A sonnet is a poetic form created and refined both in 13th century Italy and across much of Europe at the time. Sonnets often express romantic love and affection, but they can also be used to pose and answer questions through poetry. In this summary, you will learn how to identify sonnets.
The sonnet form has rather strict rules, and sonnets are therefore one of the easier poetic forms to identify. Sonnets always have 14 lines, a regular rhyme scheme, and a regular metre. English sonnets are almost exclusively written in iambic pentameter.
There are different types of sonnet which have their own style and rules, but all sonnets share some characteristics.
The traditional English sonnet was popularised by Shakespeare, and they often follow the same structure he used. This is why they are called Shakespearean sonnets. These types of sonnet usually follow an ABABCDCDEFEFGG rhyme scheme, ending with a rhyming couplet. While this rhyme scheme can be split into different stanzas, most English sonnets are kept as one stanza. They are predominantly written in iambic pentameter.
A When I do count the clock that tells the time,
B And see the brave day sunk in hideous night;
A When I behold the violet past prime,
B And sable curls all silver’d o’er with white;
C When lofty trees I see barren of leaves
D Which erst from heat did canopy the herd,
C And summer’s green all girded up in sheaves
D Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard,
E Then of thy beauty do I question make,
F That thou among the wastes of time must go,
E Since sweets and beauties do themselves forsake
F And die as fast as they see others grow;
G And nothing ‘gainst Time’s scythe can make defence
G Save breed, to brave him when he takes thee hence.
('Sonnet 12' by William Shakespeare)
Before the sonnet form came to England, it was popularised across 14th century Europe by the Italian poet Francesco Petrarca. This structure is often replicated or borrowed from by English poets. Petrarchan sonnets are always 14 lines, and are usually split into an octave and a sestet. The octave usually follows an ABBAABBA rhyme scheme, while the sestet usually follows either a CDECDE or CDCDCD rhyme scheme. The octave and the sestet can be two separate stanzas, or they can be one stanza separated by the change in rhyme scheme.
Note: In Petrarchan sonnets, the octave usually presents a problem or asks a question, and the sestet usually offers a solution or answer. The turning point in the poem, which is usually the beginning of the sixth line, is called a volta.
A Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
B With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
B Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
A Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
B Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
B Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
A The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
C “Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
D With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
C Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
D The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
C Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
D I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
('The New Collossus' by Emma Lazarus)
Since the early 1900s the sonnet form has been one which poets have started to experiment with. Some modern sonnets (such as W.H. Auden's 'The Secret Agent') do not follow a rhyme scheme, while others 'invert' the structure of traditional sonnets, having a sestet followed by an octave. Some poets have become so experimental with their use of sonnet, that it can only be recognised through the fact that it has 14 lines.
See how in the following sonnet the poet has experimented with form and structure. They have chosen not to employ rhyme or punctuation, and they have even experimented with grammar and formatting to such an extent that it is scarcely recognisable as a conventional sonnet:
name address date
I cannot remember
an eye for an eye
then and there my
h i s t o r y
r e p e a t s
i t s s e l f
and a tooth
for a tooth
is a tooth:
('[Sonnet] name address date' by Bernadette Mayer)
Question: What is a Shakespearean sonnet?
Answer: Shakespearean sonnets are a type of sonnet that usually follow an ABABCDCDEFEFGG rhyme scheme, ending with a rhyming couplet.
Question: Do all sonnets have 14 lines?
Answer: Sonnets always have 14 lines, a regular rhyme scheme, and a regular metre.
Question: What is a sonnet?
Answer: A sonnet is a type of poetic form which was created and refined both in 13th century Italy and across much of Europe at the time.