Notes on the Sonnet Form

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A recent national sonnet competition defined a sonnet simple as a poem of 14 lines.   Traditionally there are three main types of sonnet

 

The Petrarchan sonnet  

sometimes laid out as

 

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The Shakespearean sonnet

 

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The terza-rima sonnet

 

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Another form of the sonnet was developed by Meredith, and this had sixteen lines, that is four quatrains. This is also used by Tony Harrison.  Hopkins developed an 11 line sonnet which he claimed had the same proportions as the traditional 14 line sonnet.

 

Sonnets are often combined to make a sequence, most famously by Sidney, Shakespeare, and Spenser. 

 

Traditionally  the way the stanzas are organized reflects the ‘argument’ of the poem.  In the Petrarchan poem the first eight lines (octave) set out a proposition or theme of some kind, and the final six lines (sestet) makes a comment on it.   The change of direction at the beginning of line 9 (sometimes halfway along) is usually called the ‘turn’.     The Petrarchan sonnet has balance and a golden mean sort of proportion,  while the Shakespearean and terza rima sonnets are more dramatic.   In all sonnets the trick is to get each part to sound all of a peace, often by making it – or indeed the whole sonnet – a single sentence.  

 

Usually the sonnet has 10 syllables to a line and 5 beats, but there are sonnets in a 4 beat line (one by Shakespeare) and there are 6 beat sonnets (Sydney).

Sonnets are usually rhymed, but there are unrhymed sonnets, for example by Robert Lowell.

 

In the Shakespearean and terza rima sonnet the turn occurs later, the final couplet is much decisively clinching,  a little like the twist at the end of a short story, which suddenly puts it all in a different light.