An Introduction to Basic Sonnet Forms

Emily Maddox By Emily Maddox, 27th May 2014 | Follow this author | RSS Feed | Short URL
Posted in Wikinut>Guides>Art>Forms & Genres

An introduction to the three types of sonnets and their differences

Sonnet Forms

The word sonnet comes from the Italian “sonetto,” which means “a little sound or song” (“Poetic Form: Sonnet”). Sonnets have 14 lines with a specific rhyme scheme (depending on the type). There are three basic types of sonnets: Italian, Spenserian, and English. All sonnets are typically written in iambic pentameter. This isn't always the case, though; there have been tetrameter and hexameter sonnets (“Basic Sonnet Forms”). The two most popular (and often used or adapted) forms are the Italian and the English forms.

The Italian (Petrarchan) sonnet is divided into two groups: an octave (8 lines) and sestet (6 lines). The rhyme scheme of the octave is abbaabba. Poets can choose between five rhyme schemes for the sestet: cdcdcd, cddcdc, cdecde, cdeced, cdcedc. The exact pattern is flexible, but ending with a rhymed couplet is typically unacceptable in the Petrarchan sonnet. Sir Philip Sidney's "Sonnet LXXI" is an Italian sonnet with a terminal couplet (“Basic Sonnet Forms”).

In principle, the octave and the sestet represent a different subject matters. This isn’t always the case, but it was the convention of the early Petrarchan sonnets. The term for this “turn” in the sonnet is the “volta”(“Basic Sonnet Forms”). Such a volta occurs in Wordsworth’s “London, 1802.”

The second basic sonnet form is the Spenserian sonnet. As the name suggests, this sonnet was invented by Edmund Spenser. It was an outgrowth resulting from the pattern he used in “The Faerie Queene.” The Spenserian sonnet has the pattern: ababbcbccdcdee (“Basic Sonnet Forms”).

Unlike the Italian sonnet, the Spenserian has groups of four lines instead an octave and a sestet. Each quatrain represents a specific idea. These ideas are distinct but interrelated. The final couplet presents a commentary on the ideas of the previous twelve lines. Spenser’s “Sonnet LIV” is an example this sonnet form (“Basic Sonnet Forms”).

The third sonnet form is the English (or Shakespearian) sonnet. This pattern is simpler and more flexible than the other two forms. The pattern consists of three quatrains and a couplet in the pattern: ababcdcdefefgg (“Basic Sonnet Forms”).

Like the Spenserian, the quatrains develop specific ideas, but they are closely related to the ideas in the other quatrains (“Basic Sonnet Forms”). This form is the simplest in terms of its rhyme scheme, and it is also the most flexible regarding the placement of the volta. Shakespeare, himself, placed the volta in line 9 or in the final couplet: “Sonnet XXIX” is an example of the volta’s appearance in line 9. “Sonnet LXXIII” is an example of its appearance in the final couplet.

Sonnets have been written English since the early sixteenth century when Sir Thomas Wyatt introduced the Petrarchan form to England (“Poetic Form: Sonnet”). It has remained one of the most commonly used poetic forms ever since. Even today, people continue to write sonnets, as we moved into the modern and postmodern eras.


Information, Poetry, Sonnets

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author avatar Emily Maddox
I'm a recent college graduate with an English MA. I write primarily about music, literature, writing, and teaching writing.

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author avatar Eno jubril
17th Feb 2015 (#)

Very informative literary topic! As a student, I'll keep this on my notes for future topic on my class .

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