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Sonnets were first written in Italian and were traditionally love poems. Though the sonnet is a form that can be experimented with, it has remained true to its original length of fourteen lines and its Anglicized meter of iambic pentameter. Petrarch developed the sonnet to one of its highest levels during early Renaisannce Italy, but it wasn't translated into English until the sixteenth century. From there, Shakespeare made the sonnet famous in England and others followed his lead.

The sonnet can be thematically divided into two sections: the first presents the theme, raises an issue or doubt, and the second part answers the question, resolves the problem, or drives home the poem's point. This change in the poem is called the turn and helps move forward the emotional action of the poem quickly, as fourteen lines can become too short too fast.

Most sonnets are one of two kinds:

  • Italian (Petrarchan)- this sonnet is split into two parts, an octave and a sestet. The octave is composed of two envelope quatrains rhyming "abba abba" (Italian octave). The sestet's rhyme pattern varies, though it is most often either "cde cde" (Italian sestet) or "cdc dcd" (Sicilian sestet). The turn occurs at the end of the octave and is developed and closed in the sestet. Over the years, the Italian sonnet has been the most favored type of sonnet. Donald Justice- "Sonnet: The Poet at Seven"

    And on the porch, across the upturned chair,
    The boy would spread a dingy counterpane
    Against the length and majesty of the rain,
    And on all fours crawl under it like a bear
    To lick his wounds in secret, in his lair;
    And afterwards, in the windy yard again,
    One hand cocked back, release his paper plane
    Frail as a mayfly to the faithless air.
    And summer evenings he would whirl around
    Faster and faster till the drunken ground
    Rose up to meet him; sometimes he would squat
    Among the bent weeds of the vacant lot,
    Waiting for dusk and someone dear to come
    And whip him down the street, but gently home.

    Notice the turn at line 9, "And summer evenings . . ." and how it develops and closes the poem by the last line. Justice changed the form a bit, rhyming the sestet "ccd dee," or viewed as couplets "cc dd ee."

  • English (Shakespearian)- this contains 3 Sicilian quatrains and one heroic couplet at the end, with an "abab cdcd efef gg" rhyme scheme. The turn comes at or near line 13, making the ending couplet quick and dramatic. Not many modern writers have taken to writing the Shakesperean sonnet. e. e. cummings, not known to the general public for sonnet writing, supplies us with a Shakespearean sonnet example:

    )when what hugs stopping earth than silent is
    more silent than more than much more is or
    total sun oceaning than any this
    tear jumping from each most least eye of star

    and without was if minus and shall be
    immeasurable happenless unnow
    shuts more than open could that every tree
    or than all his life more death begins to grow

    end's ending then these dolls of joy and grief
    these recent memories of future dream
    these perhaps who have lost their shadows if
    which did not do the losing spectres mine

    until out of merely not nothing comes
    only one snowflake(and we speak our names

Here are two other almost common sonnet types:
  • Spenserian- this sonnet is very similar to the Shakespearian sonnet in form, though its rhyme scheme is slightly different. It is written with 3 Sicilian quatrains and an ending heroic couplet. It rhymes "abab bcbc cdcd ee", such that the rhyme scheme interlocks each of the quatrains, much like the terza rima is made of interlocking triplets.

  • Envelope sonnet- this is made with two envelope quatrains and a sestet: "abba cddc efgefg (efefef)". It is almost exactly like the Italian sonnet except the quatrains use different rhymes (notice both quatrains in the Italian rhyme "abba").

How To
If you have a grip on blank verse and can write a couplet, tercet, and quatrain, then the sonnet--either kind--will come easy to you. Both types are composed in three parts, so the sonnet can be simplified, in a way, by being broken down. It's like making an outline. The turn, I find, usually takes care of itself somehow, and the more the writer worries about it, the more difficult it will be to reach. As with any poem of any kind, let the structure guide you, not vise versa. If you allow the feel and movement of the sonnet to take the poem to the next line, the turn will happen and the sonnet will be well on its way to being complete.

A sonnet can be helpful when writing about emotions that are difficult to articulate. It is a short poem, so there is only so much room to work in. As well, the turn forces the poet to express what may not be normally expressable. Hopefully, you'll find yourself saying things you didn't know you were going to say, didn't know you could say, but that give your a better understanding of the emotions that drive the writing of the poem.

Online Examples and Resources:

-- Damon McLaughlin

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Last Updated 8/23/99