How to Format a Sonnet

Italian Italian or "Petrarchan" sonnets pay homage to the Italian poet Francesco Petrarch, just as some English sonnets do to William Shakespeare.

The sonnet is a centuries-old poetic form that remains popular in contemporary settings. There are two traditional varieties of sonnets: the Italian and the English, also known as Petrarchan and Shakespearean sonnets, respectively. Both not only make use of verse or structural forms that offer poets a set of rules regarding the use of such devices as rhyme scheme, but they also provide rhetorical forms that speak to the poems' subject matter and the way such material should be approached.


Traditional sonnets employ end-rhyme, or rhyming words that come at the end of lines. This is largely because the form originated in Italy, and the Italian language, well known for its nearly lubricious beauty, is often shown off in traditional Italian poetry through devices that emphasize sound.

That said, it is important to know that poets construct rhyme schemes by pairing sets of rhyming end-words with specific letters. For example, the lines in the first set of end-rhymes are both coded as "a". The second two rhyming lines are coded as "b", and so on. Once you have the “code” for a certain kind of poem (like a sonnet), rhymes can be laid out to match the form.

Structural Form: The Italian Sonnet

The Italian sonnet is constructed of 14 lines, usually divided into two sections. Its rhyme scheme follows this pattern: abbaabba cdecde (or, sometimes, cdcdcd). The first section of the Italian sonnet is the poem's "octave," or initial eight lines. The second section of six remaining lines is known as the poem's "sestet." The space in the rhyme scheme above separates the octave and sestet.

Rhetorical Form: The Italian Sonnet

In the octave of an Italian sonnet, the poem's speaker presents an argument, asks a question, or makes an observation. Between the eighth and ninth lines, a change occurs; suddenly, the speaker's attitude becomes less certain, and he will sometimes play devil's advocate when referring to his earlier claims. During the sestet, this new reasoning or counterargument is explored, and by the poem's end, the speaker has reached some epiphany or new understanding about the subject at hand.

Structural Form: The English Sonnet

English sonnets came on the heels of the Italian sonnet's popularity. However, because the English language carries far fewer rhymes than the Italian language, changes needed to be made within form. While the sonnet remained 14 lines, the English rhyme scheme became abab cdcd efef gg. Often, in print, the first 12 lines of the poem were divided into sets of four (called "quatrains") using indentation or white space, setting apart the final rhyming couplet.

Rhetorical Form: The English Sonnet

The rhetorical structure of the English sonnet mimics that of the Italian. In the first quatrain, the speaker poses a problem or question of concern. In the second four lines, he indicates more substantive complications having to do with the nature of that problem. The third quatrain presents even more complications, but it also makes headway -- a turn -- toward the speaker seeing the situation with fresh eyes. In the final couplet, the speaker finds clarity, even wisdom, with regard to his concerns.

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