The sonnet is probably the best-known verse form of all. It has 14 lines, divided into two sections: normally an octave (or octet) followed by a sestet. Often the octave will pose a question that the sestet answers; or the two sections will put contrasting points of view.

There are several varieties of sonnet with different rhyming schemes.

The Italian or Petrarchan sonnet rhymes abbaabba/cdecde. This is a relatively hard form of sonnet to write in English; it's far easier to find large numbers of words that rhyme when you're working in Italian.

The Spenserian sonnet (after Edmund Spenser, he of the Faerie Queene) is often claimed to be a compromise between Italian and English sonnet forms; it rhymes ababbcbc/cdcdee. The alert reader will notice that its rhyming scheme is every bit as demanding as that of an Italian sonnet. Hardly anyone other than Spenser himself has ever used this form. One modern example is Roddy Lumsden's much-anthologised Yeah Yeah Yeah.

The Shakespearean sonnet rhymes ababcdcd/efefgg, a rhyming scheme so much better suited to our language that the Bard was able to write 154 of them.

John Milton then returned to the original Italian form, with so much success that they renamed it after him - the Miltonian sonnet is almost exactly the same as the Petrarchan. (The only change Milton made was to allow the break that normally comes after 8 lines to come a little earlier or later.)

There are numerous further variations - for example, Wordsworth used abbaacca/dedede, the Sicilian sonnet uses abababab/cdcdcdClare the straightforward aabbccddeeffgg, and Pushkin had his own ideas - but it's time we had an example. Here is one of the few sonnets (Miltonian, as it happens) ever to offer the point of view of a plastic carrier bag:

Inferior, some called us, second-class,
Defective and unfit to be employed;
Sad misfits cultured people would avoid
Like litter on a windswept underpass.
Our problem’s colour. Still, there’s greener grass
Out here; replete, fulfilled, we’re overjoyed.
Our pleasure, long-delayed, is unalloyed.
W e scoff at those back home, so-called “top brass” -
Now miffed to find that we had what it took.
When smuggled out by businessmen with nous,
We carried all before us, Europe-wide.
We’re comme il faut, in any Georgian’s book,
And honoured guests; for us, it’s open house.
They love us; show us off with bags of pride

I had been deeply moved by a news story about a batch of carrier bags, produced for a major supermarket chain, which had been rejected because the colours were wrong. The enterprising manufacturers had exported the bags instead to Georgia and Ukraine, where they had become regarded as status symbols.

For an example of a Sicilian sonnet - one of the less common variants - see the Sicilian octave.

Sonnet sequences

Sonnet sequences have been written, sometimes with extra structural constraints. In a corona of sonnets, the last line of each sonnet is the same as the first line of the next (and the last line of the last sonnet is the same as the first line of the first, to complete the loop). A sonnet redoublé consists of 15 sonnets, the first 14 forming a corona, and the last being formed from the 14 linking lines, in order. (If you decide to write one of these - which I don't recommend - for goodness' sake write that last sonnet first!) A sonnet of sonnets is more or less the opposite: the first sonnet is the key, and each line of it in turn appears as the first or last line of a subsequent sonnet. (It is not clear from the definition I have seen whether the last 14 sonnets are required to form a corona - but frankly, if you're prepared to write something on this scale, you're entitled to make up your own rules.)

The only one of these massive multi-sonnet forms I have actually seen examples of is the sonnet redoublé. There's one by Peter Scupham called The Hinterland, published in a collection of the same name, and also in his Selected Poems 1972-1990. The lines of the fifteenth sonnet are indeed the linking lines from the preceding corona, but not in the same order. More to the point, it's a very fine poem. And the effect of reading a sonnet, each individual line of which you have recently read somewhere else, is surprisingly powerful. There's another sonnet redoublé, this one by Wesli Court (alter ego of Lewis Turco), in Miller Williams' book - see books page.

Sonnet Variations

There are numerous variations on the sonnet form, and other 14-line forms which are not, strictly speaking, sonnets at all. See for example the caudate sonnet, curtal sonnet, Scupham sonnet, terza rima sonnet, and song that luc bat sonnet.

Notable sonnets

You can easily find whole books of sonnets. Spenser, Milton and Shakespeare each wrote enough of them well enough to get kinds of sonnet named after themselves. Keats and Wordsworth were rather good at them too. Almost any poet you care to name has written some. For more modern examples, try W H Auden's Sonnets from China, and Edwin Morgan's no-nonsense Glasgow sonnets.

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© Bob Newman 2004-2010. All rights reserved.

This page last updated 06/06/2010