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Literature Glossary

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Sonnet? We hardly know it!

Actually we know it really well. That's because sonnets are everywhere—it's one of the most common poetic forms.

That means you need to know it, too, so we'll give you the sonnet scoop. Sonnets traditionally have

  • fourteen lines
  • a rhyme scheme
  • iambic pentameter
  • a turn, or volta, somewhere around line 8 or 9, where the poem takes a new direction or changes its argument in some way.

Aside from those requirements, there are a ton of different ways a sonnet can play out. Poets can shake up the rhyme scheme, play with the meter, and write about whatever they please. Still, most sonnets fall into one of three categories:

Petrarchan. These sonnets are named for an old Italian guy named—you guessed it—Petrarch. These sonnets are divided into two sections—an octave, with eight lines, followed by a sestet, with six.

The rhyme scheme for the octave is usually ABBAABBA, while the rhyme scheme for the sestet was a little more fast and loose. Sometimes folks go with CDECDE or CDCDCD. But those are just two options, and there are more where that came from.

In a Petrarchan sonnet, the volta comes at line nine, at the beginning of the sestet. Typically, the octave would present some sort of pickle that the sestet would solve, or describe some sort of state of affairs that the sestet would then comment on. So the octave might say something like, "I really love this girl," and the sestet would be like, "which is awesome, because she really loves me back. Sweet."

Shakespearean. We think you can guess who these ones are named after. Usually, Shakespeare (and his successors) would arrange his sonnet into three quatrains, followed by a final couplet. Usually the volta would come around the beginning of the third quatrain, which is just where it would be if it were a Petrarchan sonnet, too.

Rhyme wise, Shakespeare shook it up a bit compared to his Petrarchan predecessors. Typically a Shakespearean sonnet goes a little something like this: ABAB CDCD EFEF GG.

Spenserian. Ever heard of a guy named Edmund Spenser? While he's not as famous as Shakespeare, he does have the distinct honor of having a sonnet named after him, which has got to count for something. Like the Shakespearean sonnet, these usually have three quatrains, followed by a final couplet. Unlike the Petrarchan sonnet, there's not necessarily any volta going down, so don't look for the turn around line 9. You won't find it.

Spenserian sonnets are unique for using an interlocking rhyme scheme. So when you're reading one, keep an eye out for something like this: ABAB BCBC CDCD EE. Nifty, right?

Though they date to the way back days of the 13th century, sonnets are still around today, the pesky little buggers. To be fair, though, they have changed quite a bit. Now that folks are all in to free verse, the metrical requirements, rhyme schemes, and stanza structures have fallen by the wayside somewhat in favor of a more loosey-goosey adherence to the form. Now we've got sonnets with no iambic pentameter, sonnets with extra lines here and there, sonnets with no volta, you name it.

If it's sonnets you're seeking, Shmoop's got 'em in spades. Here are a few of our favorites: