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Poetic Form: Sonnet

Learn how to write a sonnet, including the difference between a Shakespearean and Petrarchan sonnet. Get guidelines for writing this poetic form and an example sonnet here.

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 sonnet 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.

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The Complete Guide of Poetic Forms

Play with poetic forms!

Poetic forms are fun poetic games, and this digital guide collects more than 100 poetic forms, including more established poetic forms (like sestinas and sonnets) and newer invented forms (like golden shovels and fibs).

Click to continue.

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Here's a sonnet I wrote earlier this year:

"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.

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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.
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