You’ve likely read at least a few sonnets in English class, perhaps during a Shakespeare unit. But what is a sonnet exactly? Is there just one sonnet form? Did Shakespeare invent it?
Read on to learn about the history of the sonnet and the various qualities that make up a sonnet poem, including the traditional sonnet rhyme scheme and meter. We'll also go over all the major types of sonnets, give you examples, and offer a handful of tips for writing your very own sonnet poem.
What Is a Sonnet? Overview & History
A sonnet is a short lyric poem that consists of 14 lines, typically written in iambic pentameter (a 10-syllable pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables) and following a specific rhyme scheme (of which there are several—we’ll go over this point more in just a moment).
In addition, sonnets have something called a volta (twist or turn), in which the rhyme scheme and the subject of the poem suddenly change, often to indicate a response to a question, a solution to a problem, or the resolving of some sort of tension established at the beginning of the poem. This turn normally happens closer to the end of the sonnet, though precisely when it appears varies depending on the particular sonnet form.
Now, what about the history of the sonnet?
Originating in Italy, the sonnet comes from the Italian word sonetto, meaning "little song" or "little sound." The oldest known sonnet form was invented by Italian poet Francesco Petrach in the 14th century. Called the Petrarchan or Italian sonnet, this sonnet structure consists of first an octave (eight lines of verse in iambic pentameter) and then a sestet (six lines). The rhyme scheme is abba abba; the rhyme scheme in the sestet can vary a little but is typically cde cde or cdc dcd.
But it is perhaps famed 16th-century English poet and playwright William Shakespeare who came up with the most well-known and easily recognizable sonnet form. In the Shakespearean or English sonnet, each line is 10 syllables long written in iambic pentameter. The structure can be divided into three quatrains (four-line stanzas) plus a final rhyming couplet (two-line stanza). The Shakespearean sonnet rhyme scheme is abab cdcd efef gg.
Many other sonnet structures have been invented by an array of poets (we’ll go over what these are shortly). In terms of themes, these days sonnets are most often associated with themes of love and romance, though topics such as death, time, and faith are not uncommon.
Petrarchan vs Shakespearean: The 2 Main Sonnet Forms
As I explained above, the two main types of sonnets are the Petrarchan (or Italian) sonnet and the Shakespearean (or English) sonnet.
Before we go over both of these types in more detail, let’s take a quick look at some of the key similarities and differences between the two sonnet forms:
# of Lines
An octave and a sestet
Between the eighth and ninth lines
Three quatrains and a rhyming couplet
Between the 12th and 13th lines
Portrait of Francesco Petrarch
The Petrarchan sonnet is the original sonnet structure developed by Italian poet Francesco Petrarch. To reiterate, here are the main characteristics of this sonnet form:
- Structure: An octave followed by a sestet
- Volta: Happens between the eighth and ninth lines
- Rhyme Scheme: abba abba followed by cde cde OR cdc dcd
Let’s look at an example of a classic Petrarchan sonnet. The following poem was written by famed 19th-century English poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Sonnet 43, commonly referred to as, "How Do I Love Thee?" follows the Petrarchan sonnet rhyme scheme of abba abba cdc dcd:
Sonnet 43 by Elizabeth Barrett BrowningHow do I love thee? Let me count the ways. (a)
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height (b)
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight (b)
For the ends of being and ideal grace. (a)
I love thee to the level of every day’s (a)
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light. (b)
I love thee freely, as men strive for right; (b)
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise. (a)
I love thee with the passion put to use (c)
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith. (d)
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose (c)
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath, (d)
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose, (c)
I shall but love thee better after death. (d)
In this highly romantic Petrarchan sonnet, the speaker is enumerating the many ways she loves someone. The octave stresses the all-encompassing love she has for this person, while the final sestet—where the volta appears—presents a subtle comparison between the speaker’s present passions and "old griefs," or prior struggles in life.
Title page for Shakespeare's sonnet collection, first published in 1609
The Shakespearean sonnet is arguably the most famous sonnet form and was developed by William Shakespeare, who wrote more than 100 sonnets using this structure.
Here are the main characteristics of the Shakespearean sonnet:
- Structure: Three quatrains followed by a rhyming couplet
- Volta: Happens between the 12th and 13th lines
- Rhyme Scheme: abab cdcd efef gg
Now, let’s take a look at a particularly well-known sonnet written by William Shakespeare: Sonnet 18, or what is more commonly referred to as "Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day?"
Sonnet 18 by William ShakespeareShall I compare thee to a summer's day? (a)
Thou art more lovely and more temperate. (b)
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May, (a)
And summer's lease hath all too short a date. (b)
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines, (c)
And often is his gold complexion dimmed; (d)
And every fair from fair sometime declines, (c)
By chance, or nature's changing course, untrimmed; (d)
But thy eternal summer shall not fade, (e)
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st, (f)
Nor shall death brag thou wand'rest in his shade, (e)
When in eternal lines to Time thou grow'st. (f)
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, (g)
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee. (g)
This eloquently written poem perhaps best encapsulates the Shakespearean sonnet form. Here, Shakespeare compares the transient beauty of a young man to a tranquil, warm summer day.
The volta, as we know, appears in the final rhyming couplet and is the point at which Shakespeare confidently declares the young man’s youthful beauty will forever live on—even long after he dies—through these very words.
4 Additional Forms of the Sonnet Poem
While the Petrarchan and Shakespearean sonnet forms are indisputably the most famous and most popular kinds of sonnets, several other sonnet structure types do exist.
These include the following, each of which we’ll go over in more detail below:
- Spenserian sonnet
- Miltonic sonnet
- Terza rima sonnet
- Curtal sonnet
Portrait of Edmund Spenser
The Spenserian sonnet is a sonnet form named for 16th-century English poet Edmund Spenser, who introduced this structure in his 1595 collection of sonnets titled Amoretti.
The Spenserian sonnet is extremely similar to the Shakespearean sonnet. The main difference is the rhyme scheme: whereas the Shakespearean rhyme scheme introduces a new rhyme in each quatrain, the Spenserian sonnet carries over the latter rhyme from the previous quatrain in a chain rhyme: abab bcbc cdcd ee.
Like both the Petrarchan and Shakespearean sonnets, Spenserian sonnets are normally written in iambic pentameter.
Here is an example of a Spenserian sonnet, written by Edmund Spenser himself. Sonnet III is taken from Spenser’s Amoretti:
Sonnet III (Amoretti) by Edmund SpenserThe sovereign beauty which I do admire, (a)
Witness the world how worthy to be praised: (b)
The light whereof hath kindled heavenly fire (a)
In my frail spirit, by her from baseness raised; (b)
That being now with her huge brightness dazed, (b)
Base thing I can no more endure to view; (c)
But looking still on her, I stand amazed (b)
At wondrous sight of so celestial hue. (c)
So when my tongue would speak her praises due, (c)
It stopped is with thought's astonishment: (d)
And when my pen would write her titles true, (c)
It ravish'd is with fancy's wonderment: (d)
Yet in my heart I then both speak and write (e)
The wonder that my wit cannot endite. (e)
Portrait of a young John Milton
The Miltonic sonnet was named for 17th-century English poet John Milton, who is best known for his epic poem Paradise Lost.
While this sonnet form is mostly the same as that of the Petrarchan sonnet (it uses the Petrarchan rhyme scheme of abba abba cde cde), Miltonic sonnets use enjambment to offer a more compact, interconnected presentation of the thoughts being expressed. (Enjambment is when a sentence, thought, or phrase continues beyond a line in poetry without pause.)
Another key difference between the two sonnet forms is theme: Petrarchan sonnets tend to focus on love and romance, while Miltonic sonnets are often about faith or political/social matters.
The following Miltonic sonnet, titled Sonnet 19 or "When I Consider How My Light Is Spent," is one of Milton’s most famous sonnets:
Sonnet 19 by John MiltonWhen I consider how my light is spent, (a)
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide, (b)
And that one Talent which is death to hide (b)
Lodged with me useless, though my Soul more bent (a)
To serve therewith my Maker, and present (a)
My true account, lest he returning chide; (b)
"Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?" (b)
I fondly ask. But patience, to prevent (a)
That murmur, soon replies, "God doth not need (c)
Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best (d)
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state (e)
Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed (c)
And post o’er Land and Ocean without rest: (d)
They also serve who only stand and wait." (e)
Terza Rima Sonnet
The terza rima sonnet is named for a poetic convention called terza rima, which is a three-line stanza that uses a chain rhyme (the carrying over of the rhyme used in a previous stanza). The rhyme scheme of the terza rima sonnet is aba bcb cdc ded followed by a rhyming couplet that usually echoes the first rhyme of the poem: aa.
Here is an example of a terza rima sonnet written by renowned American poet Robert Frost. The poem is titled "Acquainted With the Night":
"Acquainted With the Night" by Robert FrostI have been one acquainted with the night. (a)
I have walked out in rain—and back in rain. (b)
I have outwalked the furthest city light. (a)
I have looked down the saddest city lane. (b)
I have passed by the watchman on his beat (c)
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain. (b)
I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet (c)
When far away an interrupted cry (d)
Came over houses from another street, (c)
But not to call me back or say good-bye; (d)
And further still at an unearthly height, (a) / (e)
One luminary clock against the sky (d)
Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right. (a)
I have been one acquainted with the night. (a)
Gerard Manley Hopkins
The curtal sonnet is a shortened, or curtailed, version of the sonnet invented by 19th-century English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins.
Unlike the majority of sonnets, the curtal sonnet does not strictly abide by the 14-line rule; rather, it maintains the overall proportions of the Petrarchan sonnet by contracting two quatrains in the octet into two tercets (three-line stanzas) and the final sestet into a quintet (five-line stanza).
The final line of the quintet (and the sonnet as a whole) is much shorter than other lines and is called a "tail" or "half-line." As a result, the curtal sonnet can be described as being either 10.5 or 11 lines long.
The curtal sonnet rhyme scheme is abc abc followed by dbcdc or dcbdc. What's more, this sonnet form uses a type of meter called sprung rhythm, which differs from iambic pentameter in that each line starts with a stressed instead of unstressed sound and (usually) contains four stressed syllables.
One famous curtal sonnet written by Hopkins is "Pied Beauty." This sonnet uses a rhyme scheme of abc abc dbcdc:
"Pied Beauty" by Gerard Manley HopkinsGlory be to God for dappled things— (a)
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow; (b)
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim; (c)
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings; (a)
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough; (b)
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim. (c)
All things counter, original, spare, strange; (d)
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?) (b)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim; (c)
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change: (d)
Praise him. (c)
How to Write a Great Sonnet: 6 Tips
Now that we’ve answered the question, "What is a sonnet?" and explained the main variations of the sonnet poem, it’s time to try writing one for yourself! In this section, we'll give you our six best tips for writing a great sonnet.
#1: Read Lots of Sonnets
The first step to writing a great sonnet poem is to get more acquainted with sonnets and their characteristics as a whole, including how they sound in terms of both rhythm and rhyme, what kinds of themes and subjects they focus on, and what types of volta they employ.
You could start by browsing some of the most famous sonnets by Shakespeare and Petrarch, for example, especially if you’re interested in writing a more traditional sonnet.
Another option is to search for sonnets in online databases, such as Poets.org. On this website, you can search for a specific sonnet or poet, or browse all available sonnets by choosing "Sonnet" under "Forms" and letting the page load.
I recommend reading several sonnet forms (not just Shakespearean!) so you can get a better feel for the sonnet structure you like best and would prefer to use for your own sonnet.
#2: Think of a Topic
Once you’ve gotten more familiar with the various sonnet structures, it’s time to think of possible topics and themes you could write about in your sonnet poem.
Traditional sonnets are love poems, but you shouldn't feel limited to romance. Many people have written sonnets that discuss things such as faith, social or political matters, tensions or problems, mundane situations, etc.
You don’t even have to choose a serious subject—it could be a sarcastic or ironic sonnet if you so wish! Ultimately, the topic you want to write about in your sonnet is entirely up to you.
You can write about anything for your sonnet—even this adorable fox!
#3: Choose a Sonnet Form to Follow
Once you have an idea for what you want to write about, you'll want to start seriously considering the sonnet form you believe will best fit the vision you have for your sonnet poem.
For example, if you strongly prefer poems that don’t have as many pauses and sound a lot more like dialogue, the Miltonic sonnet structure would be a solid choice due to its use of enjambment. Or, if you find it hard to write 14 rhyming lines, the curtal sonnet might be a good sonnet form to try working with.
If you’re not sure which sonnet structure you want to use, try your hand at starting a few different forms to see which one seems to come more naturally to you and to the poem itself.
#4: Befriend a Thesaurus
A huge part of sonnets is being able to use words that rhyme (or mostly rhyme, as we'll discuss more in the next tip). This can be pretty difficult, especially if you’re sticking with the traditional iambic pentameter meter.
If you ever get stuck or just want to browse possible words that share a certain meaning, use a thesaurus. Many online versions exist; I suggest using Thesaurus.com or the Merriam-Webster Thesaurus.
A thesaurus will not only help you find words that better fit the topic, meter, and rhyme scheme of your sonnet poem, but will also improve your vocabulary so that you won’t have to rely as much on a thesaurus in the future when writing a sonnet.
#5: Don’t Worry About Rhyming Words Perfectly
Many people think they have to find perfectly rhyming words in order to write a good sonnet, but this isn’t necessarily true.
Although sonnets do typically have a strict rhyme scheme—whether that’s the Petrarchan rhyme scheme, the Shakespearean rhyme scheme, or something else—many sonnets use words that are NOT perfect rhymes.
For instance, let’s look back at the first four lines in Browning’s "How Do I Love Thee?":
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height (b)
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight (b)
For the ends of being and ideal grace. (a)
Because this sonnet uses the Petrarchan rhyme scheme, "ways" should rhyme with "grace," but by sounding out these two words, we can immediately tell that they aren’t actually perfect rhymes.
The "s" sound in "ways" is more like a "z" sound and clearly differs from the "s" sound pronounced at the end of "grace." This type of rhyme is called an assonant rhyme in that while the vowels are the same (that "ay" sound in the middle of both "ways" and "grace"), the consonants are different.
Another rhyme you could use in your sonnet poem is a consonant rhyme in which the vowels are different but the consonants are the same (e.g., ball and bell, faith and death).
The point here is that although rhyming is an important part of the sonnet form, this rule, too, can be bent to better fit the overall image you wish to paint.
#6: Don’t Be Afraid to Mix Things Up
Our final tip is to be brave when writing your sonnet poem—don’t be afraid to mix things up! Even though the traditional sonnet structure follows a strict pattern in its meter and rhyming, you don’t need to follow any of these if you so choose.
Generally speaking, poetry welcomes rule-breaking and creativity, so feel free to try to come up with your own sonnet form or ways to improve upon the traditional sonnet structure. For example, you could develop a new rhyme scheme or try out meters other than iambic pentameter.
Just remember that if you change the sonnet form too much, it might not be identifiable as a sonnet anymore, so think about whether that’s a risk you’re willing to take.
Oftentimes, the risk is worth the reward.
Key Takeaways: What Is a Sonnet?
As we’ve seen, there isn’t a simple answer to the question, “What is a sonnet?” A sonnet can inhabit many different forms depending on things such as the rhyme scheme, length, and meter used.
In general, though, here are the main characteristics that define most sonnets:
- Number of Lines: 14
- Meter: Typically iambic pentameter
- Rhyme Scheme: Petrarchan (abba abba cde cde or abba abba cdc dcd) or Shakespearean (abab cdcd efef gg), among many others
- Unique Qualities: Contains a volta (twist or turn) closer to the end of the sonnet
- Common Themes: Typically love and romance but also faith, time, personal emotions, and social/political matters
The major sonnet forms are the Petrarchan (Italian) sonnet and the Shakespearean (English) sonnet. Other sonnet forms include the Spenserian sonnet, the Miltonic sonnet, the terza rima sonnet, and the curtal sonnet.
Writing a sonnet poem entails a lot of preparation. Once again, here are our six tips for writing a fantastic sonnet:
- Read lots of sonnets
- Think of a topic
- Choose a sonnet form to follow
- Befriend a thesaurus
- Don’t worry about rhyming words perfectly
- Don’t be afraid to mix things up
Now, get out there and start reading (and writing) some sonnets!
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Hannah received her MA in Japanese Studies from the University of Michigan and holds a bachelor's degree from the University of Southern California. From 2013 to 2015, she taught English in Japan via the JET Program. She is passionate about education, writing, and travel.