The Sonnet

Many of you probably already know how a sonnet’s written and what’s typically required for the form: a rhyme scheme of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG giving a total of 17 lines and which the “turn” is in the last two lines, 10 syllables per line, and everything written in iambic pentameter (stressed, unstressed; /u /u /u). Also, the content of the poem is typically that of praise, whether it’s to a person, deity, animal, inanimate object, or an idea.

However, this isn’t the only type of sonnet there is.

What’s commonly taught in many English classes is actually the Shakespearean sonnet, obviously popularized by Shakespeare; however the other type of sonnet is called the Petrarchan or Italian sonnet, where the form originated during the Renaissance period.

The word sonnet is derived from the Italian word sonnetto, which means “a little sound, song.” In this version of the sonnet, it’s divided up into two stanzas: the first is an octave (8 lines), which introduces the theme, desire, problem, argument, or question of the poem; the second is a sestet (6 lines), which answers to the octave.

The rhyme scheme is much different than that of the Shakespearean sonnet and goes as follows: ABBAABBA CDECDE or CDCDCD. The reason for this rhyme scheme is simply because of how the Italian language works and that it’s rich with rhymes. However, when these types of sonnets are written in English, and because English is, let’s admit, kind of a wonky language, a few other variations for the rhyme scheme for the sestet are sometimes used: CDDCEE, CDCDEE, CDDCDD, CDDECE, or CDDCCD. In other words, the rhyme scheme for the octave is concrete, but that of the sestet is much more flexible.

I do not know if there is a specific syllable count or iamb for the Petrarchan sonnet; maybe it might just be with English poetry…and Shakespeare.

While I typically write using the Shakespearean form, because I’m much more familiar with it, I might give the Petrarchan form a try sometime.

Here are two examples of the sonnet, one for each of the forms. Note the rhyme scheme in the second example:

Sonnet 18 by 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 dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimm’d;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st 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.

The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”


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