The Sonnet: A Beginner’s Guide

I often think of a sonnet as a swan- romantically gliding across the surface of a lake, while beneath the surface the flippers of poetic artistry are working ten-to-the-dozen. (not the most seamless of metaphors, but anyway.) Sonnets seem like a straight forward poetic form, but they are far more tricky to do in practice.

The sonnet, meaning “little song” was originated in the 13th Century in the court of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II in Sicily. Poet Giacomo da Lentini is often given credit for its invention, although no one is totally sure. We do know, however, that the sonnet was brought to England from Italy by Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard in the 16th century, and it gained booming popularity in Elizabethan England.

One of the reasons for this popularity is that the sonnet’s form lends itself to a whole host of themes. Sonnets are often hyper-focused on one thing/ person/ situation, and explore all facets of that muse within. As well as this, the length of the sonnet, fourteen lines, is lengthy enough to explore something in significant detail, but not so long as to be overwhelming or rambling.

Typically, sonnets have:

  • Fourteen lines
  • Iambic pentameter
  • A specific rhyme scheme throughout
  • A volta, or turn at the end

There are eight main types of sonnet, which are as follows:

  1. Petrarchan (Italian) Sonnet
  2. Shakespearean Sonnet
  3. Spenserian Sonnet
  4. Miltonic Sonnet
  5. Terza Rima Sonnet
  6. Curtal Sonnet
  7. Modern Sonnet
  8. Sonnet Sequence

The Petrarchan Sonnet

Probably the most flexible variation of sonnet, the Petrarchan sonnet’s fourteen lines are divided into one group of eight (octave) and a group of six (sestet). The octave almost always follows a strict abbaabba rhyme scheme, however the sestet is freer, and can have a wide range of rhyme schemes. An example of this is Milton’s heartbreaking Sonnet 19, whose sestet follows an abcabc rhyme scheme. As Petrarch wrote mainly in Latin, I have included an example of a Petrarchan Sonnet from William Wordsworth below.

The World Is Too Much With Us

BY WILLIAM WORDSWORTH

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!

This 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.

The Shakespearean Sonnet

Probably the most well-known sonnet form, you may remember studying a few of Shakespeare’s sonnets at school, most probably sonnet 18 (shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?) and sonnet 130 (my mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun) Shakespearean sonnets have a tricky ABAB CDCD EFEF GG rhyme scheme, with the final rhyming couplet signifying a turn or volta.

Sonnet 18- William Shakespeare

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

Thou art more lovely and more temperate.

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,

And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.

Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,

And often is his gold complexion dimmed;

And every fair from fair sometime declines,

By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimmed;

But thy eternal summer shall not fade,

Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,

Nor shall death brag thou wand’rest in his shade,

When in eternal lines to Time thou grow’st.

    So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,

    So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Spenserian Sonnet

Sir Edmund Spenser took petrarch’s sonnet form and edited it to have a different rhyme scheme, so that it goes abab bcbc cdcd ee. Spenser is also known for adding a cheeky fake volta at around line nine of his poems, as a kind of red herring, only to turn it on its head and reveal the true turn in the final lines.

Sonnet 75- Edmund Spenser

One day I wrote her name upon the strand,
··But came the waves and washed it away:
··Again I wrote it with a second hand,
But came the tide, and made my pains his prey.
Vain man, said she, that doest in vain assay
··A mortal thing so to immortalize,
··For I myself shall like to this decay,
And eek my name be wiped out likewise.
Not so (quoth I), let baser things devise
··To die in dust, but you shall live by fame:
··My verse your virtues rare shall eternize,
And in the heavens write your glorious name.
··Where whenas Death shall all the world subdue,
··Our love shall live, and later life renew.

Miltonic Sonnet

The Miltonic sonnet was created by, you guessed it- John Milton! Like the Petrarchan sonnet, it is divided into an octave and a sestet and its rhyme scheme is as follows ABBAABBA CDECDE.The main thing that sets Miltonic sonnets apart is theme. Milton prefers to address morality and politics in his works, as opposed to romance and nature.

Sonnet 19: When I consider how my light is spent

BY JOHN MILTON

When I consider how my light is spent,
   Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
   And that one Talent which is death to hide
   Lodged with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
   My true account, lest he returning chide;
   “Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
   I fondly ask. But patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need
   Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best
   Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
   And post o’er Land and Ocean without rest:
   They also serve who only stand and wait.” – Poetry Foundation

Terza Rima Sonnet

Terza Rima, meaning third rhyme, in English, is unusual in that the sonnet is divided into stanzas of three lines each, a tercet. Unlike a traditional sonnet, the Terza Rima can go on indefinitely, it does not have a finite number of lines. When the poem does eventually end, the final line, or couplet, rhyme with the middle line of the previous tercet. You can see an example of this below. There is also no set rhythm for a Terza Rima, but most poets in English use iambic pentameter.

Ode to the West Wind,” by Percy Bysshe Shelley

O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being,
Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,

Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,
Pestilence-stricken multitudes: O thou,
Who chariotest to their dark wintery bed

The winged seeds, where they lie cold and low,
Each like a corpse within its grave, until
Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow

Her clarion o’er the dreaming earth, and fill
Driving sweet buds like flocks to feed in air 
With living hues and odours plain and hill:

Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere;
Destroyer and preserver; hear, oh, hear

Curtal Sonnet

The shortest of the sonnets I have discussed, the curtal sonnet is made up of only eleven lines. It was invented by Gerard Manley Hopkins, a Victorian poet obsessed with the mathematics of the sonnet. As the traditional sonnet is split into an octave and a sestet, he has reduced both of these elements by three quarters, resulting in a sestet and a quatrain. There is then an eleventh and final line to the sonnet, called the tail piece. curtal sonnets either follow a ABCABC DBCDC or ABCABC DCBDC rhyme scheme. This sonnet form was rarely used, however here is an example of Hopkins using it in his poem, Ash Boughs.

Ash Boughs- Gerard Manley Hopkins

NOT of all my eyes see, wandering on the world,
Is anything a milk to the mind so, so sighs deep
Poetry to it, as a tree whose boughs break in the sky.
Say it is ashboughs: whether on a December day and furled
Fast ór they in clammyish lashtender combs creep        5
Apart wide and new-nestle at heaven most high.
They touch heaven, tabour on it; how their talons sweep
The smouldering enormous winter welkin! May
Mells blue and snowwhite through them, a fringe and fray
Of greenery: it is old earth’s groping towards the steep        10
        Heaven whom she childs us by.

Modern Sonnet

Modern poetry is notorious for its free and breezy attitude towards form. Therefore, when trying to spot a modern sonnet, you can identify one by noticing whether they have most of the attributes of a traditional sonnet. If they do, they are likely a modern interpretation of the traditional sonnet structure. Below is an example of a more contemporary poem that definitely takes inspiration from the sonnet form.

[When the bed is empty … ]

BY DAWN LUNDY MARTIN

When the bed is empty, we pull the shades to block light,
light of resemblance to remembery, long light of waiting,
an impatience in the glows of it. The here of the now and the glow
that days make in the room, without the body but with the stench
of it. So we say, vacancy and abject,against the was, against
a philosophy of once and then not. Not-being against.
A child once grew here. As lines on a wall. As
growing without knowing what would one day not be. A
gnawing grows. Grew and was. Protection is curled. Motion-
less. I envy her in her room. Hers with paint and dolls and hand-
prints. Great green and glowing under blankets with a hand
that nurtures the heart of the mouth, purrs into mouth, loves
the heart. Heart beating within another—blushing blood—
God, the beating, lit, and doing what it does.

Sonnet Sequence

And finally, as the title suggests, this kind of sonnet is basically speaking, a sequence of sonnets that link thematically, strung together in order to make a much longer sequence. The three main kinds are the sonnet sequence, the crown of sonnets and the heroic crown. As I have already given a description of the sonnet sequence, I will move on to the latter two.

The crown of sonnets (sonnet corona) is made of fifteen poems that are artfully linked in a big loop- the last line of the first sonnet acts as the first line of the second sonnet, and the final sonnet’s last line repeats the first line of the first sonnet in the sequence. This is no mean feat, I am sure you can imagine, and I am in awe of anyone that manages to make this work.

The heroic crown (sonnet redouble) takes this to another, mind-blowing level. It is still a sequence of fifteen sonnets, but the final sonnet, number fifteen, is entirely composed of the first lines of each of the previous fourteen sonnets in order. This sonnet is called the master sonnet, and I think it has earned the title.

See below an excerpt from a crown of sonnets by poet Marilyn Hacker’s children’s book, A Wreath for Emmett Till.

A Wreath for Emmett Tillby Marilyn Hacker

III

Pierced by the screams of a shortened childhood,
my heartwood has been scarred for fifty years
by what I heard, with hundreds of green ears.
That jackal laughter. Two hundred years I stood
listening to small struggles to find food,
to the songs of creature life, which disappears
and comes again, to the music of the spheres.
Two hundred years of deaths I understood.
Then slaughter axed one quiet summer night,
shivering the deep silence of the stars.
A running boy, five men in close pursuit.
One dark, five pale faces in the moonlight.
Noise, silence, back-slaps. One match, five cigars.
Emmett Till’s name still catches in the throat.

IV

Emmett Till’s name still catches in my throat,
like syllables waylaid in a stutterer’s mouth.
A fourteen-year-old stutterer, in the South
to visit relatives and to be taught
the family’s ways. His mother had finally bought
that White Sox cap; she’d made him swear an oath
to be careful around white folks. She’s told him the truth
of many a Mississippi anecdote:
Some white folks have blind souls. In his suitcase
she’d packed dungarees, T-shirts, underwear,
and comic books. She’d given him a note
for the conductor, waved to his chubby face,
wondered if he’d remember to brush his hair.
Her only child. A body left to bloat.

I hope that this article has piqued your interest in the fine form of the sonnet, and I hope that you enjoyed reading it as much as I loved writing it. Many thanks to prepscholar, and Literary Devices, sites that proved invaluable to my research on this topic.

RGW

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