How to Write a Classical Sonnet

Who’s name comes to mind when you think about sonnets? I’m willing to bet it’s Shakespeare, but he wasn’t the first bard to pen the classic 14-line poem. 

Known as the “little song,” the original sonnet form came from a string of renaissance poets in Italy until noted poet and scholar Francesco Petrarca perfected it.

Around the 16th century, Sir Thomas Wyatt began translating Petrarch’s work into English, which eventually integrated the Petrarchian sonnet (aka the Italian sonnet) into English vernacular. 

Shakespeare eventually turned it into the Shakespearian (or English) sonnet, but that’s a topic for another time. 

The Petrarchian Sonnet consisted of 14 lines of eleven syllables – which is much easier to fulfill in Italian than English- and came in two parts: The 8-line Octave and The 6-line Sestet. 

The Octave carried a rhyme scheme of ABBAABBA, but the sestet was more flexible, and Petrarch liked using either CDECDE or CDCDCD.

However, there’s more to it than rhymes. The first four lines present a problem or conflict that’s affecting the speaker. The next four lines explain why the problem exists. Then, you use the last six lines to solve the problem- or leave the speaker in peril. 

Before you try writing one on your own, remember that a classic Italian sonnet needs-

  • 14 lines of eleven syllables (in Italian), or use Iambic Pentameter (10 syllables) in English
  • An Octave (ABBAABBA)
  • A Sestet (CDECDE, CDCDCD, etc.)
  • A problem, an explanation, and a solution

Here’s an example of a classic Petrarchan sonnet: 

See? It’s not that hard once you get into it! Just remember to choose a good end word- you don’t want to be in the moment and have to pause for a rhyme. Believe me!

Have you written a Petrarchan sonnet? Tell us about it in the comments! 

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