Technical Tips for Reading Sonnets and Early Modern Poetry

A rhyme scheme is the pattern of rhyming lines in a poem. It is usually referred to by using letters to indicate which lines rhyme. For example abab indicates a four-line stanza in which the first and third lines rhyme, as do the second and fourth. Here is an example of this rhyme scheme from To Anthea, Who May Command Him Any Thing by Robert Herrick:

Bid me to weep, and I will weep,
While I have eyes to s
And having none, yet I will k
A heart to weep for th

Sounds in orange are marked with the letter A

Sounds in purple are marked with the letter B

Sounds that almost rhyme are called "slant rhymes" or "near rhymes" (for instance, "fat" and "cant").

Rhyme is determined by sound, not spelling, so donít get fooled. Which of these two pair of words rhyme?

puff / enough
through / though

And remember that the pronunciation of words has changed greatly since the Renaissance. Give some thought to how a word might have sounded before you decide "That doesn't rhyme" and throw the book down in disgust! Word meanings have changed, too, and the Oxford English Dictionary is the best place to look up words and figure out what they meant at the time a particular author was writing.


The sonnet as a form developed in Italy probably in the thirteenth century. Petrarch, in the fourteenth century, raised the sonnet to its greatest Italian perfection and so gave it, for English readers, his own name.

The form was introduced into England by Thomas Wyatt, who translated Petrarchan sonnets and left over thirty examples of his own in English. Surrey, an associate, shares with Wyatt the credit for introducing the form to England and is important as an early modifier of the Italian form. Gradually the Italian sonnet pattern was changed and since Shakespeare attained fame for the greatest poems of this modified type his name has often been given to the English form. The big book of sonnets that popularized the form was called Songs and Sonnets, or Tottel's Miscellany (originally published in 1557, but in its 9th edition by 1587). It was a best-seller; every literarily-minded English writer knew about it.

Certain qualities common to the sonnet as a form should be noted. Its definite restrictions make it a challenge to the artistry of the poet and call for all the technical skill at the poet's command. The more or less set rhyme patterns occurring regularly within the short space of fourteen lines afford a pleasant effect on the ear of the reader, and can Create truly musical effects. The rigidity of the form precludes a too great economy or too great prodigality of words. Emphasis is placed on exactness and perfection of expression. You can see how this form would attract writers of great technical skill who are fascinated with intellectual puzzles and intrigued by the complexity of human emotions, which become especially tangled when it comes to dealing with the sonnet's traditional subjects, love and faith.

Petrarchan Sonnet

Original Italian sonnet form in which the sonnet's rhyme scheme divides the poem's 14 lines into two parts, an octet (first eight lines) and a sestet (last six lines). The rhyme scheme for the octet is typically abbaabba. There are a few possibilities for the sestet, including cdecde, cdcdcd, and cdcdee. Whichever form the sestet takes, there are only 5 rhymes in the sonnet. This form was used in the earliest English sonnets by Wyatt and others. Ideally, the sense of the lines falls into groups different from the rhyme groups; thus, nowhere do you encounter a pat couplet. The Italian form usually projects and develops a subject in the octave, then executes a turn at the beginning of the sestet, which means that the sestet must in some way release the tension built up in the octave.

Professor Al Filreis of Penn notes,

The octave bears the burden; a doubt, a problem, a reflection, a query, an historical statement, a cry of indignation or desire, a Vision of the ideaL The sestet eases the load, resolves the problem or doubt, answers the query, solaces the yearning, realizes the vision." Again it might be said that the octave presents the narrative, states the proposition or raises a question; the sestet drives home the narrative by making an abstract comment, applies the proposition, or solves the problem. So much for the strict interpretation of the Italian form; as a matter of fact English poets have varied these items greatly.


Elizabethan Sonnet

Also English sonnet or Shakespearean sonnet. Form in which the rhyme scheme is abab,cdcd,efef,gg. This adaptation of the Italian model allowed for the sparser rhymes of the English language by using seven rather than five rhymes and also encouraged a "summing up" couplet at the end. This change probably contributed to the development of the sonnet as a dramatic form. The Shakespearean sonnet has a wider range of possibilities. One pattern introduces an idea in the first quatrain, complicates it in the second, complicates it still further in the third, and resolves the whole thing in the final epigrammatic couplet.

Spenserian Sonnet

Sonnet with the interlocking rhyme scheme used by Edmund Spenser as follows: abab,bcbc,cdcd,ee. So it combines the five rhymes of the Petrarchan sonnet with the 3 quatrain and couplet structure of the Elizabethan sonnet; itís a hybrid form, and fiercely difficult to write.


Youíre not alone. As Professor Glenn Everett notes,

Although the two types of sonnet may seem quite different, in actual practice they are frequently hard to tell apart. Both forms break between lines eight and nine; the octave in the Italian frequently breaks into two quatrains, like the English; and its sestet frequently ends in a final couplet. In addition, many Shakespearean sonnets seem to have a turn at line nine and another at the final couplet; and if a couplet closes an Italian sonnet, it is usually because the poet wanted the epigrammatic effec t more characterstic of the Shakespearean form. It behooves the reader to pay close attention to line-end punctuation, especially at lines four, eight, and twelve, and to connective words like and, or, but, as, so, if, then, when, or which at the beginnings of lines (especially lines five, nine, and thirteen).

Good sources of info on sonnets:

Al Filreis, "The Sonnet":  

Glenn Everett, "A Guide to the Sonnett: