How to Write a Sonnet

A sonnet is a traditional form of European poetry that consists of 14 lines. Sonnets were written as early as the 1200s in Italy, and later exported to England in the 1500s. There are three main forms of sonnet. The Italian form, also known as the Petrarchan sonnet, was popularized by Petrarch, Dante Alighieri, and others. In the 1500s, the English aristocrat Thomas Wyatt and his friend the Earl of Surrey began translating Petrarch's sonnets into English. This gave rise the English sonnet form, also known as the Shakespearean sonnet. A variant of the Shakespearean sonnet is the Spenserian sonnet, developed by Edmund Spenser.

Petrarchan Sonnet

An Italian sonnet is divided into two parts. The first eight lines (two quatrains) pose a problem or question. The last six lines (two tercets) offer a resolution or closure. Each line has either 11 or 12 syllables. The rhyme scheme of the first eight lines may be either

                     a-b-a-b-a-b-a-b, or

with the latter being more common. The rhyme scheme for the last six lines of a Petrarchan sonnet can follow one of many patterns:


with the first two being more standard.

Shakespearean Sonnet

Each line of an English sonnet is written in iambic pentameter. A line of iambic pentameter has ten syllables, with the stress falling on every other syllable starting with the second syllable. Example:

                     In  Venice, David   bought  a  new  trapeze.

Shakepearean sonnets employ end rhyme according to this simple pattern:

                     a-b-a-b   c-d-c-d   e-f-e-f   g-g

The first three stanzas are quatrains with alternating end rhyme; the last stanza is a rhyming couplet. This form was adopted as the standard in the 1500s by several writers and literary noblemen. Shakespeare dominated the field during his time, writing 154 sonnets, not including those found in his plays. Shakespeare's Sonnet No. 129:

                     Th' expense of spirit in a waste of shame
                     Is lust in action, and till action, lust
                     Is perjured, murd'rous, bloody full of blame,
                     Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,
                     Enjoyed no sooner but despised straight,
                     Past reason hunted, and no sooner had
                     Past reason hated as a swallowed bait,
                     On purpose laid to make the taker mad.
                     Mad in pursuit and in possession so,
                     Had, having, and in quest, to have extreme,
                     A bliss in proof and proved, a very woe,
                     Before a joy proposed behind a dream.
                     All this the world well knows yet none knows well,
                     To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

Spenserian Sonnet

Like the Shakespearean sonnet, the Spenserian sonnet is written in iambic pentameter. Only the end rhyme pattern is different. The first three stanzas have an interlocking rhyme scheme:

                     a-b-a-b   b-c-b-c   c-d-c-d   e-e

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