Sonnet variations and non-sonnets

Caudate sonnet

A caudate sonnet is a standard sonnet (e.g. Shakespearean) with a "tail" (Latin cauda) of an extra three lines. The first of these is a short line that rhymes with a line of the original sonnet, usually the last line; the other two form a rhyming couplet, reverting to iambic pentameter. Here's one about a holiday destination I don't recommend (though it's a long time since I was there):

Midday. The town square shimmers in the heat.
We sit and hunger; contemplate our beers,
Six olives, two small knobs of bread. We eat,
Give thanks for this small mercy, murmur “Cheers!”
Tilos is an unspoilt, idyllic spot
To find the peace and solitude we seek.
But gastronomic paradise it’s not -
The bread arrives by ferry twice a week.
Here, nothing’s farmed, or fished, or baked, or made.
This sterile isle was self-sufficient once;
Now, only children and old folk remain,
And corner all the food, sent home pre-paid
By Tilos’ dutiful but Rhodes-based sons.
Tonight, we’ll have to scrump for grapes again.
To come here was insane!
Of all the hundreds of Aegean isles
This is the God-forsakenest by miles.

Curtal sonnet

Gerard Manley Hopkins pioneered a ten-and-a-half line form called the curtal sonnet, which is like a sonnet but three-quarters the size in as many respects as possible. The best-known example is Hopkins' own Pied Beauty - "Glory be to God for dappled things..." (In fact I haven't managed to find any poems in this form written by anybody but Hopkins himself.) My attempt goes like this:

True Love
You’re not a summer’s day; you’re eighteen hours.
By any normal standards you fall short.
Some loves are like red roses, but you’re not,
Except for all the thorns. You don’t like flowers,
Or chocolates, or anything I’ve brought
To ask forgiveness for… I don’t know what.
I sometimes wonder why I stand for this.
You never act the way I think you ought.
I love you, though (and all that tommyrot)
And you love me, which means this must be bliss.
Or have I lost the plot?

The rhyming scheme is abcabcdbcdc (as here) or abcabcdcbdc. That is to say, I could only find two examples, and those were the two rhyming schemes they used. They also disagreed in the length of the half-line at the end; I chose to make mine longer than either. And since I wasn't comfortable with Hopkins' "sprung rhythm", I stuck to iambic pentameter. (I plead artistic licence.)

Later I found a description of the form that says the last line must have only two syllables. We could achieve this by changing the last line above to:

It's not.

I don't think this is right, though. On the "three-quarters" principle, it ought to be five syllables - half a line - making the total length 10½ lines. My original six syllables were closer to this. Anyway, your artistic licence says you can do whatever you like, as long as it works.

Scupham sonnet

Peter Scupham likes abccba stanzas. Two of these plus a rhyming couplet make something very like a sonnet. This is not a "proper" sonnet, strictly speaking, but I think of it as a Scupham Sonnet. (This is not a standard name). Here's an example:

The Poet Ryman
Behind the till the poet Ryman stands,
Unchallenged ruler of all he surveys.
He scans along the shelves, takes stock, and smiles.
His realm of binders, paperclips and files
Subdued; the ideal state, in many ways.
No tension, even in the rubber bands.
A paying customer’s a rarity.
In peace he muses, strums Erato’s lyre,
Gestating sonnets in the fertile quiet,
Office consumables his staple diet.
Lives for the day when genius takes fire -
With one pad, spiral-bound, he will be free.
His work is stationery, but his mind
And pen as quick as any you will find.

Note for non-Brits: Ryman's is a chain of stationery shops over here - well-known to the average poetryman!

Balanced sonnet/California rhyme scheme

Barbara Dilworth has devised a form she calls the balanced sonnet, or the California rhyming scheme. The rhyming scheme is ababcbc dedefef. This splits the 14 lines up into two 7-line sections, each with the same rhyming scheme. A purist would say that (like the Scupham sonnet above) this wasn't a proper sonnet, because it doesn't have the obligatory 8/6 split. A more open-minded person would say that it was a very nice verse form. An anorak might say that it turned the sonnet into a kind of ode.

I really liked the example Barbara sent me, but the policy of this site (which I set in stone some years ago) is that all the examples should be written by me. I'll see if I can produce one soon.

Other sonnet variations

You might also like to try a terza rima sonnet or a  song that luc bat sonnet - again, not "proper" sonnets, but pleasant enough forms nonetheless.


Despite the number of different rhyming schemes that are possible in a sonnet - and it is even possible to have unrhymed sonnets - not every 14-line poem is a sonnet. The split into two sections (normally an octave and a sestet) is widely regarded as essential, and it's usual for the octave to split neatly into two quatrains. A poem that fails to conform to these rules risks being branded a mere quatorzain (the general term for any 14-line poem). This is not too dire a fate, though. Shelley's Ozymandias of Egypt falls into this category, and has survived rather well.

Some other standard forms are capable of producing 14-line poems, for example the rondel, or terza rima. The Onegin stanza has 14 lines, and is sometimes known as the Pushkin sonnet. And there's a 14-line standard form called the bref double, which I will cover eventually.  

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© Bob Newman 2004, 2005, 2006. All rights reserved.

This page last updated 07/11/2006