What is a Sonnet?

Characteristics of all Sonnets

A sonnet is a type of poem that originated in Italy and became popular during the Renaissance period in Europe. A sonnet can literally be seen as a “little song”, and traditionally reflects a single thought or sentiment. There are three main types of sonnets: ​Shakespearean, Spenserian and Petrarchan​. All sonnets are highly structured with strict rules about meter, rhyme, length and other features.

All sonnets have the following three features in common:

  • 14 lines long
  • Variable rhyme scheme
  • Strict metrical construction

The metrical pattern of a sonnet often depicts ​iambic pentameter​​,​ meaning that each line has 10 syllables in five pairs, and that each pair has stress on the second syllable.

Now, let’s dive deeper into the three different types of sonnets.

Shakespearean Sonnets

Shakespearean (or​​English​​) sonnets,​ named after William Shakespeare, have the following rhyme scheme: ​ABAB CDCD EFEF GG​​.​ It is divided into ​three​ ​quatrains​​, or four lines​ -- the first of which is ABAB -- ​and one​ ​rhyming couplet​ to conclude -- GG​.​ The first line in the first quatrain rhymes with the third line; both are "a"; the second line rhymes with the fourth, which are both "b."

Shakespeare’s sonnets are widely recognized for taking on this particular rhyme scheme, hence the name “​Shakespearean sonnet​​”.

Spenserian Sonnets

Spenserian sonnets​, named after Edmund Spenser, like Shakespearean sonnets, are divided into ​three​ ​quatrains​ ​and a​ ​couplet​. However, the rhyme scheme is different; it is ​ABAB​ ​BCBC​ ​CDCD EE.​ With this different rhyme scheme, the Spenserian sonnet serves as a variation of the English form, interlocking the three quatrains of the poem.

Petrarchan Sonnets

Petrarch​​sonnets,​ named after the Italian poet Francesco Petrarcas, have ​two​ ​quatrains​ ​and two tercets,​ ​which are three-line stanzas​. The rhyme scheme is typically ​ABBA ABBA​ ​CDE CDE​​.

The rhyme scheme in a Petrarchan sonnet essentially divides the 14 lines of a traditional sonnet into two sections:

  • An eight-line stanza ​(octave or​ ​octet​​)​ – ABBAABBA
  • A six-line stanza ​(​​sestet​​)​ – CDCDCD or CDECDE

An English variation on the traditional Petrarchan form is the ​Italian Sonnet​​.​ With this version, the octave’s rhyme scheme is maintained, but the sestet now rhymes ​CDDCEE​.

NOTE:

Beyond the three main types of sonnets, there exist several different variations of each form. A sonnet is a form of poetry that varies depending on the poet and their message; one type of sonnet might work better for particular purposes, so it’s ultimately up to the writer to decide which direction they will go.

Love sonnets are quite popular, but love is not the only sentiment one can convey with a sonnet. The main idea is to ​convey a single thought or feeling;​ thus, sonnets do not always have to be serious or romantic.