Sonnets are an older form of poetry, and one of the most well known kinds of poetry. A sonnet is a poem of fourteen lines, with a formal rhyme scheme, and usually (though not always) written with ten syllables per line of poetry. Most know them through Shakespeare, as he wrote over a hundred sonnets and many are taught in English Classes. His style of writing them is difficult for many to replicate, since he wrote in iambic pentameter. However, his style is not the only way to write a sonnet. There are four kinds of sonnets: Petrarchan, Shakespearean, Spenserian, and Miltonic.
A Petrarchan sonnet (my personal favorite) is divided into two groups, one with the rhyming scheme ABBA ABBA, and the other with the rhyming scheme CDC CDC. Occasionally the second group instead uses the rhyming scheme CDE CDE.
Shakespearean sonnets are by far the most well known kinds of sonnets. They’re divided into four subgroups, with the rhyming scheme as follows: ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. The last two lines are a couplet. These sonnets strictly have ten syllables per line. They also are written in iambic pentameter, meaning that each line consists of one short or unstressed syllable followed by one long or stressed syllable.
Spenserian and Miltonic sonnets both stem from the Shakespearean style. Spenserian sonnets are the same as Shakespearean ones with one key difference, they have a more challenging rhyme scheme of ABAB BCBC CDCD EE. The main difference between Miltonic and Shakespearean isn’t format, but content. Shakespearean sonnets feature themes of love, lust, infidelity, and bitterness, and usually deal with the material world. Miltonic sonnets deal, by contract, dealt largely with internal struggles. Miltonic sonnets also do not always follow the format of Shakespearean sonnets, and some are written more closely to the Petrarchan sonnet.
An example of a sonnet is shown below, and I encourage you to write your own sonnet! Trying to follow rhyming patterns can force creativity, and it’s a very fun way to practice writing.
“Zebediah” by Patrick Gillespie
Here lies the preacher Zebediah Grey:
A pillar, incorruptible, severe;
Who suffered not the children at their play
Nor tidings but humility and fear.
“Tempt not,” said he, “the wrath of righteous love—
The love that strips the unrepentant bare.
Lure not that retribution from above;
Look on God’s works, ye blithesome, and despair:
How fleeting be your joys, how little worth!”
The congregation trembled at his scowl
And with him daily praised this hell on earth;
But friend if only you could see him now
- ···Whose sneering adumbrated mankind’s sins—
- ···If only you could see him— How he grins!