Sonnets: Lesson for Kids

Instructor: Elizabeth Hance

Elizabeth has taught elementary and middle school special education, and has a master's degree in reading education.

In this lesson, you will learn about the history and pattern of some of the most recognizable poems ever written: sonnets. After reading this lesson, you should even be able to write your own!

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.

William Shakespeare, one of the most famous sonnet writers of all time

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.

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