Learning the Sonnet
The sonnet, one of the oldest, strictest, and most enduring poetic forms, comes from the Italian word sonetto, meaning “little song.” Its origins date to the thirteenth century, to the Italian court. Giacomo de Lentini is credited with its invention, though Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch) was its most famous early practitioner. The form was adopted and enthusiastically embraced by the English in the Elizabethan period, most notably by Shakespeare, who gave it the structure we commonly think of today: 14 lines of rhymed iambic pentameter.
Its tight rhyme scheme and metrical regularity emphasize its musicality, but the sonnet is also thought of as the first poetic form that was intended to be read silently, as opposed to performed and shared: it is “the first lyric of self-consciousness, or of the self in conflict,” according to Paul Oppenheimer in The Birth of the Modern Mind: Self, Consciousness, and the Invention of the Sonnet (1989). As such, the form consists of two parts, often called the proposition and resolution. Dividing them is the volta, or turn. Thus, a problem or question is often presented in the first section of a sonnet and then, via the pivot made by the turn, resolved or given new perspective in the second.
The basic requirements of a traditional sonnet are the following
- 14 lines
- iambic pentameter
- rhyme scheme:
- Petrarchan: ABBA ABBA CDECDE or ABBA ABBA CDCDCD
- Shakespearean: ABAB CDCD EFEF GG
In the Petrarchan sonnet, the sections are broken up into an octave (first eight lines) and a sestet (final six lines). In the Shakespearean sonnet, there are three quatrains (four-line stanzas or sections) and then a couplet. In both types, a volta marks the transition to the final section.
With such strict requirements, and such a small amount of space within which to work, the sonnet often gets compared to a box; fourteen lines of iambic pentameter end up looking rather dense and square on the page as well. In her poem “Bop: The North Star,” Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon refers to teaching prison inmates about poetry: “teach the sonnet’s a cell,” her speaker says. But then she advises, in the next breath, “now try to escape.” The best sonnets do perform this “escape”—somehow, by working within such a strict enclosure, they transcend it. The voice bends the form to its own will, instead of obligingly succumbing to the form’s demands.
One of the sonnet’s most popular aims is to write in praise of someone (or something) beloved. So let’s take a look at a couple of love poems to see the difference between a Shakespearean and Petrarchan sonnet up close.
Shakespeare ingeniously turned expectations of the love poem on their head in many of his sonnets, which praise unlikely qualities in his beloved. In “My Mistress’ Eyes are Nothing like the Sun,” for example, he mocks the tropes that would compare women to goddesses and enumerate their beauty in sweet metaphors (the sun, roses, music, and so on). Instead, the speaker’s mistress has “black wires upon her head” and breath that “reeks.” This poem provides a great model for a sonnet exercise: take something that you love, and describe it over the course of twelve iambic pentameter lines (only twelve for now!) in ways that wouldn’t normally be considered praise. Then notice what Shakespeare does in the final couplet: he begins with “And yet.” This is the volta: it tells us we’re about to make a sharp turn in the poem. It comes so late in the Shakespearean sonnet that we have built up much expectation for a certain kind of tone, and for judgment of the mistress. “And yet”—here he changes course, and tells us that despite all this, he is completely enraptured by this woman. You’ll notice that these final two lines are a rhymed couplet, too: the lines end with “rare” and “compare.” That rhyming pair adds to the feeling that these last lines are a separate idea and stand apart from what preceded them. (In this case, they actually correct the implications of all of what the speaker was trying to say before.) So this is the final part of the exercise: after your twelve lines of rich and surprising description, start line thirteen with “And yet” or “Despite” or another signal phrase to tell us you’re changing direction. Then end the poem with a couplet that corrects or explains the descriptions of the first part of the poem.
The Petrarchan sonnet divides the poem more evenly—almost into halves. In this form, a love poem can deal with more equally weighted feelings or ideas, and set them in conflict. Take a look at Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why.” This poem is famous for its lamenting romantic voice (though it’s amusing to note that the speaker is not sad about any particular lost love—she doesn’t even remember the faces or names of these lads whom she once kissed!—she is missing only romance, and perhaps youth, in general). This sonnet is also appreciated (whether readers consciously realize this or not) because of its incredibly skillful use of the sonnet form. In the first eight lines, the speaker, much like Shakespeare’s, is enumerating things. For her, though, these are fading memories, and she soon describes the feeling of the attempt at remembering, and the feeling of the loss: “… the rain / Is full of ghosts tonight … / And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain … .” The volta comes at line nine, with the signal word “Thus.” Read it to yourself. You hear it as a strong syllable when you get to it, and that’s because it is: Millay has inverted the meter here so that instead of an iambic line (da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM…), the first foot is a trochee (DA-dum, da-DUM, da-DUM…). “THUS in the WINter STANDS the LONEly TREE.” Since the rest of the poem’s meter is so regular (there’s only one other inverted foot, at line three, and it’s in the middle of a sentence, which makes it less noticeable), this shift in pattern operates as a pause and reorientation in the poem. Now we’re doing something new: we are comparing the feeling she described in the first octave of the poem to the situation of a tree in winter. In the sestet (the final six lines), the poem investigates a metaphorical comparison. In addition to her metrical variations, Millay also takes the liberty to alter the rhyme scheme in a minor way. Instead of the typical CDECDE scheme, she makes hers CDEDCE. This change doesn’t make a major difference in the way we hear the poem, but it shows that sonneteers have always felt some freedom to tweak the shape of the “box” to make it suit them.
Millay’s sonnet offers us another good model for a sonnet exercise: try writing a Petrarchan sonnet. In the octave, speak literally about a feeling or problem. In the sestet, beginning with the word “thus” or another quick way to signal the turn, come up with a metaphor from the natural world. Use it to describe the same feeling.
Variations and Liberties: Breaking Out of the Sonnet’s Cell
Modern writers have increasingly felt free to use the basic structure of the sonnet and vary some of its requirements to suit the poem or poet. Because of our long history with the form, whenever one writes a fourteen-line poem, it’s likely to be read as a variation on the sonnet. Some are so loose as to contain only a “ghost” of the sonnet within them, but many fall somewhere in between, allowing the meter to overflow the line a bit, or allowing slant rhyme instead of full rhyme, but sticking to most of the requirements of the form and retaining its spirit. Shakespeare or Millay might have been opposed to these deviations, but they often appeal to those more inclined to looser forms. Over the past 150 years, the sonnet has been allowed to evolve, and it proves to be a flexible box.
Let’s look at a canonical sonnet that pushes these boundaries, Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “Carrion Comfort.” At first glance, it’s already obvious that these lines cannot be iambic pentameter: they’re much too long. Start counting and you’ll see that some go on to seventeen or eighteen syllables. Hopkins invented a new way of counting out meter called sprung rhythm, which accounts for some of his odd accent marks in the poem, and may have given him a way to scan this such that he could argue that it fit the meter. Regardless, it’s obvious to anyone who reads it aloud that there are many more beats per line than five. But they are wonderful beats, given great emphasis by the clear anguish in the poem and its roughly iambic backbone. From the first word, we are caught up in the speaker’s torment and refusal: “NOT, I’ll NOT, CARrion COMfort, desPAIR, not FEAST on THEE. …” Not only does he begin with the negative—stating what he won’t do—but the word itself breaks the iambic meter in the first foot of the first line: an enactment of the refusal. But what is this poem about? The object of this torment is only slowly revealed in these long, tortuous lines, and this fits Hopkins’s subject matter. Through the terribly drawn-out, tongue-twisting language, and the way it continues past the end of our natural breath, bringing us to the point of exhaustion in each line, we are swept into the speaker’s own struggle with his faith. We must wrestle, as he wrestles, with his God.
A couple of sonnet exercises suggest themselves here:
- Begin a sonnet with the word “not” or “no” or another negation. (I owe Linda Gregerson credit for the negation prompt—it was she who first assigned it to me.) Don’t worry too much about sticking with the exact meter, but do try for a strong sense of rhythm.
- Write a poem in which the speaker addresses someone else directly. Ask questions. Don’t answer them.
For a more contemporary loose sonnet, take a look at Dawn Lundy Martin’s “[When the bed is empty…]”—this poem, like “Carrion Comfort,” takes liberties with line lengths. But while “Carrion Comfort” sticks firmly to its rhyme scheme, “[When the bed is empty…]” only barely suggests rhyme. It looks to be following the Shakespearean mode with its twelve continuous lines of reflective description. The final couplet, joined by its slant rhyming “blood” and “does,” changes the tone and allows for a finality to the discussion above. The iambic rhythm is strongest right at the end, reminding us that yes, this poem is a loose sonnet: “the beating, lit, and doing what it does.”
For more loose contemporary sonnets—poems that the authors and/or readers would classify as sonnets but that don’t necessarily follow all the traditional strictures of the form—see Forrest Gander’s “Voiced Stops” and Bernadette Mayer’s “Incandescent War Poem Sonnet.” Think about which parts of the structure they choose to loosen, and why. How do these formal decisions interact with the subject matter of the poems? Mayer’s poem in particular discusses her choices in a self-conscious way: she asks, “What’s this? A sonnet?” after having said there are no rhymes and that “this is in prose, no it’s not.” If you have trouble with the strictness of the sonnet, as many writers do, these poems may be refreshing in their encouragement of rule-breaking. Try writing an unrhymed sonnet, or one that doesn’t aim for an iambic meter. Focus on bringing other traditions of the sonnet form into your poem, such as the reflective discussion of a subject and the use of a turn.
Box upon Box: Sonnet Sequences and Crowns
If, on the other side of the spectrum, you crave more form, or if you simply don’t like being restricted to the brevity of fourteen lines, you can string together a group of sonnets into a sonnet sequence. These sonnets can combine to tell a longer story, as George Meredith does in “Modern Love.” about his failed marriage. The 50 sonnets that make up this long poem are each 16 lines long. Sonnets can also be hitched to one another by repetition: each successive sonnet uses as its first line the last line of the preceding sonnet. The final sonnet ends with the same line that begins the first sonnet, thus completing the circle. This type of sequence is called a crown of sonnets. Paul Muldoon’s “The Old Country” uses the crown deftly to describe (and embody, through the voice) a memory of an old Ireland. The sonnet’s use of strong rhyme in particular is on display in each section of this sequence, but Muldoon adds another layer to the musical qualities here by employing anaphora as well. “Every wood had its twist of woodbine. / Every cliff its herd of fatalistic swine.” That mesmerizing repetition of “every” and the repeating sentence structure lend the crown a fablelike feel, and lull the listener (because you really want to hear this one aloud!) into the pleasures of the rhythm and rhyme. The rhythm of the anaphora also provides a regularity in the lines that helps disguise the liberties Muldoon is taking throughout the sequence with line length and types of feet.
Bruce Snider’s poem “Devotions” also uses the structure of the sonnet crown, though it doesn’t take the final step of circling back to the first line at the end of the sequence. Where “The Old Country” made use of the extra real estate in the sequence to expand its examples of this one place being described, “Devotions” instead tells an evolving story. Each sonnet in the crown shows what happens next and allows the speaker space to consider and reflect on each event. This is another opportunity in the sonnet sequence: you can take a story too large or long to tell within one sonnet, and divide it into parts, each of which can have its own space. Think of something that seems too big for the space of a single sonnet—perhaps a place filled with history and tradition, like Muldoon’s Ireland, or perhaps a story with several components. In a notebook, jot down all of the component parts of this image or story. See if you can arrange them into sections that seem about equally weighted. If you’re feeling ambitious, try writing the first sonnet. Can this take you anywhere? Are there lines or phrases in the first sonnet that might be useful or pleasing to repeat in subsequent sections? The sonnet still requires compression—each word should be necessary, and exact—but you have more space to bring several parts into play together. Explore the possibilities here, taking liberties with the form as desired.
Here are additional sonnets that can show you the possibilities and potentials of various sonnet forms:
Poet Rachel Richardson was born and raised in Berkeley, California. She earned a BA at Dartmouth College, an MFA at the University of Michigan, and an MA in folklore at the University of North Carolina. The author of the poetry collections Copperhead (2011) and Hundred-Year Wave (2016), Richardson’s poetry investigates the disjunctions of remembered and...