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A sonnet is a poem whose structure and content meet specific standards.  Its success relies on exactness and perfection of expression.  It is an art form that truly challenges a poet’s artistry and skill.




In general, a sonnet is a fourteen-line poem where each line is written in a particular musical rhythm called iambic pentameter.  In addition, these fourteen lines have to conform to a specific rhyme scheme.


Don’t be confused or put off by the term iambic pentameter.  An iamb is simply a two-syllable unit of sound where the first syllable is unaccented and the second is accented.  Words like today, forget, and garage are iambs.  If you say these words aloud, you will notice that you accent the second syllable more strongly than the first.


Pentameter means measure (meter) of five (penta).  So iambic pentameter simply means five iambs to each line.  Check this line out:  “Today I will forget to weep for you” Can you identify the five iambs?


On to rhyme scheme:  Rhyme scheme simply means the pattern made by the ending sounds of each line.


Consider this:


Please listen to my voice above them all,

So you, my friend, be spared the pain and grief

Of failing, falling hard against that wall

Which makes a time of happiness so brief.


We mark the rhyme scheme of a poem by using the alphabet.  The first line’s ending sound is given the letter “A.”  Any similar ending sounds in that poem also are given the letter “A.”  The next new end-of-the-line sound is given the letter “B,” the next “C,” and so on.


The four lines above have the rhyme scheme A,B,A,B.   See?


Since there are two major types of sonnetsthe Petrarchan (or Italian) and Shakespearean (or English or Elizabethan)—there are two major rhyme schemes.




Though rhyme scheme variations exist (particularly in the last six lines (the sestet), the Petrarchan (or Italian) sonnet rhyme scheme usually is





A         An OCTAVE—the first eight lines--

A         states a proposition or

B         raises a question.





E          A SESTET—the last six lines

C         applies the proposition or

D         solves the problem.



A Shakespearean (or English or Elizabethan) sonnet is different:



B         First QUATRAIN

A         Image or example #1



D         Second QUATRAIN

C         Image or example #2



F          Third QUATRAIN

E          Image or example #3


G         COUPLET

G         Commentary on the preceding ideas


Now the hard part—a sonnet must have meaning, too.  A Petrachan sonnet presents a situation or premise in the first eight lines (the octave) and provides some sort of resolution or statement about the situation in the final six lines (the sestet). 


The Shakespearean sonnet, in contrast, presents three four-line (a quatrain) examples or premises, with the couplet at the end providing some sort of closure.


Examples?  For a Petrarchan sonnet, how about this masterpiece:


Fourteen lines of iambic pentameter with a rhyme scheme of abbaabbacdecde and a structured message breaking at the end of the eighth line.


My college life has left me without sleep.

I study every night locked in my room.

The walls at times feel almost like a tomb;

The loneliness doth cause my soul to weep.

Great tears of sadness flow from eyes that keep

Returning to the text where answers loom,

Enshrouded in a chapter like a womb,

My eyes throughout the words do futilely creep.

I must a Big Mac eat or I will die

Of hunger gnawing at my fragile mind

That cannot read another word of this.

I also want a piece of apple pie

That Ronald has so patiently refined.

I must these eat or I will be a mess.


First note the rhyme scheme—it is one kind of Petrachan sonnet rhyme scheme (abbaabbacdecde).  Next note how the thought changes direction after the eighth line.  The first eight lines (the octave) develop the situation; the final six lines (the sestet) provide resolution.


Now on to a Shakespearean sonnet.  Let’s start with the same idea:


Fourteen lines of iambic pentameter with a rhyme scheme of ababcdcdefefgg and a structured message consisting of three four-line premises and a two-line (a couplet) resolution.


My college life has left me without sleep.

I study every night locked in my room.

The loneliness doth cause my soul to weep,

The walls at times feel almost like a tomb.

My social life has vanished in the haze

That drifts about me when I think of love,

And hours doeth creep by in a blurry daze

With hope of romance stolen from above.

My health is really starting to erode.

I cannot walk and talk ‘cause I must pant

And wheeze because my bod cannot the load

Endure; and as to run, well I just can’t.

So from the doctor I must seek some help.

I bet he will suggest I eat some kelp.


A classic?  Time will tell, but while we wait, note the structure of the thought.  The first, second, and third four-line groups (quatrains) provide examples of the situation.  The final two lines, the couplet, provide closure.


More on Petrarchan and Shakespearean Sonnets


The two major types of sonnets are Petrarchan (or Italian) and Shakespearean (or English or Elizabethan).


Both types have fourteen lines of iambic pentameter with a specific rhyme scheme.


Petrarchan (or Italian)






A      states a proposition or

B      raises a question







D      applies the proposition or

C      solves the problem



As a fond mother, when the day is o’er,

Leads by the hand her little child to bed,

Half willing, half reluctant to be led,

And leave her broken playthings on the floor,

Still gazing at them through the open door,

Nor wholly reassured and comforted

By promises of others in their stead,

Which, though more splendid, may not please him more;

So Nature deals with us, and takes away

Our playthings one by one, and by the hand

Leads us to rest so gently, that we go

Scare knowing if we wish to go or stay,

Being too full of sleep to understand

How far the unknown transcends the what we know.





Shakespearean (or English or Elizabethan)



B      First QUATRAIN

A      Image or example #1




D      Second QUATRAIN

C      Image or example #2




F       Third QUATRAIN

E       Image or example #3




G      Commentary on the preceding ideas


That Time of Year

That time of year thou mayst in me behold

When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang

Upon these boughs which shake against the cold,

Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang.

In me thou see’st the twilight of such day

As after sunset fadeth in the west,

Which by and by black night doth take away,

Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.

In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire,

That on the ashes of his youth doth lie

As the deathbed whereon it must expire,

Consumed with that which it was nourished by.

         This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,

         To love that well which thou must leave ere long.


                                    --William Shakespeare