The sonnet was an immensely popular poetic form at the turn of the 16th century. Shakespeare himself wrote over 150 sonnets that became well known in Elizabethan (and later Jacobean) England, but he wasn’t the only sonnet writer, nor the first. Three sonnet forms are widely recognized today. Yet all sonnets have basic rules that help you understand them while reading them or writing them.
The Basic Form of a Sonnet
All sonnets have 14 lines -- this is what makes them sonnets. It’s easy to distinguish a sonnet from other forms of poetry just by counting the lines. The poem is divided into two parts. The first eight lines are called the octave, and the following six lines are called the sestet. This is important to understand since most sonnets set up a theme or idea in the octave and respond to it or resolve it in the sestet. Looking at the tension between the two parts reveals the meaning of the sonnet.
The Spenserian Sonnet
One of the first poets to write and popularize sonnets was Edmund Spenser, who wrote the epic allegorical poem “The Faerie Queene.” Spenserian sonnets have 14 lines like all sonnets as well as a particular rhyme scheme that distinguishes them from other sonnet forms. Spenser’s sonnets followed an a-b-a-b, b-c-b-c, c-d-c-d, e-e format, meaning that the first four lines had a particular rhyme scheme that the second four lines echoed slightly. In the sestet, the first and third lines echo the last line of the octave, and the last two lines rhyme as in a Shakespearean sonnet.
Shakespeare’s sonnet form is distinguishable by its rhyme scheme and rhythm. The rhyme scheme is more basic, a simple a-b-a-b, c-d-c-d, e-f-e-f, g-g. Shakespeare’s sonnets only repeated a rhyme twice, which made them less formally rigid and difficult than Spenser’s sonnets were. Additionally, Shakespeare often began his sestets with “But” to immediately respond to the argument he had created in the octave.
The Italian sonnet became popular before the rise of Shakespearean and Spenserian sonnets after Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, used the form for English poetry in the days of Henry VIII. The Italian form, sometimes called the Petrarchan sonnet after the prolific Francesco Petrarch, was popularized again in the century following Shakespeare’s death by John Milton, author of “Paradise Lost.” The Italian sonnet is the most rigid form of the three, with only four rhymes and a strict four-line, four-line octave followed by two sets of three lines in the sestet. These sonnets follow an a-b-b-a, a-b-b-a, c-d-c, c-d-c pattern or an a-b-a-b, a-b-a-b, c-c-d, c-c-d format.
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