In a day of unstructured poetry and free verse, the sonnet still receives a great deal of respect. Even today, the word ‘sonnet’ evokes a sense of transcending grace in addition to calling to mind the high art form.
The word ‘sonnet’ is derived from the Italian ‘sonetto,’ meaning ‘little song.’ The lyrical form consists of fourteen lines and was first constructed in the 1200s. There are two set rhyme schemes for sonnets.
The Petrarchan or Italian sonnet is the older of the two sonnet forms, named for Francisco Petrarch, who lived in the fourteenth century (although the sonnet was an established form a century before). The Italian sonnet consists of the octet or octave (or two quatrains), followed by the sestet (or two tercets).
The octet, the first eight lines of the poem, typically featured a rhyme scheme of abbaabba. The sestet, the last six lines of the poem, usually had a fghfgh or fgffgf rhyme scheme. The exact rhyme scheme, however, was not set, and any variation which fits over eight or six lines may be used.
The division between the octet and the sestet was important. For most Italian sonnets, the ninth line, the beginning of the sestet, marks a change in the poem, especially thematically. Many sonnets in this form deal with a problem in the octet and segue into the resolution in the sestet.
Sonnets may retain their high art status because of the most famous sonneteer: William Shakespeare. Although Sir Thomas Wyatt first introduced the sonnet into the English language, and the Earl of Surrey gave English sonnets their own rhyme scheme, both are eclipsed in the modern memory by William Shakespeare, and the English sonnet is also called the Shakespearean sonnet.
The Shakespearean sonnet differs from the Italian sonnet in its inner divisions and rhyme scheme. Rather than a set of eight and a set of six (or two sets of four and two sets of three), the English sonnet consists of three quatrains followed by a couplet. The quatrains, four lines in length each, feature the rhyme scheme of abab cdcd efef. The couplet, or pair of rhymed lines, ended the sonnet gg.
Traditionally, English sonnets are written in iambic pentameter, which was the most popular meter in Shakespeare’s writing.
Another variation on the English sonnet is the Spenserian sonnet, named after Edmund Spenser, a contemporary of Shakespeare. These sonnets differ chiefly in the interlaced rhyme scheme they use: abab bcbc cdcd ee.
In the modernist period, with its revival of classical forms, the sonnet enjoyed brief popularity again. Although is it not the most popular format in which to write poetry today, many poets write in sonnet format to get in touch with classical poets’ style, as well as for the challenge that any set poetic form offers.
Learn more about sonnets
Read the ever popular poems of the master of the English sonnet in Shakespeare's Sonnets.
See how the sonnet has evolved over its long lifespan in The Sonnet: 500 Years of a Classic Tradition in English.