The Sonnet: The Ultimate Marriage of Content and Form

A lyric poem is usually a short one that expresses a speaker's personal thoughts and feelings. As its Greek name indicates, a lyric was originally a poem sung to the accompaniment of a lyre, and lyrics to this day have retained a melodic quality. The elegy ( a poem of mourning, usually over the death of an individual), the ode (a complex and often lengthy lyric poem, written in a dignified formal style on some lofty or serious subject), and the sonnet are all forms of the lyric.

The sonnet is a lyric poem of fourteen lines, written in rhymed iambic pentameter, and focused on a single theme. Sonnets vary in structure and rhyme scheme, but are generally of three types:

Click on the following sonnet types to reveal information about that type. Click again to hide the information.

The Petrarchan or Italian Sonnet

The Shakespearean or English Sonnet

The Spenserian Sonnet

Origins of the Sonnet

from "Reinventing the Sonnet" by Michael J. Bugeia
Writer's Digest, December 1996, page 14 (3)

Petrarch and Shakespeare did not invent the sonnets named after them. and Spenser combined elements of both older forms to invent his own. But the poet who masters that form usually will give it his or her name, as was the case with Petrarch and Shakespeare.

The inventor of the sonnet was Giacomo da Lentino, who in the mid-13th century adapted a folk song known as the strambotto. It rhymed abababab and gave him the octave. Another stanza pattern gave him the sestet. Finally a contemporary named Guittone d'Arezzo adapted the da Lentino sonnet into the current Petrarchan one. The Shakespearean sonnet has a similar history. Sir Thomas Wyatt brought the form to England in the mid-16th century. But his friend Henry Howard had precious little to do in the Tower--on royalty's death row--and adapted the Wyatt version into the sonnet we still associate with the Bard.

Read the following Shakespearean sonnet. Notice the rhyme scheme and the iambic pentameter. Notice the overall structure of quatrains making an observation with concluding couplet commenting on that observation.


© 1999 Stephen A. Miser
Some Christians stretch to far extent their hands
To hold both God and money, Christ and fame,
And soon have stretched themselves like rubber bands,
Between two different worlds they want to claim.

They will not choose, but try to live in each,
Unrealistic as it is to love
The riches, power, and fame, within their reach
While claiming that their treasures lie above.

And so the rubber banders stretch along,
Not knowing that they stand to forfeit all,
The world will laugh to hear their "Christian" song,
And God will weep to watch his children fall.

Because they fool themselves and do not choose,
Both world's they long to hold, they'll surely lose.

Do you see how the content of the message and the form of iambic pentameter, rhyme scheme, and overall format work together to create a sonnet? Remember this:

Anyone who can write a sonnet, can do just about anything!