinz, we iz heer to stay.