Spotlight on the Sonnet

Apr 25, 2024 | Posted by the IEW Blog Team

“Sonnet is about movement in a form” (Seamus Heaney). What is a sonnet? It is a short poem whose structure opens the way for debate or subtle argument. The typical sonnet is a fourteen-line rhymed poem with two sections: the question proposed or argument presented and the resolution or new perspective. These two sections are divided by the volta or turn, which points to the new perspective or answer.

The sonnet form has a long history. Petrarch introduced the sonnet to the world in the 1300s with his Canzoniere, a sequence of 366 poems with 317 being sonnets penned to Laura, his beloved. The name comes from the Latin word sonetto meaning little song. In A Poetry Handbook, Mary Oliver commented that Petrarch was the first to “make a narrative out of a necklace of short poems” (56). After two hundred years in Italy, the sonnet was brought to England in the 1600s by Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, and was adapted to fit within the constraints of the English language. Because Shakespeare wrote so many sonnets, English sonnets are more often referred to as Shakespearean sonnets. Despite the long history of the sonnet, it has maintained the basic structure and purpose.

The original structure of the sonnet fit the abundance of rhymes available in the Italian language. It first appeared as an intellectual or argumentative form, presenting an emotional or intellectual question with an answer instead of simply describing something or praising a quality. The Italian sonnet begins with an octet, which is eight lines, making a strong opening statement and posing a problem/question with the rhyme scheme ABBAABBA. In the sestet (six lines) that follows, the resolution to the question is given and follows the rhyme scheme CDCDCD. Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “How Do I Love Thee?” is an example of a Petrarchan or Italian sonnet.

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

The structure of the Shakespearean sonnet retains some of the Italian structure. Like the Italian sonnet, it has fourteen lines of iambic pentameter. These are divided into three quatrains (groups of four rhyming lines) and a single couplet that brings the turn of thought, or volta. The typical rhyme scheme is ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. With additional pairs of rhymes, this rhyme scheme fits the English language better because it has fewer long lists of words that rhyme with each other. Poet and creative writing instructor Kevin Barents writes, “Shakespeare’s decision to not use the Petrarchan sonnet, which requires a poet to find four different endings that rhyme with one another, meant he didn’t need to be especially acrobatic in making his rhymes and could more consistently use them in meaningful ways.” This new structure allowed freedom within the constraint of the form for poets to adapt and bring more associations between images. 

Sonnet 18: Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
By William Shakespeare

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.

Many poets love the sonnet despite its short length and seemingly constricting form even when they do not follow it exactly. As Scott Newstok commented in a recent Arts of Language podcast, “In some ways, the sonnet is a very quick and apprehensible example of that larger dynamic of writing within constraint . . . even when you’re pushing against the constraints, you are still working with them in a productive way. And you have something to push off of.” For some examples of modern adaptations of the sonnet, see Countee Cullen’s “From the Dark Tower” or Robert Frost’s “Acquainted with the Night,” both of which play with the structure or rhyme scheme but maintain the structure of fourteen lines and sets of rhymes. Even Andrew Pudewa has taken a turn at writing a sonnet. He wrote this at the encouragement of Dr. James Webster. Can you tell which type of sonnet this is?

What to Do with Foxes 
A Sonnet by Andrew Pudewa

With their clucks and their strutting the yard—a dozen happy hens
Roaming free, scratching worms, safe, protected by the sturdy fence.
Mother loves them, gives them grain; like the Pied Piper they follow her.
Every night in the coop, perching close, cooing low and secure.

In the shadows behind and between, there he lurks out of place,
Denizen of field, farm, and forest, stranded in city space.
With instinct ever forcing his movement, hunger, blood lust,
Slyly and silently midday in sunshine, attack he must.

A vulpine marauder, he quickly sprints, a leap and fatal bite,
Sharp canines crushing pullet heads, ripped from bodies—hens in flight!
Now five dead with their corpses and feathers all scattered about.
Now without feast he must flee the broom-wielding woman’s crazed shout.

     Animal-loving town dwellers may be tree-or-fox-huggers,
     But we who keep chickens, know what to do—just shoot the muggers!

With its short length and specific structure, the sonnet is an easy poem to analyze with your students. Choose multiple poets and both Italian and Shakespearean sonnets. Have students annotate the poems. Use multiple colors to note the rhyme schemes and the structure. Then look for the question or proposition and the restatement or description of it. Have your students note the style of the poet. Does he use phrases or sentences? Are they broken across lines? The more time you can shine a spotlight on the structure and style of the sonnet, the better students can appreciate the artistry and may even attempt to write one themselves.

by Danielle Olander

Works Cited

Barents, Kevin. “William Shakespeare: Selections.” Poetry Foundation, 2024, Accessed 11 Apr. 2024. 

Oliver, Mary. A Poetry Handbook. Harcourt Brace & Co., 1994. 

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