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What Are the Different Sonnet Forms?

By Cynde Gregory
Updated May 17, 2024
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Poets are interesting creatures. On one hand, they are likely to put themselves on the other side of the conventional fence. They look at the world differently than more conservative individuals and question everything. On the other hand, they take tremendous pleasure in inventing and mastering very rigid poetic rules and regulations and then breaking those rules in unexpected ways. Sonnet forms including the Petrarchan, the Shakespearean, and the Spenserian have produced offspring such as the curtal and Pushkin sonnet forms.

All traditional sonnets held a total of fourteen poetic lines that were woven together with a range of rhyme schemes. These traditional forms were also strictly contained by lines measured in five beats, called pentameters. The words themselves were strung together in such a way that the stress fell on every other syllable, which meant that each line began with an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one. Interestingly, differences in the ways the rhymes were organized resulted in very different effects.

The earliest type of sonnet was crafted in Italy and polished to perfection by Francesco Petrarcha, called Petrarch by the English. The Petrarchan or Italian sonnet gathers the first eight lines of iambic pentameter, called the octave, together and assigns them an ABBAABBA rhyme arrangement. The sestet, or final six lines, introduce three new sets of rhymes that can be organized in the form CDECDE, CDEECD, or in another fashion. The rigidity on the octave with its limited number of rhymes and its absolute configuration is balanced in the sestet’s relative freedom.

The Spensarian sonnet is one of the sonnet forms popularized by English writers. While it, too, is a fourteen-line poem written in iambic pentameter, the flow and structure of the rhyming pairs is enormously different. Petrarchan sonnets force a separation between the octave and sestet, which results in a volta, or change, in subject from one stanza to the next. Spenserian sonnets, in contrast, produce a tumbling, interwoven sense by organizing the rhymes as ABABBCBCCDCDEE. There is a connection between each set of four lines in that the following line echoes the previous one; this sonnet form also introduces a two-line coda, in this case, a couplet.

The Shakespearean sonnet, among the traditional sonnet forms, is the least rigid. Also called the English sonnet, this version organizes the poem into three groups of four rhyming iambic pentameter lines that rhyme ABABCDCDEFEF. These twelve lines are followed by a two-line rhyming couplet, GG. With more rhyming pairs, the opportunity to introduce more ideas becomes easier.

The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins created the curtal as a challenge based upon the Petrarchan sonnet. Among sonnet forms, this complex version is essentially three quarters of an Italian sonnet with fewer lines and inverted stress. The Puskin, or onegin, sonnet is written in iambic trameter, which gives it shorter lines and alternates masculine and feminine endings that switch the stresses back and forth, giving the poem a galloping quality.

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