Sonnets are a classic form of poetry which first started in Italy in the 13th century by Giacomo da Lentini. In the 16th century, Sir Thomas Wyatt pioneered the Sonnet as an English form of poetry. Sonnets are also poems that do not stand on their own. Sonnets come as part of a sequence, yet they can be read as stand-alone poetry. While all sonnets have some structural similarities, such as having fourteen lines and a set rhyme scheme, there are different kinds of sonnets with their own distinguishing features.
If you want to write a sonnet, you should understand the structural rules associated with the different forms.
The Petrarchan/Italian Sonnet
The Petrarchan, also called The Italian, sonnet is divided up into two sections – the octave and the sestet. The octave is made up of eight lines, divided in itself up into two quatrains, with the rhyme scheme of ABBA ABBA. The octave usually sets up some sort of problem or question that the speaker in the sonnet is asking. The sestet is made up of six lines, divided into two tercets, that is the volta, also known as the turn or solution to the problem or question posed in the octave. The rhyme scheme of the sestet can vary – it can either be CDE CDE, CDC CDC, CDD CDE, or CDC DCD. Other variations of the rhyme scheme of the sestet have developed over time, but these are the most common classic forms.
While Petrarch wrote his 317 sonnets in Italian, there were many English sonneteers that used the Petrarchan form in English, like The Long Love That in My Heart Doth Harbor by Sir Thomas Wyatt, a translation of Petrarch’s Rima 140.
The long love that in my heart doth harbor
And in mine heart doth keep his residence,
Into my face presseth with bold pretense,
And there campeth, displaying his banner.
She that me learneth to love and to suffer,
And wills that my trust and lust’s negligence
Be reined by reason, shame, and reverence,
With his hardiness taketh displeasure.
Wherewith love to the heart’s forest he fleeth,
Leaving his enterprise with pain and cry,
And there him hideth and not appeareth.
What may I do when my master feareth
But in the field with him to live and die?
For good is the life ending faithfully.
This sonnet follows the ABBA ABBA ryhme scheme within the octave and the CDC CDC ryhme scheme within the sestet. The topic, as is common in most sonnets, is about love. Or, to be more specific, about yearning for love because there’s some obstacle in the way. This theme of longing for love stays true within most sonnet forms.
The Shakespearean/Elizabethan Sonnet
While Shakespeare wasn’t the first Englishman to write sonnets, nor the Elizabethan form of the sonnet, he is the most celebrated practitioner of the form which also bears his namesake and wrote 154 sonnets in his lifetime. The Shakespearean and Petrarchan sonnet share some similarities, such as a set rhyme scheme (though that scheme varies between the two forms), the number of lines, the presence of a volta, and the theme of longing love, but there are many differences between the two forms as well.
The Shakespearean sonnet also has a set meter called iambic pentameter. Iambic pentameter consists of five feet. These feet are made up of two sets of syllables – the first unstressed and the second stressed. And, because English, as a language, does not have as many rhymes as a Romance-based language like Italian, the rhyme scheme was also restructured to be ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. The division of the sonnet was also reconstructed to be three sets of quatrains with one volta occurring in the last two lines of the poem, so the shift or answer in the poem comes much later than it does in a Petrarchan sonnet.
Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 demonstrates the rhyme scheme and meter of the Shakespearean sonnet.
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.
While this poem is less about yearning for love, the speaker in the poem still demonstrates a yearning, but this yearning is to preserve the object of their love past what is natural.
The Spenserian Sonnet
Spenser’s sonnet form stands separate from Petrach’s and Shakespeare’s for many reasons. While Spenser’s has the fourteen lines, the iambic pentameter, the rhyme scheme, and the theme of other sonnets forms, he made the form much more complex through an interlocking rhyme scheme of ABAB BCBC CDCD EE. While Spenser kept the appearance of the Petrachan sonnet with words like “but,” “not,” or “yet” at line nine within his poem to signal a volta, his form does not introduce the volta until line 13, like the Shakespearean sonnet form.
Sonnet 75 by Spenser is a great example of how his sonnet form parallels the other two yet distinguishes itself as its own sonnet form.
One day I wrote her name upon the strand,
But came the waves and washed it away:
Again I wrote it with a second hand,
But came the tide, and made my pains his prey.
Vain man, said she, that dost in vain assay
A mortal thing so to immortalize!
For I myself shall like to this decay,
And eek my name be wiped out likewise.
Not so (quoth I), let baser things devise
To die in dust, but you shall live by fame:
My verse your virtues rare shall eternize,
And in the heavens write your glorious name;
Where, whenas death shall all the world subdue,
Our love shall live, and later life renew.
Spenser, like Shakespeare and Petrarch, focused on love. Spencer’s volta seems to parallel the sentiment in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 and seeks to give a long lasting life through poetry to the object of the speaker’s love within the sonnet.
Or, you know, whatever
One of the greatest things about learning a genre is, once all the rules are known, you also know how to break all the rules. From the different forms of sonnets explored above, we know the general shared rules for sonnets – the 14 lines, some sort of structured rhyme scheme, a volta, and a general theme surrounding love.
Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley has a unique rhyme scheme of ABABA CDCED EFEF that separates it from Petrarchan, Shakespearean, and Spencerian sonnets. Yet the sonnet has a clear volta in line nine of the text that parallels the Italian sonnet form.
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert…Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
Want my advise? Write at least one of every kind of sonnet. There are many subtle aspects of sonnets not talked about in this post (heck, I could go on all day if you’d let me) and one way of finding those nuances is to play with the form and make it your own. It will not only help you better understand this poetic form, but it’ll improve your writing and your ability to create your own poetic forms.