The sonnet is historically one of the most important poetic forms. The word sonnet comes from the Italian word “sonneto,” meaning “little song.” A sonnet is defined by a few key features that make understanding sonnets fairly straightforward.
Sonnets (usually) contain the following features:
In most instances, a sonnet is a fourteen-line poem that follows a strict rhyme scheme and conforms to the metrical pattern of iambic pentameter. Like all poetic forms, there are examples where none of these things are true, and the poem can still be considered a sonnet (see free verse sonnets below).
There are several different possible rhyme schemes a writer might use, including the Shakespearean, Petrarchan, and Spenserian.
The most common meter is iambic pentameter. This means that the lines follow a specific arrangement of syllables. They are divided into sets of two beats or syllables. The first of these is unstressed, and the second is stressed. Or, more simply, the lines sound like da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM as the reader moves through them.
Sonnets can be about anything, but the most common topics are love, death, and nature.
Here are a few examples of popular sonnet on those three topics:
Traditionally, sonnets also use what is known as a volta (Italian for “turn”). This is a shift in the poem’s subject matter or a turn or transition in a sonnet’s main argument, theme, or tone. This could occur because the speaker has changed or their opinion has shifted. The turn might also be a conclusion of some sort, summarizing what’s happened in the previous lines and preparing the reader for the end of the poem.
In Shakespearean sonnets, the turn usually appears between lines twelve and fourteen. This places it between the last quatrain and the final rhyming couplet. In a Petrarchan sonnet, the turn appears between the first eight lines (the octave) and the final six (the sestet). Usually, the last six lines take the poem somewhere new.
Writers also use voltas when they want to shift the poem in an important way, answer a question asked in the first part of the poem, or bring it to a conclusion.