Tag Archives: (culture) Italian

The Architecture of a Sonnet

The Architecture of a Sonnet

Both Italian Sonnets, also called Petrarchan Sonnets, and English Sonnets, commonly referred to as Shakespearean Sonnets, are fourteen lines of iambic pentameter, though their rhyme scheme differs due to the simplicity of finding rhymes in Italian verses the difficulty of finding rhymes in English.

Pentameter refers to the fact that there are 10 (pent) syllables (meter) per line.  Iambic describes the emphasis of the syllables to be alternating soft then hard.  A classic example of iambic pentameter is:

“But soft, what light through yonder window breaks”.

It would be pronounced:

“but SOFT what LIGHT through YONder WINdow BREAKS”.
1 2 3 4 5 6     7 8     9 10

Italian Sonnets are split into two portions: an octave rhymed abbaabba and a sestet usually rhymed cdecde, though cdcdee is also popular.  English Sonnets have a pattern of abab cdcd eded gg.  Because of the differences in patterns, the two forms of a sonnet create different ways the subject of the poem is developed, but in either case the theme was almost exclusively love, whether that love be sacred or profane.

Italian Sonnets proceed more smoothly than the English version with the opening octave introducing the subject and setting the scene while the sestet presents the conclusion, often expressing the poet’s feelings on the subject.  The natural pause between the two parts lends itself well to philosophic thought where two closely related ideas can be presented.  Normally the octave builds to a climax and the sestet diminishes to a quiet close.

With English Sonnets, the three quatrains each advance a different aspect of the same subject with the finishing couplet summing up the poem.  The slight pause at the end of each quatrain prevents the flowing rise and fall of the Italian Sonnet.

While solitary sonnets can be found, sequences and cycles of sonnets were often developed around a central theme and published as a unit.

The romance of sonnets have been around since the thirteenth century with the structure of the fourteen line iambic pentameter poem virtually unchanged except for a few minor adjustments due to language differences.   While the form seems very restrictive, it has produced as many different shades and expressions of feeling as the love it so often describes.



Sheehan, Terry.  “Italian (Petrarchan) Sonnets” (p. 45), “English (Shakespearean) Sonnets” (p. 46).  The Complete Anachronist #67:  Ars Poetica Societatias.  The Society for Creative Anachronism: California, 1993.

Brittain, Robert.  “Sonnets” (Volume 21 p. 213).  Collier’s Encyclopedia.  The Crowell-Collier Publishing Company: USA, 1965.