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Time to roll out your sonnets! Today we’re going to look at the three basic types of sonnets. The word sonnet comes from the Occitan word sonet and the Italian word sonetto, both meaning “little song” or “little sound”. These days we’re likely to call almost any poem with some sort of rhyme scheme that is fourteen lines long, a sonnet. Today we’re going to look at the strict (yes, I said strict…well they have gained a kind of nobility to them, owing to the fact they’ve been written by many fine poets, and they’ve been around so long) so, I’ll give you the strict definitions of these sonnets in order for you to make note of their differences and similarities.

So carrying forward this idea of nobility, my Thrall and Hibbard says this additionally: “Certain qualities common to the sonnet as a type should be noted. Its definite restrictions as to form make it a challenge to the artistry of the poet and call for all the technical skill at the poet’s command. The more or less set rime patterns occurring regularly within the short space of fourteen lines afford a pleasant piquancy to the ear of the reader, and create truly musical effects.  The rigidity of the form precludes a too great economy or too great prodigality of words. Emphasis is placed on exactness and perfection of expression. The brevity of the form favors concentrated expression of idea or passion.”

Traditionally, English poets employ iambic pentameter when writing sonnets, but not all English sonnets have the same metrical structure. In the Romance languages, the hendecasyllable and Alexandrine are the most widely used meters. Consider this to be the standard meter for all three types discussed here.


common domain

The most famous early sonneteer was Petrarca (known in English as Petrarch).  [Poets who write sonnets are sometimes called sonneteers; however in time that term came to be used derisively.]

The structure of a typical Italian sonnet of this time included two parts that together formed a compact form of “argument”. First, the octave (two quatrains), forms the “proposition,” which describes a “problem,” followed by a sestet (two tercets), which proposes a resolution. Typically, the ninth line creates what is called the “turn” or “volta,” where the poem moves from proposition to resolution. Even when sonnets don’t strictly follow the problem/resolution structure, the ninth line usually marks a “turn” by making a change in the tone, mood, or stance of the poem.

The octave follows the a-b-b-a, a-b-b-a pattern. For the sestet there are two different possibilities: c-d-e-c-d-e and c-d-c-c-d-c. Over time, other variants on this rhyming scheme have been introduced, such as c-d-c-d-c-d. The Italian Sonnet should not end in a couplet.

XXVIII from Sonnets from the Portugese 

My letters! All dead paper, mute and white!
And yet they seem alive and quivering
Against my tremulous hands which loose the string
And let them drop down on my knee to-night.
This said,– he wished to have me in his sight
Once, as a friend: this fixed a day in spring
To come and touch my hand…a simple thing,
Yet I wept for it! – this, …the paper’s light..
Said, Dear, I love thee; and I sank and quailed
As if God’s future thundered on my past.
This said, I am thine—and so its ink has paled
With lying at my heart that beat too fast.
And this…O Love, thy words have ill availed
If, what this said, I dared repeat at last!
—-  Elizabeth Barrett Browning

(If you care to read it, my Italian Sonnet is here: Nocturne Opus II )


–Edmund Spenser, common domain

Spenser seems to have adapted his sonnet form from the one he used in The Faerie Queen which was [a-b-a-b-b-c-b-c-c ]. This was a kind of terza rima form. His sonnet has this rhyme pattern: a-b-a-b-b-c-b-c-c-d-c-d-e-e. So his abab pattern sets up quatrains, each developing a specific yet related idea or commentary. Each quatrain develops a metaphor, conflict, idea or question, and the end declamatory couplet provides the resolution. Spenser often begins L9 of his sonnets with “but” or “yet” which should signal a volta; however if one examines his “turns”, they aren’t really turns at all. If there is a change in his sonnets, it usually comes where the pattern changes in the end couplet.

Sonnet LXXV

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 eke my name be wiped out likewise
“Not so.” quod I, “Let baser thing 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, when as death shall all the world subdue,
Our love shall live, and later life renew.”

——Sir Edmund Spenser


William Shakespeare, Wiki-commons

The Shakespearean Sonnets were inspired by the Petrarchan tradition. The form is often named after Shakespeare, not because he was the first to write in this form but because he became its most famous practitioner. The form consists of fourteen lines structured as three quatrains and a couplet. The third quatrain generally introduces an unexpected sharp thematic or imagistic “turn”; the volta.  With only a rare exception, the meter is iambic pentameter, although there is some accepted metrical flexibility (e.g., lines ending with an extra-syllable feminine rhyme, or a trochaic foot rather than an iamb, particularly at the beginning of a line). The usual rhyme scheme is end-rhymed a-b-a-b, c-d-c-d, e-f-e-f, g-g.
Often in this type of sonnet, the first quatrain is an exposition of the main theme or metaphor. The second quatrain extends or complicates the theme or metaphor sometimes with an imaginative or exaggerated example. The third quatrain presents a conflict or a “twist”. Sometimes it is introduced by the word “but” or “yet” often at the beginning of Line 9. The last couplet summarizes or concludes sometimes with a surprise ending or image.

Oh that Mr. Shakespeare, not only was he a playwright extraordinaire, a poet, an actor, a director, a producer, a man-about-town, London and Stratford’s notorious party boy but also he was quite the literary critic. I am including here his Sonnet 130 which satirizes Petrarch for what has come to be known as “Petrarch Conceits”, defined by elaborate and exaggerated comparisons in terms of beauty, cruelty, and charm; or suffering, sorrow or despair. Hyperbolic analogies to ships at sea, marble tombs, wars along with oxymorons were common. Here Shakespeare catalogs some of the more common ones:

Sonnet 130

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask’d, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.

–William Shakespeare

So today’s challenge – write a sonnet in the shape of one of these. And while I kept to the “strict” definitions for your information here, that certainly doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be true to your own voice. Nevertheless, keeping it close will give you a good sense of what it takes to master the form. Then link with Mr. Linky below and be sure to read, enjoy and comment on the work of the other linking poets. I hope you enjoy the experience!