The sonnet is a form of lyrical poetry originating in Italy in the 13th century. In fact, "sonnet" is derived from the Italian word sonetto, meaning "little sound" or "little song." You can spot a sonnet by its 14-line arrangement.
Within those 14 lines, you'll note that traditional sonnets also follow iambic pentameter. That is, each line contains five iambs (or sets of two syllables) where the first syllable is unstressed and the second syllable is stressed (i.e., he ROSE). Even though modern poets sometimes deviate from this standard for effect, it's important to see how it all began.
Let's explore different sonnet examples, as well as a sampling from some of the greatest poetic masters.
There are two main types of sonnets: Italian and English sonnets. From there, two other versions evolved: Miltonic sonnets and Spenserian sonnets. Let's start with the Italian sonnet, the form that seems to have the deepest roots.
The first and most common type of sonnet is the Italian sonnet, otherwise known as the Petrarchan sonnet. Giacomo da Lentini is attributed as the inventor of this form of poetry, even though they're named after Francesco Petrarca (commonly referred to simply as Petrarch), one of the most revered Italian poets.
These sonnets are divided into two stanzas. The first stanza contains eight lines, or an octave; the second stanza contains six lines, or a sestet. In an Italian sonnet, there is a "volta" or "turn," which signals a change from the proposition of the poem to its resolution. The volta usually appears in the ninth line.
Initially, the rhyme scheme for the octave was ABABABAB. Eventually, it evolved into ABBAABBA. The sestet is either CDECDE or CDCCDC. Later, the variation of CDCDCD was introduced.
You'll note that, while Italian sonnets generally follow iambic pentameter, the meter for the sestet tends to be more flexible. Meaning, either the first (iamb) or the second (troche) syllable may be stressed in the two-syllable metric "foot."
The rhyming nature of these poems lent itself well to the lyricism of the Italian language. Of course, nowadays, you'll find many fine examples written in the English language too.
A great example of an Italian sonnet is the appropriately titled "Italian Sonnet" by James DeFord.
Turn back the heart you've turned away
Give back your kissing breath
Leave not my love as you have left
The broken hearts of yesterday
But wait, be still, don't lose this way
Affection now, for what you guess
May be something more, could be less
Accept my love, live for today.
Your roses wilted, as love spurned
Yet trust in me, my love and truth
Dwell in my heart, from which you've turned
My strength as great as yours aloof.
It is in fear you turn away
And miss the chance of love today!
The second most common form of sonnet is the English sonnet, otherwise known as the Shakespearean sonnet. These sonnets are divided into four stanzas, comprising 14 lines in total.
The first three stanzas are quatrains, meaning they contain four lines each. The final stanza is a couplet, meaning it contains two lines. The "volta" appears in the third quatrain and the traditional rhyme scheme is ABAB CDCD EFEF GG.
English sonnets typically adhere to iambic pentameter more strictly than Italian sonnets. You'll find each line traditionally consists of 10 syllables - divided into five pairs - with an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable.
In 1591, the sonnet "Astrophel and Stella" by Sir Philip Sidney established the form of the English sonnet. Other notable authors include Michael Drayton, Fulke Greville, and, of course, William Shakespeare. Even though Shakespeare did not invent the sonnet, he was among the most prolific, writing over 150 in his lifetime.
"Sonnet Number 18" is one of the most famous sonnets by William Shakespeare, starting off with an iconic opening line.
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 dimmed,
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature's changing course untrimmed:
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.
John Milton went on to make a few refinements to the Italian sonnet. His variations became known as Miltonic sonnets. The context of his poems was different in that they took on an air of self-reflection and interior thinking. Beyond that, his form also varied; he would allow the octave to morph into a sestet, wherever needed.
"When I Consider How My Light Is Spent" is an example of a one of John Milton's better known sonnets.When I consider how my light is spent,
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest He returning chide;
"Doth God exact day-labor, light denied?"
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, "God doth not need
Either man's work or His own gifts. Who best
Bear His mild yoke, they serve Him best. His state
Is kingly: thousands at His bidding speed,
And post o'er land and ocean without rest;
They also serve who only stand and wait.
Sixteenth-century English poet Sir Edmund Spenser did his best to make some refinements to the English sonnet. While his work also contained three quatrains and a couplet, he would also bridge quatrains together by rhyming the last line of one quatrain with the first line of the next. This, in effect, created a rhyming couplet between the quatrains. The resulting rhyme scheme became ABAB BCBC CDCD EE.
In a way, the Spenserian sonnet reorganized English sonnets into couplets, giving a nod to the Italian sonnet. Many suppose Spenser did this to remove the pressure one felt to bring the poem to a conclusion or resolution in the final couplet.
Sir Edmund Spenser's "Sonnet LXV" is a fine example of his take on a sonnet.
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."
With all this ancient inspiration seeping into your mind, why not try your hand at writing a sonnet of your own? You can literally write about any topic. Milton made this clear when he branched out in the content of his poems.
Consider these tips to help you get started:
Read through as many sonnets as you can, paying careful attention to the rhyme scheme and rhythm.
Select the subject matter. Love of nature or the love between people were common themes but, in truth, a sonnet can be written about any topic at all.
Choose between the Italian form and the English form. Consider the situation that will spark the sonnet and the resolution or conclusion that will draw it to a close.
Compose each section, following the proper rhyme scheme.
Whatever you do, don't give up. It may seem difficult at first. In a way, you're training your brain to create artistic movements, framed within a certain set of lines. The more you do it, however, the more your creativity will flow perfectly into this arrangement. In no time at all, you'll create poetry that will last through the ages, just like the greats that came before you.
To no surprise, the modern sonnet continues to evolve and take new shapes. No matter how you're savoring sonnets, one way you can spot them is through the 14 line format. For further explorations into this ancient artform that continues to endure today, have a look at The Penguin Book of the Sonnet: 500 Years of a Classic Tradition in English, edited by Phillis Levin. It is an excellent resource on how you might approach the modern day sonnet.
When you're ready to continue your hand in this craft, study Examples of Rhyming Couplets too. Something in there may inspire the closing couplet in your very own English sonnet.