What Is Sonnet Poetry

The sonnet is a centuries-old form of poetry in which fourteen lines of verse are written in iambic pentameter and typically end with a rhyme scheme. Traditionally, sonnets explore themes of love, longing and loss, but they can tackle any subject matter. The two main types of sonnets are the Italian or Petrarchan and the English or Shakespearean sonnet. Petrarchan sonnets are characterized by an octave (an eight-line stanza) that introduces a problem and a sestet (a six-line stanza) that resolves it. On the other hand, the English sonnet features three quatrains (four-line stanzas) that share a single thought and a couplet (two rhyming lines) that serves as a conclusion.

In the 16th century, poet and scholar Sir Philip Sidney first defined the sonnet as a poem that expresses a single suggestion or idea. This form of poetry gained popularity—especially in Elizabethan England—and eventually spread to the countries on the Continent. When it reached Italy, Giacomo da Lentini and Petrarch used it to express their devotional feelings, creating a model referred to as the Petrarchan sonnet. This type of sonnet typically expresses a sudden discovery or emotion, often a love or longing, which is experienced in an octave stanza.

The English sonnet, is typically composed of three quatrains and a final couplet. In this form, an argument is explored in depth in the quatrains, and the couplet offers an epigrammatic conclusion or turn. This type of sonnet was made famous by the works of William Shakespeare and Edmund Spenser.

Although the Petrarchan and English sonnets have shaped the way modern practitioners understand the form, the sonnet is still flexible and allows for creativity. For example, G.E. Woodberry’s “Of Life” is composed of twelve lines of rhyming couplets, while Walter de la Mare’s “For I Will Consider My Cat Jeoffry” is constructed of rhymed triplets.

It is not necessary to stick to traditional rhyme schemes when writing a sonnet. Free verse sonnets are becoming more common, where the rhyme schemes are looser or at times abandoned. Additionally, sonnets don’t always have to be written in iambic pentameter. Some practitioners, like Rainer Maria Rilke, wrote their sonnets in a sort of dactylic hexameter (a meter comprised of six-syllable lines, with the first syllable stressed, followed by two unstressed syllables).

Writing a sonnet requires skill and practice. Besides shaping the poem with meter and rhyme, sonneteers have to condense their thoughts into fourteen tight lines. Writing a sonnet can help poets to achieve precision, clarity and concision in their work as they seek to explore complex subjects in depth with limited linguistic space.

Techniques for Writing Sonnets

Unsurprisingly, there is no single “right” approach to writing a sonnet. Each poet brings their own unique vision to the form. However, there are a few techniques that sonneteers can employ. One effective approach is called the “turn,” and occurs near the end of the eighth line. Here, the poet may change their argument or introduce a new idea. Additionally, the abab, cdcd, efef, gg pattern (or other such combinations) is common in many sonnets. The use of internal rhymes and unusual words—as well as mixing up the line lengths—are all possible techniques that could be employed in the sonnet writing process.

Publishing Sonnets

The goal of many poets is to share their work with a larger audience. One of the best ways to do this is through publication, and there are a variety of ways to get sonnets published. Poets may seek out literary magazines, submit their work to contests, or use self-publishing platforms. However they decide to share their work, it is important to be aware of copyright laws and seek permission to use other people’s works in order to stay in the bounds of legality.

Examples of Famous Sonnets

Most poetry aficionados are familiar with William Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 18,” which begins “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” While the Bard wrote many notable sonnets, other greats have tackled the form as well. Marie de France’s “Au vaghi sen” (“To a Fair Lady”) is an example of an Old French sonnet, while Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo” focuses on the shape of a Greek sculpture.

Modern Sonnets

In the centuries since Petrarch and Shakespeare, poets have continued to innovate on the sonnet. Contemporary poets like Wislawa Szymborska, Lucille Clifton, Usha Kishore and Li-Young Lee, to name a few, have used the sonnet to explore a range of topics, from mythological and political to personal. In today’s society, the form continues to be utilized as a tool for exploring the human condition—the same as it has for hundreds of years.

Lyrical Sonnets

Often, sonnets take on the form of lyrics that could be set to music. Many popular songs contain sonnets; for example, the rock band Elton John’s song “Your Song,” penned by Bernie Taupin, is composed of couplets that contain ababcdcd rhyme schemes. Similarly, the lyrics for Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” are also composed of couplets and are written in iambic pentameter.

Political Issues in Sonnets

Nowadays, an increasing number of poets are using the sonnet to explore issues such as inequality, the environment, and other pressing political topics. Plath, Whitman, and Auden are just some prominent poets who have tackled these issues head-on in their sonnets. The key is to do so in a way that respects the sonnet’s traditional form while still conveying the poet’s message. For example, in one of his celebrated sonnets, W.H. Auden masterfully examines the rise of totalitarian regimes using quatrains and a couplet.

Rhyming Structures in Sonnets

Sometimes, sonnets abandon traditional rhyme schemes and instead focus on internal rhyme and assonance. In these cases, vowel sounds are repeated throughout the poem in order to link certain lines together. Furthermore, modern sonnets may utilize a type of half rhyme or slant rhyme in order to maintain an overall structure without becoming too repetitive. In conclusion, while modern sonnets may employ a variety of techniques, the flexibility of the form still allows poets to tell stories, make arguments, and evoke emotions.

Dannah Hannah is an established poet and author who loves to write about the beauty and power of poetry. She has published several collections of her own works, as well as articles and reviews on poets she admires. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in English, with a specialization in poetics, from the University of Toronto. Hannah was also a panelist for the 2017 Futurepoem book Poetry + Social Justice, which aimed to bring attention to activism through poetry. She lives in Toronto, Canada, where she continues to write and explore the depths of poetry and its influence on our lives.

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