The Sonnet

The Sonnet

What does the word “sonnet” remind you of? Often, when we think of a sonnet, we think of love poems. Since the Renaissance, the sonnet has been considered one of the highest forms of the English language--perfect for writing about love. Today, the 14 lines of sonnets still convey powerful messages. Read on to dig into more of the form and delights of sonnets!

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Let’s begin with an example. Here is a sonnet from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese.

How Do I Love Thee? (Sonnet 43)

By Elizabeth Barrett Browning

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

Browning’s poem serves as a beautiful reminder of the powerful way in which sonnets can communicate truths about life, death, and love.

There are two types of sonnets: the Italian or Petrarchan form and the English or Shakespearean sonnet. Both have 14 lines and are usually in iambic pentameter (roughly da-DA da-DA da-DA da-DA da-DA rhythm). Here is a breakdown of the differences between the two. Knowing these differences really helps you better understand each sonnet you face!

Italian Sonnet

  • Rhyme scheme: abba abba cdecde

  • Divided into two sections, the octave (first 8 lines) and the sestet (last 6 lines).

  • The octave usually sets up a problem or asks a question that the sestet then resolves or answers. There is often a “turn” or a surprise in the direction of the poem, called a volta, between the octave and sestet.

English Sonnet

  • Rhyme scheme: abab cdcd efef gg

  • Divided into four quatrains (4 lines each) and a final couplet.

  • The couplet acts as the “punch line” or the twist to the poem that surprises, dazzles with wit, and conveys the point of the poem.

Activities

If you’ve already read some sonnets and you’d like to try your hand at writing them, here are some ideas for easing your way into the form.

  • Try your hand at writing a sonnet: Use colored index cards to separate each stanza so you can see the rhyme scheme and shifts or turns of the poem more easily. (Inspiration: this lesson from Mandi MacDonald) Or use this template from KidZone to write your own sonnet.

  • Unscramble a sonnet: once you’ve read some of your favorite sonnets, try cutting them up either by line or by stanza and then trying to arranging them in order. Extra points for speed or creativity!

  • If you’re up for a challenge, try re-writing a modern pop song in sonnet form. See Pop Sonnets for some hilarious examples. Enjoy looking for your favorites--some options include “Let It Go” from Frozen, Queen’s “We Are the Champions,” and Adele’s “Hello.”

Resources

Read on to discover some of the best sources for exploring the sonnet form on the Internet!

Books

Complete Sonnets, by William Shakespeare

The Emily Sonnets: The Life of Emily Dickinson, by Jane Yolen

A Wreath for Emmett Till, by Marilyn Nelson (best for older students because of themes of violence and lynching)

Sonnets from the Portuguese, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

The Making of a Sonnet: A Norton Anthology, edited by Eavan Boland and Edward Hirsch

Sonnets: From Dante to the Present, edited by John Hollander


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