Traditional Poetry Forms 101: The Sonnet

This article was originally posted here.

This post is part of a series on traditional poetry forms. This instalment focuses on one of the most famous forms of poetry, and a personal favourite, the sonnet.

The sonnet originated in Italy in the 13th Century. Its invention is credited to Giacomo Da Lentini. Since its invention, the sonnet has been a staple of poetry across many cultures and has been utilised by a great number of the world’s most renowned poets. There are two main types of traditional sonnet in English: the Italian (or Petrarchian) and the English (also known as the Shakespearean, after its most famous practitioner).

The traditional sonnet consists of fourteen lines and follows a variable rhyming scheme. When written in English, the lines usually employ iambic pentameter, though not always. A main characteristic of the sonnet is that it deals with one thought or sentiment, ending with a “turn” or reflection with its closing lines.
This is the basic form of the traditional sonnet in its entirety, nothing else is prescribed. However, as mentioned earlier there are two main types of traditional sonnet, and they are described below.

Named after its most famous practioner, Petrarch, the Petrarchan sonnet is the prototypical sonnet. It divides the fourteen lines into two stanzas, an octave with the rhyme scheme ABBAABBA and a sestet most often following a rhyme scheme of either CDCCDC or CDECDE. Early Petrarchan sonnets employed a problem-solution idea, where a problem would be outlined in the octave and a solution would be proposed in the sestet. This is not a requirement however, but the turn on the ninth line typically is. The turn should indicate a change in the mood or stance of the poem.
A good example of a Petrarchan sonnet in English is “On His Blindness” by John Milton:

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
Lodg’d 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-labour, 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.”

The English or Shakespearean sonnet was not invented by William Shakespeare, but introduced by Thomas Wyatt. It is known as the Shakespearean after its most famous practitioner. The Shakespearean is one stanza consisting of three quatrains and a concluding couplet, typically in the rhyme scheme ABABCDCDEFEFGG. The third quatrain holds the turn and is called a volta, indicating a change in the poem in terms of theme or imagery, though Shakespeare himself preferred to do this in the couplet.
One of Shakespeare’s most famous sonnets is “Sonnet 116”:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! It is an ever-fixèd mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

Note that the rhyme scheme doesn’t hold with modern pronunciation, but would have done in the pronunciation of the time.

And that, my friends, is the sonnet. Of course there are many variations and poetry, as a rule, has no rules, but these are the typical features of the traditional sonnet and they are a fun challenge to write. Perhaps you would like to have a go at writing one yourself? If you do, feel free to post it in the comments below. If this post has been helpful please share via social media and if you’d like to see more content like this please subscribe/follow and if you would like to get updates via our newsletter you can join our mailing list. Look out for the next instalment in this Traditional Poetry Forms series.

Keep writing, folks.


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