What Are the Characteristics of a Sonnet?

Angela Farrer

The characteristics of a sonnet are its rhyme scheme, its metric structure, its common topics, and its specific cultural conventions. This type of poem traditionally has a strict number of lines with ending words that must rhyme according to a certain formula. These literature rules determine whether a piece of poetry is classified as a sonnet rather than as another type of poetry such as blank verse. Sonnets also have a few variations according to their authors' backgrounds, but these structural differences still need to fall within specific parameters. Language scholars generally believe that this kind of written verse originated from an Italian form of poetry called the sonetto that was recited to musical accompaniment, which accounts for this type of poetry's uniform rhythmic characteristics.

A Shakespearean sonnet is written in iambic pentameter, has three quatrains and ends with a rhymed couplet.
A Shakespearean sonnet is written in iambic pentameter, has three quatrains and ends with a rhymed couplet.

Each line of a sonnet is written with precisely 10 beats and an arrangement of words with alternating syllable stresses. The first syllable of the first word is unstressed, followed by a stressed syllable and then another unstressed syllable. A complete line in this poetry form contains exactly five unstressed and five stressed syllables. This metric structure is known as iambic pentameter, and its distinctive rhythm is intended to mimic that of the human heartbeat. Poetry written in this well-known form is frequently designated the Shakespearean sonnet style.

The characteristics of a sonnet are its rhyme scheme, its metric structure, its common topics, and its specific cultural conventions.
The characteristics of a sonnet are its rhyme scheme, its metric structure, its common topics, and its specific cultural conventions.

A sonnet contains four sets of verse called quatrains that consist of four lines each. The first three quatrains have four lines and the final quatrain has only two lines, which also serves as the closing verse that sums up the entire theme of the poem. All four quatrains total 14 lines of poetry, and the ending words of each line need to follow a specific rhyme pattern. The final word of the first line of a sonnet needs to rhyme with the final word of the third line. This alternating rhyme scheme continues through the rest of the poem with a different rhyme sound for each of the first three quatrains.

Topics of a sonnet are often centered around love, war, and human mortality, though these can vary according to the poet's preferences as well as cultural background. The common themes of an English poem can often be different from those of an Italian one, and the rhyme schemes of each can also sometimes differ according to established conventions. One notable distinction is that an Italian sonnet usually does not end with the same two concluding lines that are also called a couplet.

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The entire point of poetry is not to express yourself. If it were, poetry would be about ourselves, but usually it is not. Poetry is about the world, and sometimes our part in it. Poetry is not expressing ourselves, but creating a painting with words. The challenge of writing within a structure such as the sonnet makes it all the more beautiful and flowing. Writing in free verse is all over the place and less of a joy to read than poetry that follows a pattern.


Thanks. It helped me a lot and I love sonnets.


When I was in school, sonnets were my favorite kind of poem to read for class, mostly because they are fairly short. Also, most sonnets usually have a theme that's easy to discern. This makes it much easier to write a paper analyzing a sonnet than a poem that has 12 verses and goes all over the place on subject matter.

The only problem with sonnets is that since a lot of the ones we learned about in school were written in medieval times, sometimes the language was a bit hard to understand.


@eidetic - I had to write a sonnet in iambic pentameter when I was in high school also, but I found it really difficult. It was hard for me to stick to the formula, and I felt like it kind of stifled my creativity.

I feel like the entire point of writing poetry is to express yourself, and it's hard to do that when you're counting the syllables in every line. Also, one of the main things I enjoy about writing poetry is it kind of frees you from the normal conventions of grammar. However, I think you lose this freedom when you're forced to stick to a specific formula.


When I took English in high school, we discussed the Elizabethan sonnet at great length. We also read and analyzed a bunch of Shakespearean sonnets, which I actually did enjoy (I'm not a big fan of Shakespeare's plays though.)

After reading and analyzing all these sonnets, we then had to write our own. I actually found writing a poem with a formula to be a lot easier than just writing one off the top of my head. I can't remember what I wrote about, but I do remember that I enjoyed the assignment.


@SailorJerry - Shakespeare's sonnets actually often mirror Petrarch's content-wise. While the structure is different (with an abab cdcd efef gg rhyme scheme), the couplet at the end often doesn't really stand alone. You can often see a shift in subject about halfway through one of Shakespeare's sonnets.

Another thing that the two sonnet masters have in common is that both of them wrote a cycle of sonnets linked together. Petrarch's sonnets are devoted to the idealized of "Laura," while Shakespeare's are usually divided into three categories, based on who they are addressed to/about: the fair youth (and some people have been troubled by the homoerotic admiration in these), the dark lady, and the rival poet.


The structure that the article describes above fits Shakespeare's sonnets, which of course are some of the best known.

But another, earlier Renaissance poet became well-known for sonnets as well: Petrarch. Petrarchan sonnets follow a somewhat different format. Instead of being made of quatrains followed by a couplet, the Petrarchan sonnet is made of an octave and a sestet.

The octave will have an abba abba rhyme scheme. The sestet can vary; Petrarch usually did either cdcdcd or cdecde. Other poets have done different combinations like cddcdd.

And the form affects the content as well. Instead of ending with that two-line summary or meaning, the Petrarchan sonnet is two halves that are almost equal.

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