The sonnet is a poetry form that poets have wielded for centuries—from Petrarch and Shakespeare to Marilyn Nelson and Terrance Hayes. These 14-line poems use restrictions of length and rhythm to deliver lyrical, captivating musings on themes like love and death. Poets interested in short-form work can gain a lot from learning how to write a sonnet.
What is a sonnet? From the Italian for “little song,” a sonnet is a poem whose forms and restrictions have evolved with contemporary poetry. This article discusses the different popular forms of sonnet poems, with examples and analysis.
From the Italian sonnet to the contemporary, let’s explore the long and beautiful history of sonnet poetry, ending with advice for how to write a sonnet yourself.
Sonnet Definition: What is a Sonnet?
There are many different forms of the sonnet throughout history, including the Elizabethan, Spenserian, and Petrarchan sonnet, among others. Before we delve into what makes each form distinct, let’s analyze what they have in common.
A sonnet is, in brief, a 14 line poem with a “twist,” or volta, occurring in the middle. The volta is essential to the poem, because it reverses or complicates the narrative of the first half of the poem. (More on this below.)
Sonnet definition: a 14 line poem with a “twist,” or volta, occurring in the middle.
Traditionally, sonnet poems have ruminated on love and heartbreak. While many contemporary sonneteers continue to use the form in this way, there are also plenty of contemporary sonnets that explore the political, the metaphysical, and everything else.
To thoroughly answer What is a sonnet?, we need to examine the different restrictions and complexities of the form throughout history. Let’s take a look at this history now, with several sonnet examples.
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Different Sonnet Forms: The 4 Primary Sonnet Forms
The sonnet form hails from 13th century Italy and, from its conception through the Romantic Era, was used to express various forms of love. Since then, contemporary notions of the sonnet have been vastly less restrictive in both form and content: a modern sonnet can be about any topic, and does not have to follow the meter or rhyme schemes prescribed in classical forms.
Throughout history, poets have written under four primary sonnet forms. These include:
- Petrarchan sonnet / Italian sonnet
- Shakespearean sonnet / English sonnet
- Spenserian sonnet
- Contemporary sonnet
Sonnet Examples Through History
Although strict rhyme and meter schemes aren’t as popular as they used to be, there are still plenty of modern sonneteers who attempt the classical forms. So, let’s example each type of sonnet. We’ll break down the rhyme and meter schemes and give several examples of each form, alongside a history of the form itself.
If you’re not familiar with rhyme and meter, take a look first at our article on poetry forms: What is Form in Poetry? 10 Poetic Forms to Try
1. The Petrarchan Sonnet / Italian Sonnet
Sonnet rhyme scheme: ABBAABBA CDECDE (Note: the rhyme scheme of the sestet varies.)
Sonnet structure: An octet and a sestet.
Meter: iambic pentameter, though sonnets written in Italian often use hendecasyllabic (11 syllable) lines.
Strangely enough, Petrarch didn’t invent the Petrarchan sonnet, he just popularized it, and the term itself actually comes from the Renaissance, several centuries after Petrarch’s death. Also known as an Italian sonnet, this form consists of two stanzas: an octet and a sestet.
The octet should introduce the “problem” in the poem—the romantic conflict as viewed in the eyes of the speaker. This problem is introduced in the first four lines, with the second four lines giving additional exposition and explanation. The sestet then resolves the conflict.
All Petrarchan sonnets have an octet written in ABBAABBA structure. However, there are a lot of variations in the rhyme scheme of the sestet. A few variations include:
- CDCCDC (Sicilian)
You might see any of the above variations utilized in 19th century English Petrarchan sonnets, as the Romantics adored this format but often toyed with the sestet.
Petrarchan Sonnet Examples
Sonnet by Petrarch
translated by Thomas Wentworth Higginson
When Love doth those sweet eyes to earth incline,
And weaves those wandering notes into a sigh
With his own touch, and leads a minstrelsy
Clear-voiced and pure, angelic and divine,—
He makes sweet havoc in this heart of mine,
And to my thoughts brings transformation high,
So that I say, “My time has come to die,
If fate so blest a death for me design.”
But to my soul, thus steeped in joy, the sound
Brings such a wish to keep that present heaven,
It holds my spirit back to earth as well.
And thus I live: and thus is loosed and wound
The thread of life which unto me was given
By this sole Siren who with us doth dwell.
Petrarch’s poem has several interesting features, which are typical of poetry from the 13th century. He personifies Love as a concept which brings the speaker “sweet havoc,” and he also represents his love as a Siren, who swoops in and resolves the sonnet’s conflict in the last line. The conflict, here, is that the speaker contemplates his own death in the face of Love, but comes to accept it because of the joy that Love has brought him.
If you’re interested in reading more of Petrarch’s poems in translation, you can find 15 sonnets here.
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!”
You may recognize this poem as being at the base of the Statue of Liberty. Lazarus wrote this poem to raise money for the statue’s pedestal, where it now sits as a bronze plaque. Notice how the poem uses dialogue as the volta, marking a surprising and sudden shift in the poem’s tone, answering the dilemma (who does the statue welcome?) presented in the octet.
2. The Shakespearean Sonnet / English Sonnet
Sonnet rhyme scheme: ABAB CDCD EFEF GG
Sonnet structure: Three quatrains and a couplet, often presented isometrically.
Meter: Iambic pentameter.
Like Petrarch, Shakespeare did not invent the sonnet form named after him—he merely popularized it.
In this format, the Shakespearean sonnet uses 3 quatrains to build the conflict of the poem, with the volta offering some sort of twist or dilemma in the problem itself. Usually, only the couplet is reserved for resolving this dilemma.
This format is also known as the English sonnet, as poets like Henry Howard and Sir Thomas Wyatt preceded Shakespeare and also wrote in this form. However, the examples we include are all written by Shakespeare, as he was, indeed, a master of the form.
Shakespearean Sonnet Examples
Shakespeare Sonnet 18
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.
Sonnet 18 is the most famous of Shakespeare’s poems. The “problem” of the first 12 lines is simply whether the speaker should compare his love to a summer day. The volta in line 9 shifts to how this love differs from a summer day, concluding that her beauty is eternal.
Shakespeare Sonnet 116
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand’ring bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me prov’d,
I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.
Another popular poem from Shakespeare, sonnet 116 dwells on the nature of love itself. The speaker argues that love does not try to change others or fight against time; rather, true love is eternal, and accepts the object of the lover’s affection wholly and sincerely.
Other Shakespeare Sonnets
Here are links to some of Shakespeare’s most beloved sonnets:
3. The Spenserian Sonnet
Sonnet rhyme scheme: ABAB BCBC CDCD EE
Sonnet structure: Three quatrains and a couplet, often presented isometrically.
Meter: Iambic pentameter.
Edmund Spenser was an English poet writing around the same time as Shakespeare. Naturally, there are many similarities between his and Shakespeare’s sonnets—namely, the exploration of a “problem,” a volta that twists the problem, and a two line resolution.
Unlike Shakespeare, the Spenserian sonnet uses an interlocking rhyme scheme that’s sort of like terza rima: ABAB BCBC CDCD EE . This form is sometimes referred to as a Scottish sonnet, as it became very popular in 17th century Scotland.
Spenserian Sonnet Examples
Since Spenser popularized the form, we’ll include two poems written by him, both retrieved from his sonnet cycle Amoretti.
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 dost in vain assay,
A mortal thing so to immortalize;
For I myself shall like to this decay,
And eke my name be wiped out likewise.”
“Not so,” (quod I) “let baser things devise
To die in dust, but you shall live by fame:
My verse your vertues 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.
Spenser’s sonnet 75 contemplates the immortality of love in poetry. The poem’s “conflict” is that the speaker’s lover will one day die, her name washing away in the sands of time. The speaker replies that he will immortalize her in his poetry, letting eternity know of his love’s eternal virtues.
This sonnet was retrieved from Gutenberg, which preserves the original spellings of words.
The soverayne beauty which I doo admyre,
Witnesse the world how worthy to be prayzed!
The light wherof hath kindled heavenly fyre
In my fraile spirit, by her from basenesse raysed;
That being now with her huge brightnesse dazed,
Base thing I can no more endure to view:
But, looking still on her, I stand amazed
At wondrous sight of so celestiall hew.
So when my toung would speak her praises dew,
It stopped is with thoughts astonishment;
And when my pen would write her titles true,
It ravisht is with fancies wonderment:
Yet in my hart I then both speak and write
The wonder that my wit cannot endite.
In Spenser’s sonnet 3, the speaker struggles to put his love’s beauty into words. Every time he looks at her, he’s blinded and awe-struck, incapable of verbalizing her beauty or his love for her. It’s only when he turns inward and writes from his heart that he can speak and write about her, which emphasizes both her beauty and his genuine love for her.
4. The Contemporary Sonnet
Sonnet rhyme scheme: Variable, often nonexistent.
Sonnet structure: Variable. Many contemporary sonnets are isometric.
Sonnet meter: Variable, often nonexistent.
The sonnet form waxed and waned in popularity throughout Western history. Practically no one wrote sonnets by the end of the Restoration period in England. However, it was revived by the 19th century Romantics, who used the sonnet to teach poets about variations and experimentations in form.
Sonnets in the 20th and 21st centuries have become decisively less formulaic. They generally have 14 lines and a volta, but they generally eschew restrictions of meter, rhyme, and topic.
Contemporary Sonnet Examples
American Sonnet for my Past and Future Assassin
by Terrance Hayes
I lock you in an American sonnet that is part prison,
Part panic closet, a little room in a house set aflame.
I lock you in a form that is part music box, part meat
Grinder to separate the song of the bird from the bone.
I lock your persona in a dream-inducing sleeper hold
While your better selves watch from the bleachers.
I make you both gym & crow here. As the crow
You undergo a beautiful catharsis trapped one night
In the shadows of the gym. As the gym, the feel of crow-
Shit dropping to your floors is not unlike the stars
Falling from the pep rally posters on your walls.
I make you a box of darkness with a bird in its heart.
Voltas of acoustics, instinct & metaphor. It is not enough
To love you. It is not enough to want you destroyed.
Terrance Hayes repurposes the terminology of the sonnet form in this visceral and imaginative poem. The speaker transforms “you” (his future assassin / the reader) through a series of metaphors that force us to reckon with the realities of race in America. By locking the reader inside the poem and making a pun on the name Jim Crow, Hayes urges us to consider the enduring legacies of racism—especially readers who aren’t intimate with the experience.
First Alzheimer’s Sonnet
by Marilyn Nelson
A wave enters the membrane labyrinth,
and something mushrooms from nothing to now.
Unacted on, thought disappears from sense
like the vapor trail of a skeptic’s awe:
Look up, no trace remains. The road to hell
is paved with good intentions once conceived
of, twice forgotten in a micromill-
isecond, cumulus lost on a breeze.
What if for a brief moment the flame burns
higher, as a thought forms of you, my dear,
then passes back into oblivion?
Each cloud is a face of the atmosphere,
as each wave is an aspect of the sea.
Forget you? Never. Not while I am me.
Marilyn Nelson’s poem exposes the Alzheimer’s experience in heart-wrenching, beautiful imagery. Interestingly enough, it’s written in decasyllabic lines, though it isn’t perfectly iambic pentameter. Regardless, that constriction is less common in contemporary poetry, yet it enhances the poem’s painful beauty.
How to Write a Sonnet Poem
The above sonnet examples and analysis show you the mechanics of how to write a sonnet—14 lines, a volta, and ruminations on love or other topics. So, we’ve covered the basics, but how do you write a sonnet?
The following tips will help you turn your 14 line poem into a dazzling, arresting sonnet.
- Explore “conflict”
- Sharpen your volta
- Surprise the reader
- Play with form
- Use precise language
1. Explore “Conflict”
A central feature of the sonnet form is a core “conflict” or “problem” which the poet hopes to explore and resolve. If you’re unsure of where to begin, start with a central question.
This conflict doesn’t need to be like the conflict in fiction or in movies. Rather, it should be a complex question that needs to be answered in poetry, rather than in prose.
The conflicts from the above sonnet examples include:
- How is my love like and not like a summer’s day?
- Can I immortalize my love in poetry?
- Who does the Statue of Liberty welcome?
- What is it like remembering the people you love when you have Alzheimer’s?
With a conflict or question in mind, use the language of poetry to explore what cannot be simply answered.
2. Sharpen Your Volta
A key element of writing sonnets is the volta. This twist in the language and topic of the poem has the power to surprise, delight, and even transform the reader. Moreover, the volta is essential to presenting a complex problem and solution for the sonnet itself to resolve.
What makes for a good volta? Consider the following:
- Tone and diction: What can you write that changes the tone of the poem?
- Expanding the “conflict”: What is something you haven’t yet said about the poem’s topic?
- Opposing “argument”: What does the other side of the “conflict” look like?
- Getting to the core of the poem: What do you need to say before the poem finishes?
Take a look at any of the above sonnet examples to see these elements of voltas in action. Remember, the volta will occur somewhere in the middle, depending on the poem and when it was written (but typically in lines 7, 8, or 9).
3. Surprise the Reader
A sonnet’s constituent parts should inevitably surprise the reader. This presents the challenge—and payout—of writing short-form poetry.
With only 14 lines to develop a complex topic in verse, sonneteers inevitably turn to surprising language. Terrance Hayes uses pun and other forms of word play repeatedly in his poetry. Although it’s cliché now, Shakespeare’s poem describing his love as fairer than a summer’s day is a beautiful bit of hyperbole and comparison. Such use of good word choice and literary devices pulls these poems together.
Finally, contemporary sonnets are free to discuss and juxtapose themes outside of love. This is what makes a poem about the thoughts of a speaker with Alzheimer’s, for example, so potent: the reader is able to see the world from an alternate perspective in only 14 lines.
4. Play With Form
If you’ve paid attention to contemporary poetry, you know that rhyme and meter aren’t exactly in style. Modern poets tend to eschew these constraints, unless they’re requirements of the poetry form, such as in the villanelle or ghazal.
While the contemporary sonnet does not have many restrictions, don’t discount the possibilities of rhyme and meter. You might find that utilizing a Shakespearean or Spenserian rhyme scheme will force you to pay closer attention to language. In the classical sonnet examples we give, the reader hardly notices the rhyme and meter: so captivating is the language that the poem’s restrictions feel nonexistent. This could be a great challenge for you, as well: writing a poem with a meter and rhyme scheme without drawing attention to the meter or rhyme.
It is also worth noting, poets have challenged even the convention that a sonnet has 14 lines and a volta. As far back as the 15th century, poets have experimented with the form—the caudate sonnet, for example, is a 24 line poem which tacks on a 10 line coda after the initial 14 line poem. More recently, Gerard Manley Hopkins invented a form called the curtal sonnet, which has 10 ½ lines, like in his poem “Pied Beauty.”
Such experimentations pose the question: what is a sonnet, precisely? While the answer to that question is outside the scope of this article, feel free to ponder that question yourself as you pay attention to form.
5. Use Precise Language
With only 14 lines to work with, careful word choice is key. Marilyn Nelson’s “First Alzheimer’s Sonnet” is a great example of what word choice can do for the poem. Notice all of the intricate references to thought and speech:
- “Membrane labyrinth”—a kenning for a brain with Alzheimer’s.
- “thought disappears from sense / like the vapor trail of a skeptic’s awe”
- “cumulus lost on a breeze”
- “Each cloud is a face of the atmosphere”
These images add up to something ephemeral and intangible. We begin to view the speaker’s thoughts as fleeting clouds in a bright blue sky, trapped in a labyrinthine brain. Such powerful, evocative imagery uses exactly the words it needs to build this extended metaphor: anything less precise than the words in this poem would certainly dampen the poem’s effect.
This, of course, is a consideration for editing. Don’t get too hung up on finding the right word while you’re writing your sonnet. Let yourself freely explore ideas in verse, then edit when you’ve written everything you mean to say.
For more advice on writing poetry, check out our article How to Write a Poem, Step-by-Step.
Further Readings and Collections
Here are some poetry collections by recent or contemporary poets that include or are comprised of sonnets:
- Frank: Sonnets by Diane Seuss
- American Sonnets for my Past and Future Assassins by Terrance Hayes
- 100 Love Sonnets by Pablo Neruda
- Sonnets to Orpheus by Rainer Maria Rilke
- The Sonnets by Ted Berrigan
- Collected Sonnets by Edna St. Vincent Millay
- The Sonnets by Jorge Louis Borges
- Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons by Marilyn Hacker
You can also find an archive of sonnet poems at The Formalist.
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