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Traditionally, sonnets are fourteen-line poems that follow a strict rhyme scheme and conform to the metrical pattern of iambic pentameter.

The word sonnet comes from the Italian word “sonneto,” meaning “little song.” Although there are some exceptions, sonnets are generally considered to be fourteen-line poems. Check out our in-depth guide to iambic pentameter here.

Another important aspect of both Shakespearean and Petrarchan sonnet is the turn, or volta. This is a shift in the poem that can be seen through a change in narrator, belief, or setting. It can even consist of an answer to a question posed in the first half.

What are the different kinds of sonnets?

There are two major types of sonnets:

Although writers take countless liberties with these forms, they do have traditional structures.

The Shakespearean Sonnet

Let’s start with the Shakespearean sonnet, sometimes referred to as “Elizabethan.”  It is made up of three quatrains, or sets of four lines, and one concluding couplet, or set of two rhyming lines. The poem follows a consistent rhyme scheme that conforms to the pattern of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG and it is written in iambic pentameter. This means that each line contains five sets of two-beat. The first is unstressed and the second stressed. It sounds something like da-DUM, da-DUM.

One great example of the Shakespearean sonnet at its strongest is Shakespeare’s own poem, ‘Th’ expense of spirit in a waste of shame.’ It is also known by its number,129. It is one of the 154 sonnets written by the Bard. It was published in 1609 and is part of the group known as the “Dark Lady” sonnets. This unknown person features in sonnets 127 to 152. Some scholars believe that she was a woman Shakespeare was having an affair with and that she served as the inspiration for a number of other works as well. But, there is not sufficient evidence to say that this is absolutely the case. Take a look at the text here:

Th’ expense of spirit in a waste of shame

Is lust in action; and till action, lust

Is perjured, murd’rous, bloody, full of blame,

Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,

Enjoyed no sooner but despisèd straight,

Past reason hunted; and, no sooner had

Past reason hated as a swallowed bait

On purpose laid to make the taker mad;

Mad in pursuit and in possession so,

Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;

A bliss in proof and proved, a very woe;

Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.

All this the world well knows; yet none knows well

To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

With a simple glance at the text, a reader should immediately take note of how the last two lines are indented. This was done in order to draw extra attention to the final rhyming couplet.  As stated above, within a traditional Shakespearean sonnet the last two lines rhyme. They also present the reader with the turn, or volta.

In this case, Shakespeare’s speaker uses the volta to admit that he understands that no matter how obvious lust and the sin it is associated with are to humankind, men will still end up in hell.

This first section of the poem is a passionate, and sometimes angry, description of the way that lust leads to shame. Clearly, this poem is a great example of some of the major themes which are found within traditional and nontraditional sonnets. These will be explained in-depth in the next section.A reader can also go through the first twelve lines and see that the first and third lines rhyme, then the second and fourth lines rhyme, and so on and so on.

Sticking with tradition, Shakespeare also made use of iambic pentameter in this poem. The lines are very structured, providing an interesting contrast to the clearly passionate tone of the speaker’s words. Some have suggested that the speaker was in fact Shakespeare himself, as he dealt with the lust and disappointment associated with an affair. But this is just speculation.

The Petrarchan/Italian Sonnet

The second major form, the Italian or Petrarchan sonnet was created by Giacomo da Lentini in the early 1200s. But, it was used in depth by another Italian poet ] Guittone d’Arezzo who rediscovered the form and wrote close to 250 sonnets. At this same time, Dante Alighieri, the famed author of ‘The Divine Comedy’ and Guido Cavalcanti were also writing in this form. But, it was Petrarch who became the most famous for his early sonnets. But what is a Petrarchan sonnet and how does it differ from a Shakespearean? Well, they are similar in a few fundamental ways, but there are also some major differences.

Within Petrarchan sonnets, there are two halves, the first eight lines, or octet, which is followed by the sestet, a set of six lines. The octet always follows the rhyming pattern of ABBAABBA, but the sestet is open to change. Two of the most common rhyming patterns are CDCDCD and CDECDE. Also in contrast to a Shakespearean sonnet, the turn occurs between the octet and the sestet, rather than before the final two lines. Below is a great example of a Petrarchan sonnet, ‘The World’ by Christina Rossetti.

By day she woos me, soft, exceeding fair:

But all night as the moon so changeth she;

Loathsome and foul with hideous leprosy

And subtle serpents gliding in her hair.

By day she wooes me to the outer air,

Ripe fruits, sweet flowers, and full satiety:

But through the night, a beast she grins at me,

A very monster void of love and prayer.

By day she stands a lie: by night she stands

In all the naked horror of the truth

With pushing horns and clawed and clutching hands.

Is this a friend indeed; that I should sell

My soul to her, give her my life and youth,

Till my feet, cloven too, take hold on hell?

Rossetti makes use of the traditional ABBABBA pattern in the octet, but then chose to use CDCEDE, one of the less common concluding patterns.

What are the major themes of sonnets?

Sonnets can be about anything, but there are a few themes especially within the early sonnets, which pop up again and again. They are usually focused on topics such as love, beauty, life, and death as well as a myriad of other human emotions.

In the case of Shakespeare, his collections of sonnets published after his death, are separated into sections. The first 17 are addressed to a young man. Shakespeare tries to encourage this person to marry and have children. Other sonnets address the speaker’s love for the young man, or contemplate loneliness, death, and the impermanence of life. Others, such as the Dark Lady sonnets, seem to be addressed to a mistress.

It was not until the 16th century that the sonnet was introduced to England its popularity began to grow. This was due to the writings of Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, then eventually Shakespeare himself.

Do poets still write sonnets today?

Yes, some poets do still write sonnets today. But, more often than not there are changes made to the traditional formats. For example, in the Modernist period, Robert Frost and Edna St. Vincent Millay used the form often. The Harlem Renaissance also saw writers, such as Paul Lawrence Dunbar and Langston Hughes making use of fourteen-line, rhymed poems.

In more recent decades there has been something of a revival of the form. This has led to the creation of sonnet specific awards and new forms.

Why should you care?

Good question. Aside from its historical importance and the marvelous achievements of sonnet loving poets, understanding this form can also help you strengthen your own analytical skills. If you can find and identify the sonnet, then you will already have a backbone of information to use when conducting your analysis of a poem.

Additionally, as readers and lovers of poetry, it is important to know something of the history of a particular poetic form. So, when you’re reading a Robert Frost poem and recognize it as having fourteen lines and following a specific rhyme scheme, you know the deep and complicated history behind it.

Take a look at these examples of sonnets written by poets from the last five centuries.

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