The Sonnet – a no-frills, no-nonsense explanation

30th January 2013

The Sonnet. What is it?

A little something you might not know about the novel 'Wildish' is that during the course of the story, the hero is obliged to compose a sequence of sonnets. This post would seem an ideal opportunity, therefore, to present a brief explanation as to just how this very special form of poetry is put together.

So, here goes ... ‘Rob's Handy Guide to the Sonnet.' A no-nonsense explanation in a few short paragraphs.

The sonnet - origins

The origin of the sonnet lies in 14th-century Italy where it was developed by the renowned Renaissance poet and philosopher Petrarch. It has from the start been associated with romantic love. It was introduced into England in the 16th century by Thomas Wyatt and reached its greatest expression in the sonnets of Shakespeare. Notable writers of sonnets since then have included John Donne, John Keats and Christiana Rossetti.
portrait of man in 17th century attire, Shakespeare,
William Shakespeare was perhaps the greatest exponent of the sonnet form.

Number of lines in the Sonnet

The Sonnet is a precise form of poetic verse consisting of just 14 lines. These are divided into three sets of four, followed by a final set of just two. This structure, and the pattern in which these lines rhyme with one another, can vary among different styles. And consequently from poet to poet, too. However, it is usually consistent throughout any one sonnet.


Like many traditional poetic forms, the final words of certain lines tend to rhyme with one another. This occurs in various sequences, some more complex than others. Here is an example of a simple, conventional rhyming sequence:

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.
Length of lines

All the lines are usually of the same length - ten syllables each.

Among these, there are usually 5 stressed and 5 unstressed syllables per line. That's what gives the lines their distinct rhythm. A kind of 'Da-Dum, Da-Dum, Da-Dum, Da-Dum, Da-Dum' sound. "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?"

Example: Shakespeare's famous Sonnet 18

Reading of Sonnet #18 by Shakespeare

Meaning within the Sonnet

A good sonnet is always interesting because it 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 first few lines tends to alter. By the 3rd verse you will sense a turn-about of mood. A question or paradox is being presented. This is then resolved in the final two lines (called the couplet).

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 a couple of 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 sonnets is good for us because it alters perception. It is a little piece of philosophy and romance in 14 lines that makes us think. It exercises the imagination.

And what about writing a sonnet? Well, that's perhaps not everyone's cup of tea. But the process is meditative and relaxing. There is always something to learn about oneself, too, in the writing of a sonnet - as my amorous hero Mr Wildish certainly discovered for himself. 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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