Defining Sonnets: A Comprehensive Guide
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 8 min read


  1. What is a sonnet?
  2. History of sonnets
  3. Types of sonnets
  4. Structure of a sonnet
  5. How to write a sonnet
  6. Famous sonnet writers
  7. Examples of sonnets
  8. Why sonnets matter in poetry

Have you ever stumbled upon a poem that's just fourteen lines long, yet it packs a punch with its rich imagery and profound themes? Chances are, you've encountered a sonnet. This blog will serve as your complete guide to understanding the definition of sonnet. We'll be exploring its history, the various types, its structure, and even how to write one yourself.

What is a sonnet?

A sonnet, at its simplest, is a fourteen-line poem with a specific rhyme scheme and meter. The word 'sonnet' comes from the Italian 'sonetto', which means 'little song'. It's a poem that may be small in size, but don't be fooled — sonnets are often big on meaning and emotion.

If you're wondering about the specifics of the definition of sonnet, here's what you need to know:

  • Lines: A sonnet always has fourteen lines, no more, no less.
  • Rhyme Scheme: There are different types of sonnets, each with its unique rhyme scheme. Some popular ones include ABAB CDCD EFEF GG (Shakespearean) and ABBA ABBA CDC DCD (Petrarchan).
  • Meter: Sonnets traditionally have a rhythm or meter known as 'iambic pentameter'. This just means that each line usually has ten syllables, arranged in a pattern of unstressed and stressed syllables.
  • Themes: Sonnets often explore themes of love, beauty, time, and morality. But that doesn't mean they're limited to these topics — sonnets can be about anything!

So, the next time you come across a poem that's fourteen lines long with a noticeable rhyme pattern, you can confidently say, "That's a sonnet!"

History of Sonnets

Now that we've grasped the definition of sonnet, let's take a step back in time and look at the origins of this captivating form of poetry. Sonnets may appear to be a classic, old-school style of poetry, but their roots go even deeper than you might think.

The sonnet first bloomed in Italy during the 13th century. A man named Giuseppe da Lentini, who was part of the Sicilian School of poets, is often credited with its creation. However, it was in the 14th century that the sonnet truly flourished, thanks to the poetic genius of Petrarch. His collection of 366 sonnets, known as the 'Canzoniere', became a model for poets across Europe.

The sonnet then made its way to England in the 16th century, where it was embraced and modified by poets such as Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard. However, it was William Shakespeare who really put English sonnets on the map. His collection of 154 sonnets remains one of the most famous and studied sonnet sequences in literature.

From Italy to England, and then across the world, the sonnet has travelled through time and space, evolving and adapting along the way. It is this rich history that gives the sonnet its timeless appeal and enduring relevance in the world of poetry.

Types of Sonnets

Now that you know a bit about the history of sonnets, you might be wondering: are all sonnets the same? The answer is a resounding "No!" In fact, the beauty of sonnets lies in their diversity. Let's dive into the different types of sonnets that exist.

First up, we have the Petrarchan sonnet, named after the very same Petrarch we mentioned earlier. This type of sonnet is known for its two-part structure: an octet (eight lines) followed by a sestet (six lines). The octet often presents a problem or question, while the sestet offers a resolution or answer.

Next, we have the Shakespearean sonnet (also known as the English sonnet). This type of sonnet has a different structure, with three quatrains (four-line sections) and a closing couplet (two lines). Each quatrain often presents a distinct idea or theme, while the couplet delivers a punchy conclusion or twist.

These two types of sonnets are the most well-known, but there are many other variations out there. For example, the Spenserian sonnet (named after Edmund Spenser) adds a unique interlocking rhyme scheme to the mix, while the Miltonic sonnet (named after John Milton) is known for its thoughtful, philosophical themes.

As you can see, sonnets are as diverse as the poets who write them. Each type of sonnet offers a unique way to explore ideas and emotions, adding to the richness and depth of this poetic form.

Structure of a Sonnet

After exploring the different types of sonnets, it's clear that this form of poetry isn't a one-size-fits-all deal. Yet, despite their variety, all sonnets share a particular structure. So, if you're wondering about the exact definition of sonnet structure, sit tight because we're about to unravel it.

At its core, a sonnet is a tightly woven, 14-line poem with a specific rhyme scheme. This concise structure makes every word count, allowing the poet to create a rich tapestry of meaning and emotion in a small space.

Now, let's get more specific. In a Petrarchan sonnet, the rhyme scheme is typically ABBA ABBA for the octet, followed by CDE CDE or CDC CDC for the sestet. This pattern creates a clear division between the two parts of the sonnet, enhancing the contrast between problem and resolution.

On the other hand, a Shakespearean sonnet uses a different rhyme scheme: ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. This structure allows for a more gradual development of ideas, with the final couplet serving as a punchy conclusion or twist.

These strict structures might seem intimidating at first, but they're actually part of the magic of sonnets. By working within these constraints, poets can create powerful, concentrated expressions of emotion and thought—a testament to the enduring appeal of this poetic form.

How to Write a Sonnet

Now that we've defined what a sonnet is and its structure, you're probably wondering, "How do I write my own sonnet?" Well, here's a step-by-step guide to help you get started.

Step 1: Choose a Theme. Since sonnets are compact, it's best to choose a single, focused theme. Love, nature, time, death—these are all classic sonnet themes, but don't let tradition limit you. Any idea or emotion can be the seed of a great sonnet!

Step 2: Map Out Your Ideas. Think of the sonnet as a small story. What's the conflict or question? How will it develop? How will it resolve? Jot down your ideas to create a roadmap for your poem.

Step 3: Write in Iambic Pentameter. This is a fancy term for a simple pattern: unstressed syllable, stressed syllable, repeated five times. It's the rhythmic backbone of English sonnets. If you're finding it tricky, try reading some sonnets aloud to get a feel for it.

Step 4: Follow the Rhyme Scheme. Whether you're writing a Petrarchan or Shakespearean sonnet, the rhyme scheme is key. It's like a puzzle that adds musicality to your poem.

Step 5: Edit and Polish. Writing is rewriting. Don't worry if your first draft isn't perfect. Keep refining your language and imagery until your sonnet shines.

Remember, practice makes perfect. Writing a sonnet might feel challenging at first, but once you get the hang of it, it's a rewarding way to express your thoughts and emotions. So why not give it a try? After all, you might discover a hidden talent for sonnet-writing!

Famous Sonnet Writers

When we talk about sonnets, it's impossible not to mention the greats who mastered the art of this poetic form. Let's dive into the world of famous sonnet writers and their contributions to the definition of sonnet.

William Shakespeare: The Bard of Avon is perhaps the most famous sonnet writer in the English language. He penned 154 sonnets, and his unique style—three quatrains and a final couplet—became known as the Shakespearean sonnet. His sonnets explore themes of love, beauty, time, and mortality.

Petrarch: Born Francesco Petrarca, this Italian scholar and poet gave the sonnet its name, and his distinctive structure— an eight-line octave and a six-line sestet—became known as the Petrarchan sonnet. His sonnets, mostly about love and loss, are considered some of the greatest in literary history.

John Milton: Known for his epic poem "Paradise Lost," Milton also wrote sonnets in English, Italian, and Latin. His sonnets addressed personal, political, and religious themes, and he broke from tradition by using irregular rhyme schemes.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning: This Victorian poet is best known for "Sonnets from the Portuguese," a sequence of 44 sonnets about her love for her husband, poet Robert Browning. Her sonnets are admired for their emotional intensity and technical skill.

These are just a few of the many poets who've contributed to the rich tradition of sonnet writing. By studying their work, we can deepen our understanding of the definition of sonnet and find inspiration for our own poems.

Examples of Sonnets

Now that we've discussed the definition of sonnet and some famous sonnet writers, it's time to look at examples of sonnets. These examples will help you understand the different types of sonnets and their structure.

"Sonnet 18" by William Shakespeare: This is one of the most famous sonnets in the world. It begins, "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" and explores the theme of love's enduring beauty. The sonnet follows the Shakespearean structure of three quatrains and a final couplet.

"Sonnet 130" by William Shakespeare: Also known as "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun," this sonnet is a playful twist on traditional love poems, praising the beloved in an unconventional way. This sonnet also follows the Shakespearean structure.

"Sonnet 43" by Elizabeth Barrett Browning: From "Sonnets from the Portuguese," this sonnet begins with the famous line, "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways." It's a celebration of deep and enduring love, written in the Petrarchan sonnet form.

"On His Blindness" by John Milton: This is a personal sonnet about Milton's experience with blindness. It reflects on his faith and the different ways people can serve God. This sonnet breaks from the traditional structures, showcasing Milton's creativity.

These examples showcase the diverse themes and styles of sonnets. From love and beauty to personal struggles, sonnets offer a compact, yet profound way to express complex thoughts and emotions. So next time you read a sonnet, remember its rich history and the skill it takes to create such a powerful poem in just fourteen lines.

Why Sonnets Matter in Poetry

Have you ever wondered why sonnets hold such a special place in poetry? The answer is as intriguing as the definition of sonnet itself.

Firstly, sonnets offer a tightly woven structure for poets to express their thoughts and emotions. With only 14 lines to work with, every word counts. This encourages precision and concision in language, leading to more impactful and memorable verses.

Secondly, sonnets are wonderfully versatile. Despite their structural constraints, they can tackle a wide range of themes, from romantic love to deep introspection, from the beauty of nature to the mysteries of existence. This versatility makes sonnets relatable and resonant to an array of readers.

Thirdly, sonnets have stood the test of time. From Petrarch and Shakespeare to contemporary poets, sonnets have been written, read, and loved for centuries. This longevity speaks to their enduring appeal and the universal truths they can convey.

Lastly, sonnets are an excellent tool for teaching poetry. Understanding how to write a sonnet — with its specific rhythm, rhyme scheme, and thematic structure — can be a gateway to exploring other forms of poetry. It's like learning to play a classic song on an instrument; you learn the basics, but also see the possibilities for your own creative expression.

In conclusion, sonnets are a fundamental part of poetry. They challenge poets, engage readers, and continue to enrich our literary tradition. So, the next time you encounter a sonnet, remember — you're not just reading a poem, you're experiencing a piece of poetic history.

If you enjoyed our comprehensive guide on sonnets and want to dive deeper into the world of poetry, check out the workshop '10 Minute Poetry Challenge : THINK LESS, WRITE MORE!' by Alieu Drammeh. This workshop will help you to hone your poetry skills and inspire you to write more, think less, and explore your creative potential.