History of the Sonnet
The sonnet began in Italy, where the poet
Francesco Petrarch first established it as a
serious form of poetry. Petrarch wrote a
large collection of sonnets addressed to a
young woman named Laura he saw one
afternoon at church. She was not
interested, but he didn’t let that stop
him, and proceeded to publish some 260
sonnets about her—followed by another
hundred or so after her death. Petrarch
is, quite possibly, the first recorded
In these sonnets, Petrarch used witty
plays on Laura’s name (l’oro=the golden
one or the golden; references to laurel
trees, etc.) to both honor and attack the
object of his affection. He would praise
her for her beauty in one sonnet, then
condemn her as an icy monster who
rejects his love in another. Laura was
completely unable to respond to these
poems, as women did not write, and her
public persona was thus basically
Petrarch’s to define.
What is a sonnet?
• Sonnets are poems that meet the following
1. All sonnets are 14 lines long.
2. Sonnets in English are written in iambic pentameter,
which means that each line has 10 syllables,
alternating in an unstressed/stressed pattern.
3. Sonnets follow a predetermined rhyme scheme; the
rhyme pattern determines if the sonnet is Petrarchan
(Italian), Shakespearean, or Spenserian.
4. All sonnets are characterized by a “turn” located at a
designated point in the sonnet.
Iambic pentameter consists of
• five measures, units, or meters, of
An iamb is a metrical foot
an unaccented syllable U
followed by an accented
U / U /
im mor tal ize
1 2 3 4 5
U / U / U / U / U /
• One day I wrote her name u pon the strand,
U / U / U / U/U /
• But came the waves and wash ed it a way:
U / U / U / U / U /
• A gain I wrote it with a sec ond hand,
U / U / U / U / U /
• But came the tide, and made my pains his prey
» Edmund Spenser, Amoretti, Sonnet 75
• Petrarchan (Italian) rime scheme:
abba, abba, cd, cd, cd
abba, abba, cde, cde
• Shakespearean (English, or Elizabethan) rime
abab, cdcd, efef, gg
The two major sonnet forms:
Petrarchan (Italian) Shakespearean
A Octave (8 lines) B
B C 3 quatrains
A The TURN D
C F The TURN
C Sestet (6 lines) G Rhyming
D G Couplet
Petrarchan or Italian
The World Is Too Much With Us by William Wordsworth (1807)
• The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.--Great God! I'd rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn; (1)
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea, (2)
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus (3) rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton (4) blow his wreathed horn.
My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips' red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go; My mistress when she
walks treads on the groud.
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.
William Shakespeare, Sonnet CXXX
The Turn or Volta of the Sonnet
A sonnet’s turn is the point in the
sonnet where the poet “Come Sleep, O Sleep!”
changes perspective or alters
his/her approach to
description. This often
Come, Sleep! O Sleep, the certain knot of peace,
results in a sonnet following The baiting-place of wit, the balm of woe,
a “position-contrasting The poor man's wealth, the prisoner's release,
position” type of structure, Th' indifferent judge between the high and low;
or occasionally a “change of With shield of proof shield me from out the press
heart” in the poet at the end Of those fierce darts Despair at me doth throw!
of the verse. Look at this
O make in me those civil wars to cease! -
sonnet as an example:
I will good tribute pay if thou do so.
Take thou of me smooth pillows, sweetest bed,
Notice that the poem’s turn is a
A chamber deaf of noise and blind of light,
change from discussing what
Sleep itself is to what the A rosy garland, and a weary head;
poet will offer Sleep as And if these things, as being thine in right,
tribute if Sleep comes to him. Move not thy heavy grace, thou shalt in me,
Livelier than elsewhere, Stella's image see.
Nothing is ever easy.
• Note that at times the turn
does NOT occur in the When, in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state
traditional spot. Instead of And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries
occurring at the normal line And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
12-13 in this sonnet by Featur'd like him, like him with friends possess'd,
Shakespeare, the turn Desiring this man's art and that man's scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
instead occurs between lines Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
8-9—where you’d normally Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
find the turn for an Italian Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate;
sonnet. For thy sweet love remember'd such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
All we need is fourteen lines, well, thirteen now,
and after this one just a dozen
to launch a little ship on love's storm-tossed seas,
then only ten more left like rows of beans.
How easily it goes unless you get Elizabethan
and insist the iambic bongos must be played
and rhymes positioned at the ends of lines,
one for every station of the cross.
But hang on here while we make the turn
into the final six where all will be resolved,
where longing and heartache will find an end,
where Laura will tell Petrarch to put down his pen,
take off those crazy medieval tights,
blow out the lights, and come at last to bed.
Sonnet 17 – Pablo Neruda
I do not love you as if you were salt-rose, or topaz,
or the arrow of carnations the fire shoots off.
I love you as certain dark things are to be loved,
in secret, between the shadow and the soul.
I love you as the plant that never blooms
but carries in itself the light of hidden flowers;
thanks to your love a certain solid fragrance,
risen from the earth, lives darkly in my body.
I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where.
I love you straightforwardly, without complexities or pride;
so I love you because I know no other way
in which there is no I or you
so intimate that your hand upon my chest is my hand
so intimate that when you fall asleep it is my eyes that close