The Sonnet explained – its origin, structure and meaning.

30th January 2013

The Sonnet. What is it?

(A Handy Guide)

What exactly is a Sonnet, and how is it structured? This post gives you a brief and simple explanation as to just how this very special form of poetry is put together. Also suggestions on how you might have a try youself at composing one. With examples and illustrations.
painting of young woman reclining in pastarol setting, with period clothing

The Rift Within the Lute by Arthur Hughes

The sonnet's origins

The origin of the sonnet lies in 14th-century Italy where it was developed by the renowned Renaissance poet and philosopher Petrarch (1304-74). The word itself derives from the Italian "sonetto" - a diminutive of "suono" meaning "a sound". Being from the outset associated with the concept of romantic love, it was introduced into England in the 16th century by Thomas Wyatt (1503-42) and many consider it to have reached its greatest expression in the sonnets of Shakespeare.

Notable writers of sonnets since then have included John Donne, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Keats, and Christina Rossetti.
portrait of man in 17th century attire, Shakespeare,
William Shakespeare was perhaps the greatest exponent of the sonnet form.

Number of lines

The Sonnet is a precise form of poetic verse consisting of just 14 lines. These 14 lines are divided into three sets of four (so 12 lines accounted for), followed by a final set of just two (=14 in all). When you see a sonnet printed out, there are often gaps on the page, empty lines, between these sections. Though not always.

The four-line sections are called 'quatrains.' So there are three of these. The final two lines at the end make up what is termed 'the couplet'.
text only indicating the lines of a Shakespearean sonnet in colour

The Quatrains and the Couplet illustrated in Shakespeare's Sonnet #116

Types of Sonnet

Schollars tend to classify sonnets into one of three types, named after the poets who made them famous. So we have the Petrarchan sonnet, the Shakespearean sonnet and the Spenserian sonnet. The illustration above shows a typical Shakespearean sonnet.

The structure and the pattern in which the lines rhyme with one another can vary among different styles. And consequently from poet to poet, too, with always the possibility of a slightly different set-up and arrangement of lines. Some poets can take gigantic liberties with the formal composition. However, the 'liberties' themselves are usually consistent throughout any one sonnet.
banner image of queen victoria face with red text, black background


Like many traditional poetic forms, the final words of certain lines tend to rhyme with one another - that is, they sound the same. This rhyming process occurs in various sequences, some more complex than others. Here is an example of a simple, conventional rhyming sequence that you will often find in the sonnet:

ABAB CDCD EFEF GG - where the first line is referred to as 'A,' the second line as 'B' and so on. Therefore, in this example, the 3rd line would be rhyming with the 1st. The 4th line would be rhyming with the 2nd. And so on. The Shakespearean sonnet illustrated above follows this pattern.

By the way, you might sometimes see these four-line groupings referred to as stanzas rather than quatrains. A stanza is a grouping of four or more lines. A quatrain, however, is always just the four. 

Rhythm and the length of the lines

All the lines are usually of the same length - not the same length as seen on the page, but in terms of beats per line. This is because the lines themselves are each made up of ten syllables: a 'syllable' being a single, unbroken sound or word. For instance, 'cat' is a word with one syllable. 'Catnap' is a word with two.

In a typical line of a sonnet, among those ten syllables, you will invariably be able to detect this distinctive beat or rhythm. This is achieved by the use of 5 stressed and 5 unstressed syllables. That's what gives the lines their distinctive sound. It's a kind of 'Da-Dum, Da-Dum, Da-Dum, Da-Dum' sound. "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" Read it aloud to yourself, and you will instantly understand.

Example: Shakespeare's famous Sonnet 18

Sonnet 18
Reading of Sonnet #18 by Shakespeare

Meaning within the Sonnet

A good sonnet is always interesting because it also conveys a meaning - a message. Consequently, it will often produce an element of altered perception at its conclusion. A change of perspective. Thus, as the sonnet progresses, the initial theme or mood as set out in the lines of the first quatrain will alter and develop. By the 3rd quatrain the reader will sense a turn-about of mood. A question is being asked or a paradox is being presented. This is then resolved in the couplet (final two lines).

It is this discipline of construction that gives the sonnet its charm and inner strength. It is exciting, too, because it takes the reader on a journey of sorts. You'll encounter one or two twists and turns along the way. And almost always there is a satisfying and sometimes unexpected destination.
painting of man tickling seated, sleeping lady in ear, 18th century fashions
There's often a surprise at the conclusion to reading a sonnet (Sleeping Girl - Pietro Aantonio Rotari).

Reading and thinking about sonnets

Reading sonnets is good for us because it alters our perception and makes us think. It is a little piece of philosophy and romance in 14 lines. A really good sonnet becomes something transcient, therefore, a different way of perceiving to what is usual or expected. In other words, it exercises the imagination.
old victorian photo of poet, long hair and bead, pensive

Poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti

(Illustration from his book of poems, Boston 1882)


And what about the writing of a sonnet? Making one up yourself? Well, that would not be perhaps be everyone's cup of tea. But the process is remarkably meditative and relaxing if you care to give it a try.

Begin by asking yourself: 'What is the theme?' Think of something or someone important in your life. How would you discribe the current situation or dilemma that it poses? And how could this theme develop as you weigh up the possibilities of change, the direction in which it takes you?

Is there an element of conflict, for example, that needs to be resolved? Is there an obstruction to be overcome? Is there a choice or an important decision to be made? Finally, what is the conclusion, the message and surprise you would like to convey to the reader in the final two lines?

There is always something to learn about oneself in the writing of a sonnet - as the amorous Mr Wildish certainly discovered for himself in the course of his journey. Though that, of course, is another story entirely.
thumbnail image of book cover shows Georgian-era couple against nocturnal landscape
WILDISH - a Story Concerning Different Kinds of Love.
Authored by Robert Stephen Parry

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