Elizabeth has taught elementary and middle school special education, and has a master's degree in reading education.
History of the Sonnet
One of the wonderful things about poetry is that there are so few rules. Poems can rhyme, or not; they can be short or long, funny or heartwarming. There are no rules to break when it comes to writing poetry -- unless, of course, you are trying to write a sonnet.
The sonnet originated in Italy in the 13th century; the first sonneteer, or sonnet writer, was Giacomo da Lentini. Early sonnets began with a question or problem; the ninth line described the solution. Over time, poets began adding specific rhyming patterns to the sonnet.
Early sonnets were written in Italian and translated to English. Eventually, poets began writing sonnets in English and adapted a new, specific rhyme scheme, or pattern.
Parts of a Sonnet
You have probably had to write something with very specific requirements, like a certain length or the right number of sentences. If you thought that was tough, wait until you hear what it takes to write a sonnet.
First, your sonnet must have 14 lines divided into three quatrains and one couplet. Quatrains are stanzas with four lines; couplets have two lines. Next, your sonnet must follow the correct rhyme scheme: abab cdcd efef gg. To better understand how the rhyme scheme works, check out the first quatrain of Romeo and Juliet:
'Two households, both alike in dignity, (a)
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene, (b)
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,(a)
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.'(b)
If you read this stanza aloud, you'll hear that the last word in the lines marked (a) rhyme (dignity and mutiny), and the lines marked (b) also rhyme (scene and unclean). The rhyme scheme continues in a similar way for the next two quatrains, but things get tricky in the couplet, which must rhyme as well. Here's a couplet from Romeo and Juliet; listen for the rhyme at the end of each line:
'But passion lends them power, time means, to meet
Tempering extremities with extreme sweet.'
Figuring out the rhyme scheme for a sonnet is just one part of the format. Sonnets should also be written in a specific meter called iambic pentameter. Meter is the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in a poem. Iambic pentameter is a meter in which there are five iambs (beats), where the syllables alternate from unstressed to stressed five times. Look back at the first quatrain example above; the stressed syllables have been italicized so that you can see the meter.
Famous Sonnet Writers
'To be or not to be?' If you have heard those words, you are familiar with the famous sonnet writer: William Shakespeare. Shakespeare wrote a series of 154 sonnets and also included many in his plays, like Romeo and Juliet. Most of Shakespeare's sonnets use a couplet at the end to summarize his poem or to introduce a new look at its theme.
While early sonnets were usually about love, later writers like John Donne wrote mostly religious sonnets in the 17th century. During the next few hundred years, sonnets became less trendy in the poetry world. It wasn't until William Wordsworth began writing them in the 18th century that the style became popular again. In the 20th century, poets like Robert Frost and e.e. Cummings began experimenting with sonnets, in addition to the less structured formats and rhyme schemes they used for other poems.
The sonnet is a specific type of poem with a strict format and rhyme scheme: 14 lines divided into three quatrains and one couplet. The sonnet follows a specific rhyme scheme and is usually written in iambic pentameter.
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