Sonnet Forms

SonnetsI’m finally back from vacation and am recuperated enough to start posting regularly again. As I’m preparing to take my GREs (both the general and the subject test in literature), I’m brushing up on my literary terminology. Sonnets are a very important thing to know–whether for the GRE subject exam, poetry courses, basic English courses, or even high school classes. There are three prominent types of sonnets we will discuss today: Petrarchan, Shakespearean, and Spenserian.

What is a sonnet?

Before we delve into the types of sonnets, we should know what a sonnet is! A sonnet is a particular style of poetry that usually shows differing views of a topic. The sonnet also usually has a turning point, which, depending on the style of sonnet, can appear in the middle of the sonnet. There is also a resolution between the two view-points. The sonnet has 14 lines, which can be formulated into different sized stanzas (which you’ll see when I discuss the different types of sonnets). Although commonly perceived as THE form for love poetry, sonnets can encompass many other topics.

There is also a rhyme scheme involved. For this post, I will use letters of the alphabet to indicate rhyming patterns. For example, “abab” would indicate words like “cat, fall, hat, ball.” Something like “aaaa” would be “cat, hat, bat, sat.” Notice in these examples, words of the same letter rhyme. Words of a different letter (“a” and “b” are different) do not rhyme.

Petrarchan: The Italian Sonnet

The Petrarchan Sonnet, also known as the Italian sonnet, was created by Francesco Petrarca, known simply as Petrarch in English. Petrarch was an Italian humorist (hence the secondary name, “Italian” sonnet) and lived from 1304-1374.

The Petrarchan sonnet is divided into to parts: the octave (a stanza of eight lines) and the sestet (a stanza of six lines). The octave always has the same rhyme scheme, but the sestet can vary in rhyme scheme. The octave is as follows:

a b b a a b b a

The sestet can be any of the following:

c d c d c d
c d d c d c
c d e c d e
c d e c e d
c d c e d c

Another important feature of the Petrarchan sonnet is the volta. The volta is the “turning point” of the sonnet. Remember how I said sonnets discuss two views on something? The volta is the beginning of the second section, and typically appears on line 9–the beginning of the sestet. This is an essential part of the Petrarchan sonnet.

Shakespearean: The English Sonnet

The Shakespearean sonnet is named after–go figure–William Shakespeare. This is the most common form of sonnet; after all, Shakespeare himself wrote hundreds! Since Shakespeare was also English, it’s known as the English sonnet as well.

The Shakespearean sonnet has 4 stanzas, comprised of 3 quatrains (four-line stanzas) and one couplet (two-line stanza). The rhyme scheme is as such:

a b a b
c d c d
e f e f
g g

Notice that in this sonnet form, there is an alternating rhyme pattern. There is not a clear, defined position for the volta like in Petrarchan sonnets. Rather, the prevalent item in Shakespearean sonnets is the “heroic couplet”–the two rhyming lines at the end that resolve the poem.

The Spenserian Sonnet

The Spenserian sonnet is named after Edmund Spenser, known for his epic The Faerie Queene. This form is similar to the Shakespearean sonnet, but has some noticeable differences, most prominently in its rhyme scheme. The Spenserian rhyme scheme is:

a b a b
b c b c
c d c d
e e

Much like the Shakespearean sonnet, this also has a heroic couplet. The real difference is how Spenser carries the secondary rhyme in the previous stanza and makes it the primary rhyme in the following stanza. This carries an idea from one stanza to the next more fluidly than Shakespearean, yet the heroic couplet can be very jarring as it breaks the established pattern. While the volta can occur on the ninth line, like a Petrarchan sonnet (and is usually indicated by a word like “but” or “yet”), it can also occur in the final couplet.

Final Thoughts

Sonnets are a pivotal part of English literature and writing. You will undoubtedly have to study sonnets at some point, and understanding the differences between them will help you on exams, class discussions etc. I hope this helped clear up the three most prevalent forms for you. Good luck!

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