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Friday, September 30, 2011

Sonnets traditionally require poets to use rhythmic rhymes and argue nicely in fourteen lines

Poets who prefer writing with rhyme and rhythm do well to get acquainted with traditional forms of English poetry. Why? Traditional verse forms, such as the villanelle discussed last time or the sonnet this time, have been popular since their appearance many years before Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1450.

If you’re inclined to write poetry of 20 lines or less with strong rhymes and solid rhythmic beat, consider revising those poems with the sonnet in mind. If you’re inclined to write poems with strong opinions and solid arguments, that’s even better!

So, what do you need to do to shape a poem into a sonnet?

Even up the meter. Although other types of meter can certainly be used, let’s stick with the old standby – iambic pentameter. As discussed in the previous article “Scan a poem. Catch the beat,” iambic pentameter means each line has five feet, most of which are iambs. And, as previously discussed in the same article and in “Poetry forms help re-form a poem as you revise,” an iamb is a foot of meter consisting of two syllables that end on an upbeat note.

Occasionally, a poem might have an extra syllable or two to allow variation without losing the beat, but generally a line of iambic pentameter has 10 syllables per line with the even numbers accentuated the majority of the time.

Confine your sonnet to 14 lines.

Follow a rhyme pattern of your choice. An “a” marks the first rhyme, “b” the second, and so on with the most long-lived patterns being Italian (Petrarchan), Spenserian, and Shakespearean. Each of those forms has its own rhyme scheme as follows:

Italian or Petrarchan Sonnet – The first eight lines (octave) have a rhyming pattern of a b b a a b b a, while the last six lines (sextet) offer rhyme options such as c d c d c d or c d e c d e.

Spenserian Sonnet – Edmund Spencer, author of The Faerie Queen, invented the pattern of a b a b b c b c c d c d e e.

Shakespearean Sonnet – William Shakespeare experimented with the use of three quatrains (verses of four lines each) in his sonnets, which closed on a couplet (two rhyming lines.) That rhyme scheme usually followed this pattern:

a b a b
c d c d
e f e f
g g

The couplet at the end of a Shakespearean sonnet can nicely close a debate or open the ending of the poem into a new way of thinking. An Italian sonnet, however, might state a case in the octave and present the other side in the last six lines. So, while a villanelle works well when you want to emphasize and repeat a particular thought or obsession, the sonnet works great when you present an unusual viewpoint, express an opinion, make a case, or just feel like arguing!


© 2011, Mary Harwell Sayler, all rights reserved. Please do not use without permission.


  1. Hi
    I came here from the post on LinkedIn's bloggers group. THis is a very informative blog and I shall visit again. Cheers

  2. Thanks for the encouragement. Hope you tell your poet-writer friends! If you Follow the blog by email, you will get new articles as soon as they're posted.