Originating in Italy, sonnets are an extremely popular form of poetry. You will most likely come across famous sonnets in English, by Shakespeare, Keats and Shelley and more recent poets such as Robert Frost, Bruce Dawe and Gwen Harwood. Sonnets are strict in rhyme, rhythm, meter and structure. When analysing a sonnet it is important to be aware of the conventions.
While we will discuss the conventions of sonnets in a strict fashion, you must remember that there are always exceptions to the rules. This will give you a framework from which to study sonnets. If you come across sonnets that do not fit into the framework, it will be important that you consider the reason why the poet has changed the form.
All sonnets have 14 lines. These lines will be grouped into stanzas in one of two ways;
A Petrarchan sonnet, which is the basic Italian form, is grouped into two stanzas. The first is known as an octave and is eight lines long. The second stanza is known as the sestet and is six lines long. A Petrarchan sonnet's rhyme scheme is ABBAABBA and CDECDE.
A Shakespearean sonnet, the basis for English sonnets, is grouped into four stanzas, the first three stanzas, called quatrains, are four lines long and the final stanza is a couplet. A Shakespearean sonnet follows the rhyme scheme of ABAB, CDCD, EFEF and GG.
A Spenserian sonnet is similar in structure to a Shakespearean sonnet but uses the rhyme scheme of ABAB, BCBC CDCD and EE.
Refer to the examples for a more visual explanation of structures and rhyme schemes.
It is a strict convention that a shift in thought, called a volta, occurs between the octet and the sestet in a Petrarchan sonnet. This is a convention that often occurs in a Shakespearean or Spenserian sonnet between the second and third stanzas. This means that whenever you study a sonnet you should be on the lookout for the volta. The examples will provide you with a clear example of what volta means.
The meter of sonnets also follows strict convention. The rhythm is known as iambic pentameter. An iamb (pronounced eye - am) is known as a foot. This foot consists of an unstressed and a stressed syllable. Generally the notation of stressed and unstressed syllables is: for unstressed an 'x'; and a '/' for a stressed syllable. An example will demonstrate how this works:
"One day I wrote her name upon the strand"
Say this out loud and tap your foot in time to the rhythm. Click on the audio file One day I wrote her name upon the strand-audio to hear how it should sound. This is how the stresses would be noted:
x / x / x / x / x /
|One day I wrote her name upon the strand|
An iamb is one grouping of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. The following example demonstrates how this line is broken down into iambs:
|x /||x /||x /||x /|
|One day||I wrote||her name||upon||the strand|
There are five iambs. This is where the word pentameter comes in; 'penta' meaning five and meter meaning the number of feet or syllables in a line. We can see then that the phrase 'iambic pentameter' tells us that there are five groups of two syllables, the first of which is unstressed and the second stressed.
Iambic pentameter is used for two major reasons. Firstly, the English language is suited to the meter and secondly, it sounds like song and flows nicely from line to line. When you are looking at examples of sonnets, consider the sound and the effect that it has on how easily the reader moves through the poem and how each word is stressed through the natural rhythm.
A Shakespearean Sonnet: Shall I compare thee to a Summer's Day?-online analysis is a sample analysis of a Shakespearean sonnet.
A Spenserian Sonnet: One day I wrote her name upon the strand-online analysis is a sample analysis of a Spenserian sonnet.