The Sonnet: A Poem in 14 Lines

Shakespeare Is the Master of This Poetic Form

Two minstrels from the codex of the Cantigas de Santa Maria, c. 1280
Heritage Images/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Before William Shakespeare’s day, the word “sonnet” meant simply “little song,” from the Italian "sonnetto," and the name could be applied to any short lyric poem. In Renaissance Italy and then in Elizabethan England, the sonnet became a fixed poetic form, consisting of 14 lines, usually iambic pentameter in English.

Different types of sonnets evolved in the different languages of the poets writing them, with variations in rhyme scheme and metrical pattern.

But all sonnets have a two-part thematic structure, containing a problem and solution, a question and answer or a proposition and reinterpretation within their 14 lines and a "volta," or turn, between the two parts.

Sonnet Form

The original form is the Italian or Petrarchan sonnet, in which the 14 lines are arranged in an octet (8 lines) rhyming abba abba and a sestet (6 lines) rhyming either cdecde or cdcdcd.

The English or Shakespearean sonnet came later, and it is made of three quatrains rhyming abab cdcd efef and a closing rhymed heroic couplet. The Spenserian sonnet is a variation developed by Edmund Spenser in which the quatrains are linked by their rhyme scheme: abab bcbc cdcd ee.

Since its introduction into English in the 16th century, the 14-line sonnet form has remained relatively stable, proving itself a flexible container for all kinds of poetry, long enough that its images and symbols can carry detail rather than becoming cryptic or abstract, and short enough to require a distillation of poetic thought.

For more extended poetic treatment of a single theme, some poets have written sonnet cycles, a series of sonnets on related issues, often addressed to a single person. Another form is the sonnet crown, a sonnet series linked by repeating the last line of one sonnet in the first line of the next, until the circle is closed by using the first line of the first sonnet as the last line of the last sonnet.

The Shakespearean Sonnet

Perhaps the most well-known and important sonnets in the English language were written by Shakespeare. The Bard is so monumental in this regard that they are called Shakespearean sonnets. Of the 154 sonnets he wrote, a few ​stand out. One is Sonnet 116, which speaks of everlasting love, despite the effects of passing time and change, in a decidedly non-sappy fashion:

"Let me not to the marriage of true minds 

Admit impediments. Love is not love 

Which alters when it alteration finds, 

Or bends with the remover to remove. 

O no! it is an ever-fixed mark 

That looks on tempests and is never shaken; 

It is the star to every wand'ring bark, 

Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken. 

Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks 

Within his bending sickle's compass come; 

Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, 

But bears it out even to the edge of doom. 

If this be error and upon me prov'd, 

I never writ, nor no man ever lov'd."