Briefly: Sonnets

Hey guys, how have you been?

I’m taking a poetry class this semester and it’s so much fun. I’m learning a lot about the history of various forms, reading so many great pieces I never would have found myself as well as experimenting with these new mediums. I thought I’d ‘briefly’ share what I’m learning and discovering with you guys in the hopes that you’ll learn something too 🙂

Disclaimer: I’ll always try provide the most accurate information possible but if I misinterpret something I’ve read or my lecturer has said or if my imitation of a style doesn’t actually quite work for some reason, absolutely let me know so I can try improve!

This week we learnt about the sonnet, which I’ve discovered can be absolute gems to read despite, or perhaps because of how short they are.


A sonnet is a form of poetry composed of fourteen lines & usually iambic*, originating from Italy with two main subsets: the Petrarchan sonnet and the Shakespearean sonnet.

Francesco Petrach (1304-1374) brought widespread attention to the form in his book – Canzoniere, a collection of 366 poems, of which 317 were sonnets written to an idealised lover, Laura.

Believe it or not, this is where the Petrarchan Sonnet was born.

Form: 8 lines/6 lines, rhyme scheme*: ababcdcd (octave) / cdecde (sestet).

Content: one of the most distinctive markers of a sonnet is the change in tone between the two sections of the poem, whether it’s initially asking a broad question in the first stanza and then providing an answer in the second or something else, there must be some type of shift in perspective.

Interesting fact: By looking at the rhyme scheme, you can tell that Italian has much more rhyme built into its language compared to English.

Two hundred years later, Thomas Wyatt became one of the first champions of the sonnet in England both translating Petrach’s work and creating his own. His friend & contemporary, Henry Howard, the Earl of Surry also tried to do the same. Both men are known for making modifications to the structure to make it more suitable for English, creating what is now known as the Shakespearean sonnet.

Why is it called the Shakespearean sonnet? Quite simply, Shakespeare was good at it, wrote a lot of it and was the one that really popularised the form in English.

Form: 8 lines/4 lines/ 2 lines, rhyme scheme: ababcdcd / efef gg.

Content: the couplet (gg) at the end of the poem is crucial as it differs the SS (Shakespearean sonnet) from the PS (Petrarchan sonnet) in that it could introduce a crescendo to the poem or introduce a quick turn of events and go against everything else said in the poem.

One of my personal favourites, out of the very few I’ve read: (Sonnet 65, William Shakespeare)

Screen Shot 2017-03-09 at 4.30.26 pm.png

Content: Talks about time being a force to be feared that will take it’s toll on everything: brass, stone, earth, the ocean, none of it lasts / except poetry, and art and what we create

Isn’t that an absolutely beautiful sentiment? I’m also putting a disclaimer here to say that poems are forever and always up to interpretation and you don’t have to read it how I have.

Now, modern sonnets don’t often follow the rules as strictly, but what’s important is a discussion of the broad themes of life: love, loss, time.

A good example of this is: (In the park, Gwen Harwood)Screen Shot 2017-03-09 at 4.46.02 pm.png

Content: Motherhood, the less beautiful angles, when you’re confronted with the life that could have been knowing the other person is glad for what it is, for not being trapped as you are.

Although formally, this doesn’t look like a stereotypical sonnet, the heavy themes explored in such a short span of time, building to a crescendo of ‘they have eaten me alive’ still captures the spirit of a powerful, emotionally charged sonnet.

This I guess, brings us to my attempt:

I do not remember when idles dreams
of fracturing future possibilities
lost their sun-kissed gleam
and we dulled our ambitions into inabilities
with every spare second spent
swallowing bitter scraps of stories
about those privileged to fly; wings meant
for glimmering in their golden glories

but my ink-stained tongue
yearns to taste pages untold
lest we forget till death we are young
enough to be hungry, wanting and bold

perhaps the soul needs a few paper cuts
if only to remember all of this world, belongs to us.

As someone more accustomed to writing in free verse, I found it quite challenging/restrictive to follow a rhyme scheme but I thought it was interesting to let form direct where the poem was going. Rather than vomiting out a long stream of consciousness then tidying it up into a poem, I found myself often stuck with “what rhymes with…” open in another tab. A strange, different but not entirely unenjoyable process.

Note: as I mentioned earlier, a poem is open to interpretation. I think of it as a baby. Even though I created it, it is not me and you don’t have to take my word on what it’s telling you. That’s partially why I’ll always release a poem before I do a ‘briefly’ on the form. That being said, if I want to follow the conventions of a particular poetic form, I’ll have to be talking about certain themes and I want to demonstrate that. Not to mention, I know far too well how frustrating it is to try ‘get’ as a reader and wanting to have a bit of a cheat code available!

Content: What I’m trying to explore in this poem in terms of broad theme is the passing of time and the things we lose as we grow up. Both the fork roads that close due to age (think you need 10,000 hours to get good at something and how many of those time blocks do we realistically have in our busy days) but also due to our lack of faith in ourselves as we become more jaded about the world and measuring ourselves to others. The ‘turn’ for me is that although it is saddening that we can only live once and for such a short period of time that is exactly what should be fuelling our hunger and curiosity to make the most of it for ourselves. ’till death we are young’ and we are wanting and we need to pull ourselves out of our heads to look at the horizon and see a world of opportunities.

Anyway, that’s all from me, hope you’ve enjoyed this. I’ll tidying up the formatting and settle into more of a structure in future brieflys but I’m far too excited to get this out there!


Iambic: a metrical unit of an undressed syllable followed by a stressed one: e.g. goodbye creating a da-da da – da meter in a poem.

rhyme scheme: rhyme at the end of the lines

e.g. aabb would be:

oh no, there’s a cat
running fast, chasing a rat
that rat, that rat, looking for cheese
as long as it is fancier than brie!

(don’t ask why this was the first example that came to mind)


Lectures & Readings

8 thoughts on “Briefly: Sonnets

  1. It’s been a while since I’ve taken a poetry class, but enjoyed your analysis of the sonnet! Like you, I prefer free-verse writing, but from learning about technical poetic forms (e.g. sonnet, sestina, pantoum, etc.), I got incredible insight into the variety of poetry out there and although I might not choose to write in those styles, I have a better respect for those who write in them and make meaning out of them. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Barbara, I managed to forget that over a summer holidays break! It’s good to be back into the swing of things although I’m already struggling to cope with looming assignments haha.


  2. Pingback: In lumina

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