Poetic Form: Sonnet

I have to admit surprise (and embarrassment) that I somehow have neglected this poetic form over the years. Maybe it’s because they’re so familiar that I overlook sonnets. Maybe it’s because my brain is still trying to block out all those Shakespeare courses I took back in college. Whatever the reason for my slippage, today is a great day to cover the sonnet, because it’s the 14th day of the year, and the sonnet is comprised of 14 lines.

Here are the general guidelines:

  • 14-line poem.
  • Usually rhymes.
  • Often written in iambic pentameter.

Over time, this Italian poem has been pushed to its limits and some contemporary sonnets abandon many of the general guidelines. But I tend to at least try for the 14 lines, rhymes, and 10 beats per line. (I admit that I don’t stress myself out too much over scanning.)

The two most famous forms of the sonnet are the Shakespearean Sonnet (named after William Shakespeare) and the Petrarcan Sonnet (named after Francesco Petrarca).

The rhyme scheme for a Shakespearean Sonnet is:

a
b
a
b

c
d
c
d

e
f
e
f

g
g

The rhyme scheme for the Petrarcan Sonnet is a little more complicated. The first eight lines (or octave) are always rhymed abbaabba. But the final six lines (or sestet) can be rhymed any number of ways: cdcdcd, cdedce, ccdccd, cdecde, or cddcee. Of course, this offers a little more flexibility near the end of the poem.

But sonnets don’t necessarily need to be Shakespearean or Petrarcan to be considered sonnets. In fact, there are any number of other sonnet varieties.

Here’s a sonnet I wrote earlier this year (click here to see the original prompt):

“Formal”

Consider the moon as its light reflects
off her hair. Consider her smile as she
never doubts the beat of your heart. Expect
fantasy, but accept reality.
In the end, you’re the one filled with doubt that
never ends. She considers your large feet
even as you feel there’s nowhere to stand.
Don’t fret. Find a bench. Offer her a seat.
Slide your arm across the top without once
putting a hand on her. Look in her eyes
and remember how you ended up here.
Consider the moon and her smile, you dunce.
Even as her face is framed by fireflies
she just wants your kiss, your words in her ears.

*****

A few extra notes about the sonnet:

  • A crown of sonnets is made by seven sonnets. The last line of each sonnet must be used as the first line of the next until the seventh sonnet. The last line of that seventh sonnet must be the first line of the first sonnet.
  • A sonnet redouble is a sequence of 15 sonnets. Each line from the first sonnet is used (in order) as the the last line of the following 14 sonnets.

*****

Follow me on Twitter @robertleebrewer

*****

Learn even more about the sonnet (and other forms) with The Poetry Dictionary!
Written by John Drury, The Poetry Dictionary covers forms, meters, schools of poetry, poetic terms, and more! This is one of the few books that I never let stray away from my desk.

Click to learn more.

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27 thoughts on “Poetic Form: Sonnet

  1. The Happy Amateur

    This is my humble attempt at a sonnet.

    Monologue

    This life is long, no matter what you claim
    You know of life. You have forgotten all.
    It’s burning brightly. An eternal flame
    That reaches high, oblivious to fall.

    Life’s pure and simple. Like an open book.
    There is no death. I will forever live.
    I have the knowledge. Oh, I saw that look
    You’ve given me, and I will not forgive.

    They say you were like me once…that’s insane.
    Don’t ever patronize me. I’m the one
    Who speaks the truth, has beauty, feels the pain.
    Whatever mind you had, has long been gone.

    This world is mine, and I will hold the stage.
    They call me Youth. They call you Good Old Age.

  2. Nancy Posey

    Book Thief
    Though stealing books was never my intent,
    I must admit I’ve added quite a few
    To my collection—all the books I’ve spent
    Long lazy hours, while meandering through
    The pages, often losing track of time,
    Anticipating conflict, suffering loss.
    Somehow I can’t relinquish what’s not mine.
    I’d rather keep the book and pay the cost.
    I turn the pages, breathing deep; the smell
    of ink and paper give me a strange high,
    the names inscribed inside the covers tell
    me who else turned these pages before I
    claimed ownership, and put them in the hole
    left empty by my books that others stole.

  3. Sara McNulty

    Dream of My Father (Sonnet)

    Crude shingled shack upon the beach
    with tarnished nail for bathing suit
    was all you wanted within reach
    of the sea waves and sandy route

    that led you down to ocean’s edge.
    Your muscled arms would knife the waves
    and part them as you drove a wedge,
    like Moses freeing those enslaved.

    Now I see so clearly your dream
    and feel saltwater sting my nose
    as the sun directs its dappled gleam
    Painting the outdoor life you chose.

    Though years have passed, my heart has bled,
    Your voice speaks softly in my head.

  4. ann

    "Igloo"

    The snow and slush have hardened into ice.
    Noon’s light is pale and night is black as coal.
    Winter’s grip twists tight, an arctic vice.
    Heat slips out the windows of our souls.

    A barn owl sails the backyard fence.
    Red fox is spotted through the trees.
    Your hands are stiff; my back and mind, so tense.
    If fox and owl survive, then why can’t we?

    In town, we see a tower, glistening white.
    They say a man is living in the snow;
    An igloo with a cave that’s full of light.
    We walk by twice to see if it is so.

    We see him huddled snuggly in the mound.
    He laughs out loud; a warm, spring sound.

  5. Taylor Graham

    EMIGRANTS

    A family’s treasures – quilt and music stand,
    a bedstead, dresser, and a portrait framed
    in light as if to greet a promised land.
    To look at them, you’d guess these two are aimed
    toward sunrise. A set of dishes wrapped
    like infants for the journey. Linens, pots,
    an old dog who won’t survive the trip, lapped
    atop a load fastened with girth-hitch knots.
    They bear their past and future bundled, lashed
    together for the road. Trunks and boxes
    filled with what they own; hopes of plenty cashed
    for gas and breakfast. Life’s paradoxes,
    no work in promised lands. No rented shack.
    Wherever they came from, they’re going back.

  6. Sara McNulty

    In the Details of Winter

    Geese arrows shot from bow of sky
    washed color of winter warning.
    O`er heads of oaks and firs they fly
    in the pale pink light that dawn brings.

    Still is the shrill of the blue-jay’s
    call, absent the gold finch’s song.
    Red robin awaits spring’s new day
    hoping time span not be too long.

    Hummingbird hovers through cold spell,
    pokes pointed beak at his feeder,
    glad sugar-water has not gelled
    or frozen still to impede her.

    Anon the crocus heads will show
    green sturdy stems through melting snow.

  7. Phillip A. Ellis

    "Impromptu"

    Some storms, the light is such a shade of green
    that the world sees the hail is on its way
    to spoil the night, perhaps, or spoil the day
    of some poor parson, who had left the sheen
    of fresh-spread wax upon his Mazda, lean
    beneath the spreading chestnut tree, dismay
    to be etched deep, when, once the hail hoorays
    and leaves its dings and splintered glass, it preens

    and shows the world its artwork — "Ruined Car
    with Fresh-Stripped Tree Beside, and Dancing Man" —
    the parson, meanwhile, red with rage and care,
    ready to climb the skies and shake the stars
    has turned a critic, set to readily damn
    the artist underneath sardonic air.

  8. Sara McNulty

    The Jacket

    I care not whether black and white
    or color flashes from your face,
    no matter measure of your height,
    nor standing hard or soft in place.

    Often touted, pick of the staff,
    at times your face is on display
    in windows, maybe autographed.
    I must peek inside you today.

    A single cover conjures up
    imagined tales that flood the mind.
    Attempting not to be abrupt
    I skim the blurb so pleased to find

    a new book bursting at the seams,
    words to ponder and dwell in dreams.

  9. Taylor Graham

    VISITING THE OLD CATHEDRAL

    A place of worship wrecked by sword and sledge.
    Age-old story. Tell me again, which war?
    Religion’s. Call it legend, myth, or lore;
    faith, dogma, creed, or ceremony; hedge
    against mortality. Torch, slash, and dredge
    in God’s sweet name. Humanity? A door
    the righteous wedge to lock Forevermore.
    This broken stairway to a fearsome ledge
    where gargoyles overlook the market square.
    An old man crippled in the war begs bread.
    A widow mumbles blessings to the Lord,
    the Prince of Peace. On crumbs and empty air
    sparrows survive. Where was it ever read
    that faith lies down in peace with a drawn sword?

  10. Cameron Steele

    The reasons humans light candles

    On Sundays, I hold candles to your face
    searching soft flames for something I can hold
    on–Paul lit candles, everyday molds
    slick with wax, the so small man’s mincing pace
    through flames charis Law in earth Christ retold
    Sweet roads to Damascus we find not old–
    to, some name written on your eyes always.

    And sweetly Bradbury’s candles gleam in
    men along their own Damascus railroads
    cities died when firemen suckled ash
    easily we forget we used to know
    how to find ourselves renamed and open,
    we hold onto candles to light the past.

  11. J. Martin

    I admire all of you for writing your sonnets. I seem to be out of practice since my more dedicated poetry-writing days. Just wanted to give a shout-out!

  12. Cameron Steele

    The cop said to the journalist:

    Often, in afternoons slicked over and
    gray, you will find police in dripping cars
    parked, seats upright but eyes closed behind hands.
    Sometimes they dream with heavy fists and hearts.

    Often, in mornings soured by coffee
    those officers watch you search their faces
    your lips sometimes moving, marking your pleas.
    Always they dream for dryer places.

    Here is what they will tell you, if you want:
    Sometimes, women use knives to kill their men;
    often, husbands sleep in cells for wet taunts;
    Even your children will die in the end.

    And when you find yourself waiting for gods
    Sit straight, bow your head, remember the odds.

  13. Marian O'Brien Paul

    Karen, I liked your allusions. I once started a poem by addressing "Bill," as in W.B.Yeats. I was comparing him with "Tom" Eliot. On another occasion I, too, referenced Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, as you do, in a poem I wrote about joining several "pilgrimages" during a six month stay in Ireland. Your references touched a common chord for me. Thanks

  14. Marian O'Brien Paul

    Evening Lake (a sonnet variation)

    Heart-grabbing, a blue strip of Lake Michigan lies
    wedged between two high-rise, people-packed
    apartment buildings: this strip of lake is mine –
    my view – changing, always changing: today,

    a breath-stopping blue with its superfluous
    deep-green ruffle of trees . The sunset tints
    the air in pink and rose and violet hues,

    counting out the seconds it takes for blue
    to bleed from lake, rising like mist, into sky
    – phosphorescence leaching lake to gray.

    Like colored smoke the pinks intensify, high
    now, nearing building tops and dragging
    after them lake’s paling, stolen blue – pulling
    up lake to spend the night in darkened sky.

  15. Karen Legg

    I Sit on the Shore with Eliot, and fish

    April isn’t all that bad, Tom, I say.
    December is the cruelest time of year
    working through the dread haze of holiday
    to make something someone wants to hear
    out of November’s scribblings. To prune
    I need some peace and quiet and a beer –
    He stirs. “The spot where fishmen lounge at noon –”
    The rhyme stinks so bad? It’s as I fear;
    I thought the rhyme by far my strongest point.
    The argument is weak, the conceit lame
    and the time is sorely out of joint.
    How then to bring this beast to Bethlehem?
    I’ve no strength to leap across that border.
    Shall I at least set my words in order?

  16. Billie

    A broken car rid in a jalopy ninety-four
    feels late at night but its’ just nine 0’clock
    and its just the four of us in that ninety- four
    I looked out the window at nine o’ clock
    The prairie is a winter fairy tale land
    I feel like it’s just began
    and I am in a dream land
    a sort of never, never land with no peter -pan
    she turns to me, who do you love?
    in this winter fairy tale land
    she says to me, awe, you still love him!?
    only in this dreamland.
    now leaving South Dakota
    no where near Minnesota

  17. Salvatore Buttaci

    IF THEY COULD REACH US

    What can history’s love-tank teach us
    about love’s art and complexities?
    If those wooers and suitors could reach us
    across the lost ages, what ecstasies
    could they import today, what step-by-step
    program we might follow to win romance?
    Not much, I’m afraid. I hate to upset
    your notions about Don Juan who could dance,
    or Romeo who died, but couldn’t live, for love,
    or Casanova who kept a tally
    of his conquests in a large black book of
    names and numbers. This rogue gallery
    that played at love knew nothing of love’s truth.
    These so-called lovers conquered without couth.
                                #

  18. Sara McNulty

    Best Friend Salute

    Here is a toast to us, my friend,
    remember the day we first met?
    Drinking Mateus, made our spirits ascend
    while we toked to the songs of Joan Jett.
    Lucky were we to have bonded
    so quickly, forging a friendship of steel.
    Your black hair and olive skin responded
    well to hot sun; my fair skin peeled.
    Through our hardships, sorrows and tears
    of pain incurred, through myriad of shrinks,
    we still laugh after forty years,
    alas, no more forty winks.
    Giggling at views no one else understands,
    we hold each other’s hearts and hands.

  19. Heather Forks

    To My Mother

    I saw your lovely visage in a dream
    Fresh from a long vacation I inferred
    Your face gave off a pearly radiant gleam
    Your death a rumor patently absurd

    How fine the ripened fruits of motherhood!
    My sister as a rosy peach young bride
    Admirers around you as you stood
    Bride and mother glowing from inside

    From Heaven’s gate you shall the wedding view
    The guests united will your babe admire
    The roses in her cheeks a tribute to
    The many traits from you she did acquire

    As teary friends and loved ones smile at her
    Their mem’ries bittersweet will gently stir

  20. RJ Clarken

    Sonnet XX!!!

    I’m not funny. What I am is brave. ~Lucille Ball

    Read what my medal says: "Courage". Ain’t it the truth? Ain’t it the truth? ~The Cowardly Lion

    As an unperfect actor on life’s stage,
    I sometimes fear I’ve forgotten my part.,
    Where is the green room? Can I disengage
    myself from the scene? I need a kick start.
    So I think of those things that I must say
    even if difficult, to make it right.
    And in that moment, my fears go away
    and then I know I’ve conquered my stage fright.
    The Cowardly Lion and Lucille Ball
    each found courage with a word or a deed.
    It’s not yet time for the last curtain call
    so I have to ‘just do it’ to succeed.
    Even if nerve has departed, forsooth,
    I can be courageous. Ain’t it the truth.

    ###

    This is a modern-ish take on Shakespeare’s XXIII Sonnet, regarding the subject of courage.

  21. Taylor Graham

    THE GREAT EXHIBITION, 1851

    Crystal Palace, London

    In this old photo, men in top hats bend
    to gaze down from the balcony – at Peace,
    and Labor – artisans from every end
    of the globe come together in surcease
    of trade wars, secrets, petty rivalries.
    Commerce shall be common, a brotherhood
    of languages conversing family-ease.
    The man who clicked the shutter understood.
    But that was almost 15 decades past.
    We’ve trade embargos, tariffs, petrol-war.
    Photography can’t make a vision last
    and give the lie to all that’s gone before.
    The promise of a crystal palace fled,
    and all those men in top hats, dead.

  22. Kit Cooley

    I must admit, Robert, that I adore sonnets. And this is from someone who primarily writes free verse. I had not heard of a "crown" or "redouble." You know I’m going to have to give them both a try.

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