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Violet Nesdoly PhotoThe Sonnet—a little marvel of poetry
Copyright©2010 by Violet Nesdoly

This is our nineteenth column in the "Poet's Classroom" series.

“Gerard Manley Hopkins’ untitled crisis lyric, ‘I wake and feel the fell of dark not day,’…was among the first poems I practically wore out reading,” says Edward Hirsch in his book, How To Read A Poem and Fall In Love With Poetry. He goes on: “It has always struck me as one of the marvels of poetry that a fourteen-line poem written by a Jesuit priest emotionally shipwrecked in Ireland could speak so directly nearly a hundred years later to an American Jewish kid sitting in a dormitory room in a small college in the Midwest.”1

The poem Hirsch speaks of is a sonnet. This fourteen-line rhythmic, rhyming form poem has packed its wallop in one incarnation or another since the Middle Ages. In this edition of Poets Classroom we’ll talk a bit about all things sonnet—history, types of, subject matter, how to write one, and how sonnets have been presented and toyed with over the years.

Story of the sonetto (little song)

Created in the court of Frederick II King of Sicily (1194–1250) the original sonnets were love poems, often with a spiritual element. Dante wrote the first sonnet sequence (group or cycle of sonnets), telling of his love for Beatrice Portinari. Francesco Petrarca—known as Petrarch (1304–1374)—perfected the form in the early 14th century and soon poets throughout Europe were imitating and adapting it.

In England, Sir Thomas Wyatt translated Petrarch’s sonnets into English and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (1517–1547) modified the rhyme scheme to better fit with the English language, writing what we now call Shakespearean or English sonnets. Edmund Spenser (1552–1599) made further adaptations to the Elizabethan form, creating the Spenserian Sonnet. William Shakespeare, John Donne, John Milton, William Wordsworth, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning are some well-known English sonneteers.

The basic sonnet

Throughout the centuries the basic sonnet has retained some characteristics.
     - It is fourteen lines long.
     - It is usually written in iambic pentameter.
     - It follows a scheme or pattern of end-rhymes. That pattern varies with the type of sonnet.

Another distinguishing feature of the sonnet is the way it handles and delivers its message. Sonnets typically attempt to show contrast. This contrast could be in the realm of ideas, states of mind, beliefs, actions, events, images etc.

The poet begins by introducing an idea. That idea is developed
until, at some point within the poem, the contrast, resolution or outcome appears. The point of that appearance is called the turn, turning point or volta. This resolution is, of course, foreshadowed in the lines that precede it—by word choice and image—but not revealed or given away. The spot where the volta occurs varies with the type of sonnet.

Here is a brief description of the three types of sonnets:

Petrarchan (Italian) Sonnet

1. The Petrarchan sonnet consists of two sections: an 8-line octave, followed by a 6-line sestet. The two sections may or may not be separated by a stanza break.

2. The idea or question presents in the octave. It develops or resolves in the sestet. “In a Petrarchan sonnet, the poet tries to develop content philosophically so the beauty of an idea in the octave is felt or envisioned in the sestet. Epiphany dawns on the poet,” explains poet and teacher Michael Bugeja.2 The octave lays the groundwork or foundation for the sestet. The ending arises organically out of the beginning. The volta in a Petrarchan sonnet usually occurs at the beginning of the sestet. It is sometimes signaled by words like “but,” “then,” “so,” “because.”

3. The rhyme scheme in a Petrarchan sonnet allows for four or five rhyme sounds (two in the octave and two or three in the sestet):
Octave: abbaabba
Sestet: cdcdcd, or ccdccd or cddcdd or cdedce or cdecde or cddcee

How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Ways” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning is a Petrarchan sonnet.

Shakespearean (English) Sonnet

1. The Shakespearean sonnet consists of three quatrains (4-line sections or stanzas) with a closing couplet (2 lines). The sections may or may not be separated by stanza breaks.

2. Each quatrain adds a new dimension of thought or progress toward the epiphany. “The Shakespearean turn makes a leap in logic. We progress slowly via each quatrain, laying the groundwork leading to epiphany, and suddenly have one in the couplet.”3

3. The rhyme scheme in a Shakespearean sonnet, which allows for a total of seven rhyme sounds, is more workable in the English language than the Petrarchan (4-5 rhyme sounds).
Quatrain 1: abab
Quatrain 2: cdcd
Quatrain 3: efef
Couplet: gg

Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day?” by William Shakespeare is a Shakespearean sonnet.

Spenserian Sonnet

1. The Spenserian sonnet consists of three quatrains and a couplet. Again, stanza breaks are at the poet’s discretion.

2. The quatrains in the Spenserian sonnet develop the thought much like the octave of the Petrarchan sonnet. They differ in that the thought in the Spenserian sonnet is developed like a logical argument. The turn usually comes at the beginning of the couplet. The epiphany or resolution occurs in the last two lines.

3. The rhyme scheme of a Spenserian sonnet allows for five rhyme sounds in a complex, weaving in-and-out pattern:
Quatrain 1: abab
Quatrain 2: bcbc
Quatrain 3: cdcd
Couplet: ee

My Love is Like to Ice and I to Fire” by Edmund Spenser is a Spenserian sonnet.

Sonnet subjects

Though early sonnets were often love poems, now there is no subject that is off limits to sonneteers. Before going on to write one of your own you might want to explore sonnets (linked below) on a variety of subjects.

1. Love
Farewell Love and all thy Laws for ever” by Sir Thomas Wyatt
Fate” by Carolyn Wells

2. Meditative
Childhood” by Margaret Walker
Holy Sonnets: Batter my heart, three-person’d God” by John Donne
Nature” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

3. Nature
Dank fens of cedar; hemlock-branches gray” by Frederick Goddard Tuckerman

4. Elegaic
Carrion Comfort” by Gerard Manely Hopkins
Grief” by Elizabeth Barrett Browining

5. Celebrative
How I Discovered Poetry” by Marilyn Nelson Poe

(Read many more sonnets at The Poetry Foundation.)

Write a sonnet of your own

Though modern poets have made adaptations and variations to the basic sonnet forms (if you read the poems linked in the section above, you probably noticed some non-rhymers, for example), it’s a good exercise to try writing a few by-the-book before going off on tangents of improvisation. Hopefully the steps below will help.

1. Familiarize yourself with the structure and rhyme scheme of the three sonnet forms.

2. Read sonnets on a variety of subjects to see how different poets treat them.

3. Think about your sonnet subject. Compare your idea and the revelation of your epiphany with the different forms. Do you want to convey it slowly in an unfolding way with the end arising from the beginning? Then the Petrarchan sonnet may be your vehicle. Do you want to develop your idea logically like an argument, nailing down your point in the final couplet? That would fit best with a Spenserian sonnet. Or perhaps your sonnet is an unfolding story with a punchline ending. That would fit well in the Shakespearean sonnet pattern.

4. Think through and make notes of what you want to accomplish in each section (octave, quatrain, sestet, couplet) of your sonnet.

5. Construct your sonnet keeping in mind thought development, placement of the volta and rhyme scheme.

Sonnet themes

1. Sonnet cycles or sequences

Groups of sonnets on similar themes are often found together. Some groups of sonnets frequently featured as a whole are Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese, John Donne’s Holy Sonnets, and Mark Jarman’s Unholy Sonnets.

2. Crown of sonnets

This particular type of sonnet cycle consists of seven sonnets. The last line of the preceding sonnet repeats as the first line of the next. The final line of the seventh sonnet repeats as the opening line of the first sonnet, completing the crown.

3. Sonnet redoublé

This fifteen-sonnet sequence is composed of a first sonnet (texte) and fourteen more sonnets, each opening with one of the lines from the original sonnet – in the order they appear in the texte.

Sonnet variations

Poets have had a lot of fun playing around with the sonnet form. Here are some sonnet variations you may run into:

1. Double Sonnet

A double sonnet is a sonnet of 28 lines in two stanzas. The first stanza is the octave doubled to 16 lines (using only ab rhymes). The second stanza is a double sestet of 12 lines (using only cd, or cde rhymes).

2. Curtal Sonnet

Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote a 101⁄2-line form called a curtal sonnet. It is a poem that resembles the sonnet in every other way but is only three-quarters of the length.

Pied Beauty” by Gerard Manley Hopkins is a curtal sonnet.

3. Caudate Sonnet

This 17-line sonnet is a standard Shakespearean sonnet with a three-line tail of extra lines (cauda is Latin for ‘tail’). The end word of the first line of the tail usually rhymes with another end word somewhere in the poem—often the line just before it. The last two lines form a rhyming couplet.

4. Etc.

     - Rilke used various line lengths in his “Sonnets to Orpheus.”

     - George Meredith’s sequence “Modern Love” features sonnets of 16 lines.

     - John Hollander wrote unrhymed, 13-line, 13-syllables per line sonnets in his book Powers of Thirteen (“29 [An Old Song]”).

     - Mona Van Duyn wrote minimalist sonnets where some of the lines are only one word. But she maintained, “I have kept all other conventions of the Shakespearean, Petrarchan or Spenserian.”4

By now I hope you’re eager for this article to end so you can get on with writing a sonnet of your own. As Stephen Fry says, “The sonnet’s fourteen lines have called to poets for almost a thousand years. It is the Goldilocks form: when others seem too long, too short, too intricate, too shapeless, too heavy, too light, too simple, too demanding, the sonnet is always just right.”5

Coming March 1:
We’ll talk about a Malayan form poem called the Pantoum.

Did you find this article helpful? Please let us know.

Copyright ©2010 by Violet Nesdoly


[1] Robert Hirsch, How to Read A Poem and Fall In Love With Poetry (Harcourt Brace and Company, New York, 1999), 161-162.
[2] Michael Bugeja, The Art and Craft of Poetry (Writer’s Digest Books, Cincinnati OH, 1994), 286.
[3] 3 Bugeja, 286.
[4] All examples and the final quote from John Drury, The Poetry Dictionary (Writer’s Digest Books, Cincinnati Oh, 2006), 294.
[5] 5 Stephen Fry, The Ode Less Traveled (Hutchinson, Random House Group, London, 2005), 281