English Language Blog

What is a Sonnet? Posted by on Sep 30, 2016 in Culture, English Language


For centuries, great sonnets have epitomized what we mean when we speak of beautiful language. While it is easier to say what a sonnet is than it is to explain how one works, understanding the simple intricacies of the sonnet will put you well on the path to appreciating the possibilities of English words and their meaning.

Let’s begin with the definition of a sonnet. A sonnet is a 14 line poem written in iambic pentameter. While it will always have a specific rhyming pattern, a sonnet may be structured in a variety of ways, giving the poet flexibility in how those 14 lines are arranged. It will always be a poem about one specific topic, or idea, keeping the focus as simple as possible. But, depending on the organization of the lines and the stress in the rhyme scheme, the poet can cover many aspects of the poem’s subject matter.

A sonnet, therefore, is deceptively simple.

Iambic pentameter is a metrical rhythm within speech, using stressed and unstressed patterns which occur naturally within everyday English language. An iamb is a meter, or beat, consisting of one unstressed syllable and one stressed one. All English words with multiple syllables contain both. Pentameter is Latin, and comes from the Greek word pente, meaning five. So, basic Iambic pentameter is five iambs strung together.

Now, the incredible genius and simplicity of this, for English speakers, is that every sentence that we say is a stream of accented and unaccented syllables. This is how English speakers actually talk. So, poets like John Milton, John Keats, and especially William Shakespeare  understood that they could take advantage of the common rhythms of the English language to convey their messages. In the case of Shakespeare, he wrote much of the dialogue of his plays in iambic pentameter and it sounded perfectly natural to the average playgoer.

Let’s look at one of Keats’ great sonnets:

When I have fears that I may cease to be

Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,

Before high-pilèd books, in charactery,

Hold like rich garners the full ripened grain;

When I behold, upon the night’s starred face,

Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,

And think that I may never live to trace

Their shadows with the magic hand of chance;

And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,

That I shall never look upon thee more,

Never have relish in the faery power

Of unreflecting love—then on the shore

Of the wide world I stand alone, and think

Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.

This gorgeous sonnet, written to the young woman that Keats loved just before he left England because his health was failing him, expresses the emotions of a man who dearly wanted to be regarded as one of the great poets of all time (which he is), but forced to abandon the great love of his life. It is written in perfect iambic pentameter, although there are lines in which he cheats a little.

In line 3, Keats writes the words high piled as high-pilèd, in order to maintain the metric beat. He does the same in line 11, when the word power is intended to be pronounced as one syllable – powr. The reader of his time would have recognized this by the way he spells fairy as faery. Keats is writing like he is speaking in an English dialect!

Shakespeare did this all the time, especially in his plays. If he couldn’t find the metric beats that he needed, he made up words. In fact, he invented over 1700 words that are now common in the English language. But, because of the context in which he placed them, the average person watching any of his plays fully understood what those words meant.

As I mentioned before, sonnets can be divided into different sections, each section having its own rhythmic pattern. A two-section sonnet is divided into an eight line section, an octet, and a six line section, called a sestet. This is commonly referred to as the Petrarchan sonnet, named for the great Italian poet, Francesco Petrarch. Shakespeare’s legendary love sonnets are divided into three separate four line sections, called quatrains, and a two line section called a couplet.

Shakespeare also wrote in iambic pentameter when he was composing lines in his plays, although only for characters who were titled and wealthy, like kings and barons. He wrote in prose, ordinary speech without the rhyme, for characters that were common, average citizens. An easy way to distinguish prose from rhymed verse is to look at it on the page. A long passage in English prose is typically printed like any standard paragraph from left to right. You’ll also notice that the standard rules of capitalization are followed: only proper nouns (names and place names), the pronoun I, and the first letter of a new sentence are capitalized. Many of these rules are bent for a sonnet.

The sonnet is a timeless expression of emotion, thought, and great themes. It is still in favor as a poetic form, across American, British, and Irish literature. Seamus Heaney’s great sonnet When all the others were away at Mass, about the passing of his mother, might be the most heartbreakingly beautiful poem of the 20th century.

Do you have a favorite sonnet?

Photo from Flickr: Keats by Timechaser

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About the Author: Gary Locke

Gary is a semi-professional hyphenate.