Understanding English and Italian Sonnet Forms

Understanding English and Italian Sonnet
A sonnet is a dialectical construct in which the poet examines the nature and relationship of two
typically contrasting ideas, emotions, feelings, beliefs, events, or actions by juxtaposing the two against
each other, resulting, ideally, in a more complete knowledge of the two by the sonnet's conclusion.
Essentially, two related but different things are presented to the reader in 14 line poem form so as to
communicate something about them. Each of the three major sonnet forms (Italian, English and
The Italian/Petrarchan Sonnet
The sonnet was first created around 1235 AD in Italy. Many early sonneteers played around with
different patterns and rhymes, however Francesco Petrarch was perhaps the first to significantly cement
the sonnet's structure.
For all sonnets in English, the basic meter is iambic pentameter although outliers to exist that have the
occasional tetrameter or hexameter sonnets.
The Italian sonnet is made up of two sections, grouped by different rhyming sounds. The first 8 lines is
called the octave and has the rhyme scheme:
The last 6 lines are known as the sestet and can have two or three rhyming sounds which can be
arranged in a number of ways. Some examples include:
Unlike the beginning octave pattern, the sestet rhyming pattern is flexible. Strict practice suggests that
the sestet should not end with a rhyming couplet (dd or ee) as this was not allowed in Italy, and
allegedly Petrarch himself never used a rhyming couplet ending. In actual practice, however, sestets are
ended with couplets on occasion, such as Sir Philip Sidney's "Sonnet LXXI," and are known as a
terminal couplet.
"Sonnet LXXI," Sir Philip Sidney
Who will in fairest book of Nature know
How Virtue may best lodged in Beauty be,
Let him but learn of Love to read in thee,
Stella, those fair lines, which true goodness show.
There shall he find all vices' overthrow,
Not by rude force, but sweetest sovereignty
Of reason, from whose light those night-birds fly;
That inward sun in thine eyes shineth so.
And not content to be Perfection's heir
Thyself, dost strive all minds that way to move,
Who mark in thee what is in thee most fair.
So while thy beauty draws the heart to love,
As fast thy Virtue bends that love to good.
"But, ah," Desire still cries, "give me some food."
The sonnet is divided into two sections by the two different rhyme schemes. Out of principle, which
does not apply to all poetry but ideally would, a change from one rhyming group to the next rhyming
group signifies a change in subject matter. In the Italian sonnet, this change occurs with the beginning
of line 9 and is called the "volta" or the "turn." This "turn" is also where the second idea of the poem is
introduced, making the "turn" perhaps the essential element of the sonnet.
The English/Shakespearian Sonnet
William Shakespeare made frequent use of the sonnet in his own writings, with 154 sonnets being
attributed to him. Instead of using Petrarch's Italian sonnet form, Shakespeare instead used the English
(later also known as Shakespearean) sonnet, conventionalized by the English poets Wyatt and Surrey.
Having arguably the simplest, most flexible pattern out of all sonnets, the English sonnet consists of 3
quatrains of alternating rhyme scheme and closes with a rhyming couplet:
Each quatrain serves to develop its own idea, unique from the other quatrains but still closely related.
The rhyme scheme of the English sonnet is quite simple, but the sonnet form is also more flexible in
the placement of the "volta." Shakespeare often placed the "turn" much as the Italians at the beginning
of line 9.
However, Shakespeare could choose to delay the "volta," instead to the final couplet. In "Sonnet
LXXIII" he chooses to do just this as each quatrain develops a metaphor concerning the advancing age
of the speaker, while the final rhyming couplet then states the consequence (love me now because soon
I'll be gone).
"Sonnet LXXIII," William Shakespeare
That time of year thou mayst in me behold,
When yellow leaves, or none, or few do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou seest the twilight of such day,
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death's second self that seals up all in rest.
In me thou seest the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the deathbed, whereon it must expire,
Consumed by that which it was nourished by.
This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well, which thou must leave ere long.
Indefinable Sonnets with Nonspecific Forms
As it is with any standard, there exists outliers that defy them and sonnets are no different. Some
sonnets do not fit any clear pattern or style, but still successfully function as sonnets. Percy Bysshe
Shelley's "Ozymandias" belongs in this indefinable category. It has a rhyming pattern of:
For more resources on sonnets, consider the following resources:
Sonnets and Iambic Pentameter (PDF)
Renaissance Sonnets (PDF)
Characteristics of the (Petrarchan) Sonnet
"A Brief History of the Sonnet for Sonnet 16"
Sir Philip Sidney's Astrophel and Stella
The Elizabethan (& Jacobean) Sonnet
The Sonnet in English
The Shakespearean Sonnet (PDF)