The Sonnet

The word sonnet is derived from a word that means “little song” in Italian. Sonnets were originally inspired by Italian folk songs sung by peasants. The songs consisted of octaves (8 lined stanzas), and Giacomo da Lentino, who is credited with the sonnet’s invention, added 6 more lines to the octave to make the sonnet, a form of 14 lines.

In the English language, there are two main types of sonnets, Petrarchan and Shakespearean, differing in rhyme scheme and where the volta, or turn of the poem, resides. In the Petrarchan version, the turn comes after the 8th line. A turn in a sonnet marks a shift in thought, a change in the poem. In Emma Lazarus’s classic sonnet about the Statue of Liberty, “The New Colossus,” the turn takes place at the moment the statue speaks, inviting immigrants into the country. Thus, because the turn comes after the 8th line, and because of the rhyme scheme (ABBA ABBA CDC DCD), The New Colossus is an example of a Petrarchan sonnet.

Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 18,” beginning with “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day,” is, of course, Shakespearean, with a rhyme scheme of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. The turn takes place in the last couplet.

Traditionally, in English, sonnets are also written in iambic pentameter, consisting of 5 unstressed syllables alternating with 5 stressed syllables: da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM. However, some modern sonnets may rhyme without this rhythm, one example being “New Jersey” by Craig Morgan Teicher. Notice how, without iambic pentameter and with enjambed line breaks (line breaks in the middle of a phrase), the rhyme in this poem is rendered almost unnoticeable.

For more guidance on the sonnet, see The sonnet is one of the forms that will be considered in the Jersey City Writers poetry competition Formation, the deadline being April 10th; please see the previous blog post for more information about the competition, and good luck!


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