Poetry Form - The Sonnet

The Sonnet Verse Form
by J. Zimmerman

* History. * Form. * How to - Your Composition. * Books on the Sonnet. * Books on Poetic Forms. * Samples.

Do you have a passion to express, an argument to press? As in "All's fair in love and war", the Sonnet may be the form you need, whether to convince the one you love or to convince the world.

The name Sonnet came (through the French) from the Italian sonnetto ("little sound" or "little song").


The marvelous The Penguin Book of the Sonnet: 500 Years of a Classic Tradition in English, with an insightful and illuminating essay by Phillis Levin, details the international as well as the English-language development of the Sonnet. Her book includes over 600 Sonnets from 5-centuries in the English tradition.

Historically, the Sonnet was first written in English by Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542). Earlier, Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400) wrote Canticus Troili in his Troilus and Criseyde as a version of Francesco Petrarca's Canzioniere 132 Sonnet.

Initially, the Sonnet appeared in the early thirteenth century at the Sicilian court of Frederick II (King of Sicily (1197-1250) and Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire (1197-1250)). Sicily, the island off the south coast of Italy, is as close to the Ionian Islands as to Rome, and nearer to Tunis than to Naples. Thus it was a land where Arab, Greek, and Latin cultures interwove and influenced each other.

How did the Sonnet come into existence? With its repetition of words rather than rhymes (in its initial Sicilian form), it may derive from Troubadour forms like the Sestina. Some have speculated that it may also have been influenced by the great form of Arabic culture, the Ghazal, though it is the opinion of our local Ghazal essayist that such influence is not strong.

The Italian (or Petrarchan) Sonnet developed from the Sicilian Sonnet, by using envelope rhyme (instead of the alternating rhyme of the Sicilian Sonnet) in the octave.

Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) wrote the first Sonnet Sequence. Francesco Petrarca (1304-1374) published Canzioniere, "a narrative [made] out of a necklace of short poems" (as reported in The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms, Edited by Mark Strand and Eavan Boland).

The French Sonnet developed from the Italian Sonnet, by using a rhyming couplet (instead of chained rhyme) for the first two lines in the sestet.

The English (or Shakespearean) Sonnet and the Spenserian Sonnet also developed from the Italian Sonnet. The English (Shakespearean) and the Spenserian Sonnet both use alternating rhymes and conclude with a rhymed couplet. The Spenserian Sonnet is closer to the Italian, as both have the same number of rhymes, which is five. By contrast, the English (Shakespearean) Sonnet has seven.

Over the centuries, many poets have developed variations of the Sonnet. These include the Caudated Sonnet (from John Milton), the Curtal Sonnet (invented by Gerald Manley Hopkins ), and other Sonnet forms.


In a traditional Sonnet:

Details of forms, in historical order.

The Sonnet of the Sicilian Court of Frederick II (early 13th century) has this form (for information on the volta see forms of the Sonnet):

(1) Octave of rima alternata ("alternating rhyme"), initially created by repetition of words. In the following, each digit represents a specific word. The poet uses one pair of words in the octet and a different pair in the sestet.

  1 2 1 2 1 2 1 2     - End words of lines in octet.
                      - Volta (not a physical gap).
  3 4 3 4 3 4         - End words of lines in sestet.

(2) Later, rhyming words appeared. The poet, still using rima alternata, uses one pair of rhymes in the octet and a different pair in the sestet.

  a b a b a b a b     - End words of lines in octet.
                      - Volta
  c d c d c d         - End words of lines in sestet.

(3) Next, keeping the same form for the octet, the Sicilian Sonnet formed the sestet using rima incatenata ("chained rhyme" or "linking rhyme"), an interlaced pattern of rhyme.

  a b a b a b a b     - End words of lines in octet.
                      - Volta
  c d e c d e         - End words of lines in sestet show "chained rhyme".
                        Many variations are possible.

The Italian (or Petrarchan) Sonnet starts with rhyming words in the pattern of rima baciata ("kissing rhyme"), which in English we call "envelope" rhyme. It ends with a sestet in "chained rhyme", which can use a variety of sequences:

  a b b a a b b a     - End words of lines in octet.
                      - Volta
  c d e               - First tercet for first three lines in sestet.
  c d e               - Second tercet for last three lines in sestet.
                        Variations of the last six lines include:
                        'c d e d c e' or 'c d c d c d'.

The French Sonnet begins with an octave of the form used in an Italian Sonnet. Then, immediately after the volta, the French Sonnet anchors the start of its sestet by making a couplet:

  a b b a a b b a     - End words of lines in octet (as in the Italian Sonnet).
                      - Volta
  c c                 - Rhyming couplet for first two lines in sestet.
  d e d e             - Final quatrain concludes the sestet;
                        variations are possible, such as 'd c c d' or 'd e e d'.

While Chaucer was the first to translate a Sonnet into English, Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542) was the first to write his own Sonnets in English. He adapted the Italian form to create what we subsequently call the Spenserian Sonnet.

This form contains three quatrains. They are interlocked by the repetition in both the second and third quatrains of a rhyme from the quatrain that immediately precedes it.

A shift (as noted in forms of the Sonnet) occurs before the third quatrain, in the place where the Italian form has a volta. Notice that the rhyme scheme is the the same before and after the shift, whereas it differs before and after the volta. Matching content to form, the jump in the poem tends to be more subtle at the shift than at the volta.

The Spenserian Sonnet concludes with a rhymed couplet. The resulting form is:

  a b a b             - End words of first quatrain in alternating rhyme.
  b c b c             - End words of second quatrain in alternating rhyme,
                        with repetition of the last rhyme in the first quatrain.
                      - Shift.
  c d c d             - End words of third quatrain in alternating rhyme,
                        with repetition of the last rhyme in the second quatrain.
  e e                 - Heroic couplet.

The English (or Shakespearean) Sonnet (16th century) contains three quatrains, each with an independent pair of alternating rhymes. Both a shift and a turn (as noted in forms of the Sonnet) occur respectively before and after the third quatrain.

Like the Spenserian Sonnet, the English Sonnet concludes with a rhymed couplet. The resulting form is:

  a b a b             - End words of first quatrain in alternating rhyme.
  c d c d             - End words of second quatrain in alternating rhyme. 
                      - Shift.
  e f e f             - End words of third quatrain in alternating rhyme.
                      - Turn.
  g g                 - Heroic couplet.

The Caudated (or Miltonian) Sonnet was developed by John Milton (17th century):

  a b b a a b b a     - Octet, as in the Italian Sonnet.
                      - Volta
  c d e c d e         - Sestet, as in the Italian Sonnet.
  e f f               - 1st tail triplet, with three feet in the first line,
                        whose rhyme repeats the last rhyme from the sestet.
  f g g               - 2nd tail triplet, with three feet in the first line,
                        whose rhyme repeats the last rhyme from the triplet.

The Curtal Sonnet was invented by Gerald Manley Hopkins. It begins with 6 lines that can be thought of as serving the function of an octave. Then, it concludes with 4 and a half (that's right - a half) lines, which serve the function of a sestet.

  a b c a b c         - Six lines (in place of the Octet).
                      - Volta
  d b c d c           - Four lines plus a short ('half') line (in place of the Sestet).

However Hopkins primarily used this form:

  a b b a a b b a     - Octet, as in the Italian Sonnet.
                      - Volta
  c d c d c d         - Sestet, as in the second type of Sicilian Sonnet above.

Other Sonnet forms include (as in Levin's The Penguin Book of the Sonnet):

How to - Your Composition.

The varieties of forms of the Sonnet give you lots of options.

  1. If you are new to the Sonnet, first ponder which type you will write.

  2. You might decide to use the more familiar English (or Shakespearean) Sonnet or the Italian (or Petrarchan) Sonnet. Be sure to consider the great attraction in the Sicilian Sonnet in its initial form, where you use word repetition. That lets you avoid having to worry about rhyme.

  3. Assuming you decide on the Sicilian Sonnet, free write for ten minutes about your topic. Then read what you drafted, and pick from it words that occur often, that you want in your Sonnet, and that are strong and interesting words. As with composing the Sestina, pick concrete nouns and active verbs.

  4. If you decide on the Sicilian Sonnet, you only need four words. Lay them out like this on your page (whether carbon or silicon based):


  5. If you decide (gulp) on the English (or Shakespearean) Sonnet, you need 7 words (a1-g1) and you need to think of interesting rhyming words (a2-g2) to each of them. Lay them out like this on your page:


    You might think of some of the rhyme words when you are choosing your words, and others may not come (like Yeats) till you have written a ton of drafts.

  6. As with the Sestina, etc., you can use the repetition to delve more deeply into your material.

  7. Sometimes a writer finds that a later quatrain or line is much stronger than her first one. Feel free to move it to the start of the Sonnet. Keep reorganizing the material if it helps you come closer to what you feel and believe and want to communicate.

  8. Check that you have followed all the features of your form, thus proving that you have power over language instead of it having power over you.

  9. As with all formal poems nowadays, it is vital that the form does not "drive" your poem. If the rhyme scheme and form begin to feel forced, then you must assert the poem's content.

  10. Traditionally, you keep the same line length throughout a Sonnet (unless you are Gerald Manley Hopkins). The traditional length centers around (but does not obsessively lock-step with) iambic pentameter in English. That gives the rhythmic repetition that the ear associates with music. It also gives a pleasant appearance on the page.

    Sometimes a writer varies line lengths in order to challenge the listener's or reader's expectations: that is fine if you do it deliberately. Just don't be lazy and cut lines short or let them run long because you can't be bothered to fix your poem's problems.

  11. Explore writing the type of traditional Sonnet you chose for a week or two. Once you feel some command of it, pick another version of the traditional Sonnet, and write poems in that form.

  12. For a month or two, explore writing in a different Sonnet form each week.

  13. Then, once you have the tools you might, like Gerald Manley Hopkins (the Curtal Sonnet) or John Milton (the Caudated Sonnet) invent your own form!

  14. The less you follow a traditional Sonnet form, the less you can claim to have written a Sonnet. Again, only break a form's rules because you choose to, not because you lack the skills and devotion to make your poem work in a traditional form.

A Last Word.

Just because you start with the intention of writing a Sonnet, you do not have to keep your poem in that form if it does not work for you. Your attempt to write a formal poem may help you find words that you would not have found otherwise. And you may decide that you choose to end up with a poem in a different form, perhaps even a prose poem.

Samples of Sonnets.

One of the more delightful Sonnets about Sonnets is by Billy Collins (author of Sailing Alone Around the Room) called (inevitably) Sonnet; it was first published in Poetry, 173 (4) (February, 1999). It begins:

  All we need is fourteen lines, well, thirteen now,
  and after this next one just a dozen
  to launch a little ship on love's storm-tossed seas,
  then only ten more left like rows of beans.
  How easily it goes unless ...

William Wordsworth (1770-1850) gave us many great sonnets, especially "The world is too much with us":

The world is too much with us; late and soon, 
Getting and spending , we lay waste our powers: 
Little we see in Nature that is ours; 
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon! 
The Sea that bares her bosom to the moon; 
The winds that will be howling at all hours, 
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers; 
For this, for everything, we are out of tune; 
It moves us not.--Great God! I'd rather be 
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn; 
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea, 
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn; 
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea; 
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn. 

and "Nuns Fret Not at Their Convent's Narrow Room":

Nuns fret not at their convent's narrow room 
And hermits are contented with their cells; 
And students with their pensive citadels; 
Maids at the wheel, the weaver at his loom, 
Sit blithe and happy; bees that soar for bloom, 
High as the highest Peak of Furness-fells, 
Will murmur by the hour in foxglove bells: 
In truth the prison, into which we doom 
Ourselves, no prison is: and hence for me, 
In sundry moods, 'twas pastime to be bound 
Within the Sonnet's scanty plot of ground; 
Pleased if some Souls (for such there needs must be) 
Who have felt the weight of too much liberty, 
Should find brief solace there, as I have found. 

If you are serious about writing Sonnets, you need a Sonnet collection like the excellent The Penguin Book of the Sonnet: 500 Years of a Classic Tradition in English, edited by Phillis Levin.


Buy Sonnets The Penguin Book of the Sonnet: 500 Years of a Classic Tradition in English, Phillis Levin (Editor) . If you pick a single book on the Sonnet, this is the one! The Penguin Book of the Sonnet gives you the development of the form, so you can try your hand at:

Levine's long and rich introductory essay on the Sonnet's origins and development references the Sonnets she reprints. She includes over 600 Sonnets, with a strong sampling from the recent century, as well as great Sonnets from our heritage. You can see Sir Thomas Wyatt's Sonnets, which introduced the form to England in the sixteenth century, as well as Chaucer's glimpse at Sonnets over a century earlier, and the five centuries of work since Wyatt.

Buy Sonnets Sonnets: From Dante to the Present (Everyman's Library Pocket Poets), John Hollander (Editor) . A good anthology of classics from Dante and Petrarch, then Spenser and Shakespeare, through Milton's "On His Blindness" to Wordsworth and on to the twentieth century of Elizabeth Bishop and of Philip Larkin's "To Failure."
Buy Sonnets

The Oxford Book of Sonnets, John Fuller (Editor) . Fuller's essay of introduction is interesting but too brief to challenge Levine's rich and illuminating offering. The book contains 328 Sonnets both by skilled and renowned poets and by lesser known authors. Like other collections, this book includes Sonnets of love, of politics, and of religion, including sequence Sonnets (such as Christina Rossetti's 14-sonnet Monna Innominata, A "Sonnet of Sonnets").

Buy Strand The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms, Edited by Mark Strand and Eavan Boland.

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