Defining the Sonnet

These days, any 14 line poem could be considered a sonnet. As with all poetry, the rules of form are mere suggestions. Some great sonnets are 12 or 15 or 18 lines, defined instead by meter and rhyme. Once a poetic pattern gets recognized by critics, it gets old quick.

The sonnet grew out of Latin and Italian iambic pentameter verse. In English, Shakespeare wrote such famous sonnets that one of the two oldest branches of the sonnet is named for him. His sonnets use a rotating rhyme scheme: abab, cdcd, efef, gg. The Shakespearean sonnet is generally printed as a single stanza, condensing three quatrains (four line stanzas) and a couplet into a single verse. While rhyme scheme is negotiable, Shakespearian Sonnets end with couplets. And that’s not always true.

The sonnet is named for the Italian poet Petrarch, originally introduced to England by Thomas Wyatt in the 16th century. Translations of Petrarch’s verses into the relatively rhyme deficit English language by Henry Howard evolved the Shakespearean sonnet’s rhyme scheme.

The Petrarchan Sonnet established the 14 line sonnet structure with its sing song rhyme: abba, abba, cdecde or cdcdcd. These sonnets are often divided into two stanzas, 8 and 6 lines each.

One of my favorite modern books of sonnets is Habeas Corpus by Jill McDonough. It explores the history of the death penalty in America by describing 50 executions.


One of my favorite sonnets is Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley:


I met a traveller from an antique land,

Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;

And on the pedestal, these words appear:

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.”