A sonnet is a 14-line poem written in iambic pentameter and following a specific rhyme scheme. The two most common variations are known as the Petrarchan sonnet and the Shakespearean sonnet.

What is a Sonnet?

A sonnet is a 14-line poem containing a specific meter and rhyme scheme. Each line of a sonnet is written in iambic pentameter, a meter made up of five sets of unstressed-stressed syllable blocks, called iambs. The line “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day”, for example, stresses every second syllable, for a total of ten syllables. This pattern continues for fourteen lines, wherein the end words of each line also rhyme according to a particular schema. It is in the rhyme structure that many sonnets vary. The two most common variations are known as the Petrarchan sonnet and the Shakespearean sonnet.

The Petrarchan sonnet, also called the Italian sonnet, is named after the Italian poet Francesco Petrarca who popularized the form in the 14th century. This sonnet begins with an eight-line octave following a rhyme scheme of abbaabba. The final six lines, or sestet, may fluctuate in their pattern, but generally follow a rhyme of cdecde, cdcdcd, or cddcdd. The poem’s turn comes as the lines transition from the octave to the sestet. In Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus”, for example, the octave describes the appearance of the Statue of Liberty, while the sestet records the words the statue speaks to the nation’s immigrants.

The Shakespearean sonnet, or English sonnet, consists of three quatrains and a couplet. This structure creates a rhyme scheme of abab cdcd efef gg. Each four-line quatrain is unified in its topic. Although the turn (called a volta) in the Shakespearean sonnet often occurs in the ninth line, it can also be reserved for the final couplet. This couplet acts as a surprising resolution to the problem expressed throughout the sonnet. In Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73, for example, the speaker describes the ravages of his old age for the first twelve lines, and finally reveals his point only in the couplet: “This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong, /To love that well which thou must leave ere long.”

While Shakespeare and Petrarch’s forms are most common, other sonnet variations include the Spenserian sonnet, the Miltonic sonnet, and the stretched sonnet, all of which have their own specific guidelines. Many modern sonnet writers invent their own forms and vary the rhyme schemes freely. Some reject rhyme altogether and write in blank verse. Others cling loosely to the sonnet form only through their fourteen-line structure, as in Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays”. However they may vary their structure, all sonnet writers practice true economy of language. Limited to just 14 lines, they must rely on deliberate diction and frequent use of figurative language, including extended metaphors and symbolism. Given their intricate structures and density of meaning, sonnets are complex poems and require careful attention from their readers.

Sonnet Examples

  • Those Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden
  • Sonnet 73” by William Shakespeare
  • “Sonnet 18” by William Shakespeare
  • “Sonnet 131” by Petrarch
  • “Acquainted with the Night” by Robert Frost
  • Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley
  • “Time Does Not Bring Relief” by Edna St. Vincent Millay
  • “Remember” by Christina Rossetti
  • “When I Have Fears” by John Keats

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