Poets have invented and experimented with formats and structure for thousands of years, giving us many rules to follow or break as we please. Limericks, free-verse, narrative, haikus, epics, rhymes, blanks–there are many types of poem, and each have their own standards. The fun comes after a poet learns the basics, and they have enough practice following the rules that they get to break them intentionally.
One type of structured poem is the sonnet. In this article, we’ll cover the rules of the sonnet, the standard formats, and learn how to write a sonnet. Then, we’ll look at poets who broke those rules. Ready? Go!
What is a sonnet?
A sonnet is a poem that uses these elements: one stanza, fourteen lines, iambic pentameter, a set rhyme scheme. We’ll get into more details about this structure later on.
“Sonnet” comes from the Italian word “sonetto,” which translates to “a little sound or song.”
There are many variations from the original Italian sonnet, and each has its own rules. You can typically tell them apart by their rhyme scheme, but poets take fresh spins on the sonnet format all the time, bringing it further away from its original format.
Types of sonnets
The sonnet format that people are most familiar with is the Shakespearean sonnet, also known as the English or Elizabethan sonnet. But there are a few others as well. This is a list of some of the most famous formats, but it is nowhere near a complete list of every version of the sonnet.
Shakespearean (English, Elizabethan) Sonnet
The Shakespearean sonnet came into popularity in the mid-1500s, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Shakespeare didn’t invent the sonnet, but he was one of the most famous writers who used them, which is why it is sometimes called the Shakespearean sonnet.
The main differentiation between the Shakespearean and the Italian sonnet is the rhyme scheme. Shakespearean uses ABAB CDCD EFEF GG, where the Italian sonnet uses ABBA ABBA, then either CDC CDC or CDE CDE.
Italian (or Petrarchan) Sonnet
Though the Shakespearean sonnet is the most popular in the English language, the Italian sonnet was actually created first. It uses a combination of eight lines broken into two quatrains, rather than fourteen lines broken into four quatrains.
Named for the English poet, Edmund Spenser, the Spenserian sonnet differentiates itself, again, by its rhyme scheme of ABAB BCBC CDCD EE. This scheme drags the rhyme through the sonnet, giving a tighter feel throughout the piece, rather than the rhymes standing on their own like they seem to do with the Shakespearean and Italian sonnets.
The Miltonic sonnet was created by John Milton, who took a new twist on the Italian sonnet. His form varies, and the content of his poems was more centered on introspection and his own interior thoughts.
There are many versions of sonnets that exist today, and poets often take their own turns on the classic versions, mixing up the rhyme schemes, lines, and stanzas.
How to write a sonnet poem
Sonnets can often be an easy form for new poets to learn, because it has such a strict format. Some writers find it harder to stay within rhyme schemes and structures, but it can often be helpful to have a template to practice with.
What is the basic structure of a sonnet?
There are several elements of a sonnet to keep in mind when you’re planning and drafting. Here are some concepts and terms that might be helpful to know.
Lines: Sonnets will have fourteen lines, broken into four sections referred to as quatrains.
Rhymes: The rhyme scheme for a Shakespearean sonnet is: ABAB, CDCD, EFEF, GG. The four distinct sections of the rhyme scheme are where we know that the poem is broken into quatrains.
Meter: Sonnets are also written in iambic pentameter, which is a poetic meter of 10 beats per line, alternating stressed and unstressed syllables.
Volta: A volta refers to the turn in a sonnet. It’s the line or moment where the poet shifts their topic. This is often where the poet will answer the question they posed earlier in the piece.
Sestet: The last six lines of a sonnet.
How many lines are in a sonnet?
A standard sonnet will have fourteen lines. But some poets may experiment by tweaking the usual format to create something new, and that rocks.
How do you start a sonnet?
There are no right or wrong ways to start (or finish) a poem, but here are a few ways you might begin writing a sonnet.
Ask a question.
A popular Shakespeare line is “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” This question presents a thesis of sorts, which is explored in the rest of the sonnet. Opening with a question can give you a clear focus and make the writing of the rest of the sonnet much easier.
Make a comparison.
As you’ll see in the example sonnets below, many of them employ the use of metaphors. Metaphors are a great way to establish a theme that’s easy to write with.
Worry about the rhymes later.
Some poets can give themselves a writing block by trying to draft a sonnet fully formatted with a proper rhyme scheme. That’s so hard to do! It’s often easier and quicker to draft your ideas, then edit the poem to fit your desired format with the proper lines and rhymes.
We have more resources on how to write a poem, how to get paid to write poetry, and other creative writing examples.
We also have What is Prose?
Examples of sonnets
Here are examples for each of the sonnet types mentioned above. You’ll notice most of the traditional sonnets read like letters of admiration. In the same way that haikus traditionally reflect upon nature, sonnets were typically used for expressing love and appreciation for someone else. And just like haikus, it’s also typical to deviate from that intent.
This is a well-known Shakespearean sonnet called “My Mistress’ Eyes Are Nothing Like The Sun”:
Shakespeare’s volta in this piece happens in the ending couplet. He spends the sonnet speaking about all of the ways in which his love isn’t beautiful by the standard romanticization in literature at the time, then at the end, he wraps it up with the sentiment “she’s hot in the neat and important ways,” which is “the point” of the sonnet.
Here’s an example of an Italian sonnet by Elizabeth Barrett called How Do I Love Thee?
You can see the difference in the rhyme scheme between a Shakespearean and Italian sonnet, but the volta appears in the sestet, as the poet reaches back into the past to give even grander comparisons about how much she loves the subject of the sonnet.
Spencerian Sonnet by Edmund Spenser from Amoretti “Sonnet 75”
As we discussed earlier, the Spencerian sonnet rhyme scheme drags the rhymes through the sonnet, creating a flowing effect and a feeling of connection through the piece. Does this rhyme scheme make you read it differently?
As an example of a Miltonic sonnet, let’s look at John Milton’s “When I Consider How My Light Is Spent”:
With the previous examples, the subject of the poems was someone other than the poet themself. It is pretty standard for sonnets to take the form of love letters or pieces of admiration. One of the things that makes John Milton’s sonnets different is that they often reflect his own thoughts, observations, and convictions.
Here is a parody sonnet from Billy Collins, “Sonnet” (modern):
This sonnet is a meta piece about sonnets! Collins describes the rules and forms of sonnets, in sonnet form. It’s fun, and reading it might help you understand sonnets a little better.
That’s a wrap
Sonnets have basic rules, but poets have been playing around with the format and standards since the sonnet’s invention. Now that you’ve seen some popular examples, what special spin will you take on yours?