What is a sonnet?

A sonnet is a form of poetry that originated in Europe, mainly in Italy. The poet Giacomo de Lentini is credited with the invention. A sonnet is a poem written in a certain format with distinguishable characteristics.

Sonnets have 14 lines broken down into four sections called quatrains. The rhyme scheme of a sonnet is ABAD, CDCD, EFEF, GG. Sonnets are written in iambic pentameter, which is a poetic meter with 10 beats per line of alternating unstressed and stressed syllables.

Each quatrain progresses in the poem as follows: 

First quatrain: This should establish the subject of the sonnet.

Number of lines: 4. Rhyme Scheme: ABAB

Second quatrain: This should develop the sonnet’s theme.

Number of lines: 4. Rhyme Scheme: CDCD

Third quatrain: This should round off the sonnet’s theme.

Number of lines: 4. Rhyme Scheme: EFEF

Fourth quatrain: This should act as a conclusion to the sonnet.

Number of lines: 2. Rhyme Scheme: GG 

Here is an example of one of Shakespeare’s best known sonnets.

 Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

Thou art more lovely and more temperate.

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,

And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.

Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,

And often is his gold complexion dimmed;

And every fair from fair sometime declines,

By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimmed;

But thy eternal summer shall not fade,

Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest,

Nor shall death brag thou wanderest in his shade,

When in eternal lines to time thou growest.

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,

So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

First quatrain

Shakespeare establishes the theme of comparing “thou” (or “you”) to a summer’s day, and why, to do so, is a bad idea. The metaphor is made by comparing his beloved to summer itself.

Second quatrain

Shakespeare extends the theme, explaining why even the sun, supposed to be so great, gets obscured sometimes, and why everything that’s beautiful decays from beauty sooner or later. He has shifted the metaphor. In the first quatrain, it was “summer” in general, and now he’s comparing the sun and “every fair,” every beautiful thing, to his beloved.

Third quatrain

Here the argument takes a big left turn with the familiar “But.” Shakespeare says that the main reason he won’t compare his beloved to summer is that summer dies, but she won’t. He refers to the first two quatrains — her “eternal summer” won’t fade, and she won’t “lose possession” of the “fair” (the beauty) she possesses. So he keeps the metaphors going, but in a different direction. And for good measure, he throws in a negative version of all the sunshine in this poem — the “shade” of death, which, evidently, his beloved won’t have to worry about.

Fourth quatrain/Couplet

How is his beloved going to escape death? The answer is in Shakespeare’s poetry, which will keep her alive as long as people breathe or see. This bold statement gives closure to the whole argument. It’s a surprise.

This entry was posted in Poetry