Poetry lovers may be familiar with the term sonnet. The definition of a sonnet has changed various times throughout history. Today, however, a sonnet is typically defined as a poem of fourteen lines that adheres to a particular rhyme scheme and structure. There are two distinct sonnet forms, commonly known as the Shakespearean sonnet and the Petrarchan sonnet.
The Petrarchan sonnet is perhaps the older of the two sonnet forms. The name Petrarchan comes from Petrarca, an Italian poet. In English, Petrarca is referred to as Petrarch, thus the sonnet form is called Petrarchan. Petrarch did not invent this sonnet form, but he did make it popular. For this reason, many scholars refer to the Petrarchan sonnet simply as the Italian sonnet.
The Italian sonnet consists of fourteen lines separated into two quatrains. Traditionally, each of these quatrains, or groups of four lines, were intended to present a problem. This problem was then solved in the turn of the story, or the volta. The volta usually introduced the problem's resolution, and was written into the ninth line of the sonnet. A group of two tercets, or three lines, included the problem's resolution.
In the Italian sonnet, poets typically used a strict rhyming scheme. In the first two quatrains, the A-B-B-A rhyme scheme was used, rhyming the first and fourth lines and the second and third lines. For the two tercets, two different rhyme schemes were used. Either C-D-E/ C-D-E rhyme scheme, rhyming the first and fourth lines, the second and fifth lines, and the third and sixth lines of the poem. Alternatively, the C-D-C/ C-D-C rhyme scheme could be used, in which the first and last line of each tercet rhymed and the second line of each tercet rhymed.
In addition to the aforementioned rhyme schemes, Italian sonnets also used a variety of meters which included the Hendecasyllable verse and the Alexandrine meter. In Hendecasyllable verse, the reader will stress the sixth and tenth syllables, or the fourth, seventh, and tenth syllables in a line of prose. In the Alexandrine meter, the line of prose is divided between the sixth and seventh syllables by a pause or into three four-syllable groups by two pauses.
The Shakespearean sonnet, like the Petrarchan, was not invented by its namesake, Shakespeare. It was, however, popularized by the English poet. Shakespeare wrote so many sonnets that his name was then attributed to the English sonnet structure.
The English sonnet was inspired by the Italian sonnet, but was modified to include three quatrains and a couplet. The volta, or turn, in the poem's story was also modified. In the English sonnet, the couplet, or last two lines of the poem, introduced the turn and resolution of the sonnet's main problem.
The rhyme scheme of the English sonnets includes A-B-A-B, with the last words of the first and third lines and the second and fourth lines of the first quatrain rhyming. In the second quatrain, the rhyme scheme shifts to a similar C-D-C-D which introduces a new rhyme but retains the pattern of the first quatrain. In the third quatrain, E-F-E-F introduces yet another rhyme in the same pattern. Finally, the final two lines of the sonnet, where the volta and resolution are introduced, also typically rhyme in a G-G rhyme scheme.
In addition to adhering to a strict rhyme scheme, the English sonnet also uses the iambic pentameter. The iambic pentameter requires ten syllables in every one of the sonnet's fourteen lines. Of the ten syllables, every other one is naturally accented.