Tuesday, October 11, 2016

How to Identify a Sonnet: Italian and English Sonnet Forms

Which type of sonnet do you prefer?
Sonnets have been around since sometime within the 12th Century, which means they've been around for about 1000 years, give or take a few centuries and decades. That's a long, long time.

The most popular sonnets are generally known for their rhyming 14-line forms, each line having been written in iambic pentameter, or the rhythm of a heartbeat in one breath: ta TUM ta TUM ta TUM ta TUM ta TUM.

Although there are several forms of sonnets, as you can imagine of a form that has had a 1000 year lifespan, the most popular sonnets are usually one of two types: Italian, otherwise called Petrarchan, or English, otherwise called Shakespearean.  Understanding the external forms of these poems can help inform readers about the internal forms.

Italian or Petrarchan Sonnet

External Form

The Italian sonnet, named after the writer Petrarch, is divided into an octave (a stanza of 8 lines) and a sestet (a stanza of 6 lines).  The rhyme pattern can vary, but the pattern is often abbaabba and cdecde, cdcdcd, or cdccdc.  Interestingly, however, originals in Italian that are translated to English demonstrate adjustments to the rhyme scheme in order to maintain meaning.  In other words, the meaning of the poem is more important than the rhyme scheme.

Internal Form

The internal form of an Italian sonnet relies on, just like the external form, a division between the octave and the sestet.  The octave often presents a difficult or vexing situation that is resolved in the sestet. There is often a shift in the tone of the poem or the in the attitude of the speaker, as the ideas shift from problem to solution.


This example from Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892 - 1950), a 20th Century American writer from Maine, follows the Italian rhyme scheme and internal form.  Notice the shift in the speaker's attitude in the sestet.

I Will Put Chaos into Fourteen Lines

I will put Chaos into fourteen lines (a)
And keep him there; and let him thence escape (b)
If he be lucky; let him twist, and ape (b)
Flood, fire, and demon — his adroit designs (a)
Will strain to nothing in the strict confines (a)
Of this sweet Order, where, in pious rape, (b)
I hold his essence and amorphous shape, (b)
Till he with Order mingles and combines. (a)
Past are the hours, the years, of our duress, (c)
His arrogance, our awful servitude: (d)
I have him. He is nothing more nor less (c)
Than something simple not yet understood; (d)
I shall not even force him to confess; (c)
Or answer. I will only make him good. (d)

English or Shakespearean Sonnet

External Form

The English sonnet is most often divided into three quatrains (3 stanzas of 4 lines each) followed by a couplet (2 rhyming lines). This rhyme scheme is easier for writers in English to follow than an Italian sonnet simply because English has fewer rhyming words than Italian.

Internal Form

Whereas the shift in attitude or meaning takes place between the octave and the sestet in an Italian sonnet, the shift in an English sonnet often occurs with the break between the final quatrain and the couplet.


This example from "Visions" by Francesco Petrarch (1304 -1374) has been translated into English by the English writer of The Faerie Queene, Edmund Spenser (1552 - 1599).  This translation is written in Spenser's typically archaic style, using Middle English spelling and pronunciation. Although originally written in Italian, in translation it follows the English  rhyme scheme. Readers can look for a shift in meaning within the last two lines of the poem, as the ideas shift from the observations of the speaker to the speaker's insight about the situation.

Being one day at my window all alone, (a)
So manie strange things happened me to see, (b)
As much as it grieveth me to thinke thereon. (a)
At my right hand a hynde appear’d to mee, (b)
So faire as mote the greatest god delite; (c)
Two eager dogs did her pursue in chace. (d)
Of which the one was blacke, the other white: (c)
With deadly force so in their cruell race (d)
They pincht the haunches of that gentle beast, (e)
That at the last, and in short time, I spide, (f)
Under a rocke, where she alas, opprest, (e)
Fell to the ground, and there untimely dide. (f)
Cruell death vanquishing so noble beautie (g)
Oft makes me wayle so hard a desire. (g)

In order to better understand poems, it is necessary to be able to identify forms, both external and internal.  An external form can quickly inform a reader about specific shifts in meaning that he or she can expect to find within the internal structure of the poem.  In this case, when readers know they are reading an Italian sonnet, they can look for shifts in attitude or a solution to the initial problem within the last six lines of the poem.  Likewise, when readers know they are reading English sonnets, those readers can look for shifts in meaning in the last two lines.  The form can always help the reader determine the function.

Want to read more about poetry and literature?  Try

Denotative and Connotative Meaning in the Poetry of Denise Levertov
Diagramming Mina Loy's "Letters of the Unliving" as a Method for Close Reading
The Shoe as Image in the Poetry of Amy Lowell and Charles Simic

Copyright Amy Lynn Hess.  Please contact the author for permission to republish.

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