Before Shakespeare’s day, the word “sonnet” meant simply “little song” (from the Italian sonnetto), and the name could be applied to any short lyric poem. In Renaissance Italy and then in Elizabethan England, the sonnet became a fixed poetic form, consisting of 14 lines, usually iambic pentameter in English. Different types of sonnets evolved in the different languages of the poets writing them, variations in rhyme scheme and metrical pattern, but all sonnets have a two-part thematic structure, containing a problem and solution, or a question and answer, or a proposition and reinterpretation within their 14 lines and a volta or “turn” between the two parts.
The original form is the Italian or Petrarchan sonnet, in which the 14 lines are arranged in an octet (8 lines) rhyming abba abba and a sestet (6 lines) rhyming either cdecde or cdcdcd. Later came the English or Shakespearean sonnet, made of three quatrains rhyming abab cdcd efef and a closing rhymed heroic couplet. The Spenserian sonnet is a variation developed by Edmund Spenser in which the quatrains are linked by their rhyme scheme: abab bcbc cdcd ee.
Since its introduction into English in the 16th century, the 14-line sonnet form has remained relatively stable, proving itself a flexible container for all kinds of poetries, long enough that its images and symbols can carry detail rather than becoming cryptic or abstract, and short enough to require a distillation of poetic thought. For more extended poetic treatment of a single theme, some poets have written sonnet cycles (a series of sonnets on related concerns, often addressed to a single person) and sonnet crowns (a sonnet series linked by repeating the last line of one sonnet in the first line of the next, until the circle is closed by using the first line of the first sonnet as the last line of the last sonnet.
We have a large selection of classic sonnets written in English in our library here at About Poetry, chronologically indexed so that you can trace the evolution of the form as you read through the poems.
Visit our collection of sonnet links to read more sonnets elsewhere on the Web.