Week 8: The Sonnet


This week looks at the sonnet in an attempt to get students to see beyond just the rhyme scheme and metrical traditions, but to see the sonnet as a particular vehicle for various different kinds of rhetorical effects. The structure of the sonnet structures the thought of the sonnet; the variations between different sonnet types in their structure allows for different patterns of thought.

As such, the week begins by diving straight into some of the earliest sonnets, examining their content first, the patterns of thought they suggest, before then working backwards to see how these patterns of thought are dependent on different underlying sonnet structures. However, depending on the ability of the group, you may like to first distribute some materials defining basic terms such as Octave, Sestet, Quatrain, Couplet, and Volta (turn). You may also find it useful to make available to students the four basic rhyme structures of the sonnet, so that they can more quickly identify which types are being used in the different examples, or how the more adventurous examples are deviating from the norm. These are:



English (Shakespearean, Spenserean) = ABAB:CDCD:EFEF:GG (CECE:FF)

Pushkin Stanza = ABAB:CCDD:EFEF:GG

The focus, though, is not on teaching different sonnet types or getting bogged down in the technical differences between the French rhyme scheme and the English. Rather, it is about getting students to engage with the underlying rhetorical structures of thought that the sonnet makes available, and that the great sonneteers have made use of and adapted throughout the sonnet’s history


The sonnet is often seen as beginning with Petrarch, yet its roots can be traced back even further to Il Dolce Stil Nuovo (‘the new sweet style’) practiced in Italy in the 13th century by poets such as Cavalcanti and Dante. This new poetry, which emerged in the Renaissance, focussed on the individual, on feelings and desires. More psychological and humanist than the poetry which had preceded it, it set up the association between the sonnet and poetry of feeling.

Guido Cavalcanti (c 1255-1300)

beauty of women and wise hearts
and noble armed cavaliers
bird’s song and love’s reason
bedecked ships in strong seas
serene air at dawn
and white snow falling windlessly
watery brooks and fields of all flowers
gold, silver, lapis lazuli in adornment-
these are transcended by the beauty and grace
of my Lady for her gentle heart
which renders unworthy he who looks at her
so she is wiser than anyone
as the heavens are greater than the earth
so to such a similar nature, goodness delays not

Biltà di donna e di saccente core
e cavalieri armati che sien genti;
cantar d’augelli e ragionar d’amore;
adorni legni ’n mar forte correnti;

aria serena quand’ apar l’albore
e bianca neve scender senza venti;
rivera d’acqua e prato d’ogni fiore;
oro, argento, azzuro ’n ornamenti:

ciò passa la beltate e la valenza
de la mia donna e ’l su’ gentil coraggio,
sì che rasembra vile a chi ciò guarda;

e tanto più d’ogn’ altr’ ha canoscenza,
quanto lo ciel de la terra è maggio.
A simil di natura ben non tarda.

In Cavalcanti’s sonnet, we find a string of images, similar to the ‘beads in a necklace’ verse of the ghazal from last week; it is worth noting that Cavalcanti is writing at more or less the same time period as Hafiz. There are other overlaps too – both Hafiz and Cavalcanti focus on the personal, and on pleasure and sensuality within a religious culture that had previously tended to deny the sensual. Cavalcanti’s is a praise poem: ‘she is wiser than anyone / as the heavens are greater than the earth’. It is full of ideas of beauty, with the woman, the poet’s muse, as the apex or summit of beauty, a figure to be admired and adored because she has every feature of goodness. It also, therefore, sets up this tradition of the sonnet as a poem of courtly love – something later sonneteers would play with and mock.

The Cavalcantine Lure, Tim Dooley

A pretty face, the very heart of reason,
the expert’s dry indifference to rank,
the song of birds and lovers’ reasoning
and boats lit all along the southern bank.
Purest air; dawn’s first whitest hour
and white snow falling where there is no wind,
backwaters and meadows gemmed with flowers
– gold and silver with sea-blue gems inlaid.

Match such, the poet says with your spare praise
of love, or the one who’s loved, and his words
are red-hot coals that we can walk across;
like sunlit metal, the pealing bells heard
clearly in the twilight of years and days
with talk of songs and stings, of heart and loss.

Tim Dooley’s poem here is a kind of improvisation on the Cavalcanti. He follows the Italian rhyme scheme, as well as the iambic pentameter rhythm. Dooley (who is behind this course) shows here how students might take an older poem and riff on it, coming up with their own versions. Dooley’s is not a literal translation but rather a kind of ‘cover version’, one which uses the rhyme, rhythm and rhetorical organisation of the original poem (note the pivot or volta after the octet being marked, in both poems, with the image of silver and gold) as the basis to create a new poem.


There were sonnets, then, being written before Petrarch, in the century prior. Yet it is still Petrarch, writing in Avignon in the 14th Century, at the time when the town was the seat of the Pope, who we most associate with the sonnet’s creation. Indeed, the Italian form of the sonnet is often referred to as the Petrarchan form.

The Petrarchan or Italian sonnet is centred, as we saw in the Cavalcanti, around the volta between octet and sestet – this idea of a pivotal moment or shift in the centre of the poem. This structure is reflected in the rhyme scheme, with the octet using A and B rhymes, and the sestet using C, D and sometimes E rhymes. It is also reflected in the meaning of the poem itself, its rhetorical structure, which is often arranged in a kind of call and response. For example, the sonnet might consist of:

problem (8) – solution (6)


situation (8) – response (6)

Yet this is not always the case. The sonnet is, above all else, a flexible form, and even in the Petrarchan rhyme scheme other rhetorical structures begin to emerge. We can see this by looking at one of Petrarch’s sonnets, along with a translation by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey:

Canzoniere 145, Francesco Petrarch (1304-74)

Pommi ove ‘l sole occide i fiori et l’erba,
o dove vince lui il ghiaccio et la neve;
ponmi ov’è ‘l carro suo temprato et leve,
et ov’è chi ce ‘l rende, o chi ce ‘l serba;

ponmi in humil fortuna, od in superba,
al dolce aere sereno, al fosco et greve;
ponmi a la notte, al dí lungo ed al breve,
a la matura etate od a l’acerba;

ponmi in cielo, od in terra, od in abisso,
in alto poggio, in valle ima et palustre,
libero spirto, od a’ suoi membri affisso;

ponmi con fama oscura, o con illustre:
sarò qual fui, vivrò com’io son visso,
continüando il mio sospir trilustre.

Vow to loue faithfully howsoever he be rewarded, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (1517?-47)

Set me wheras the sunne doth parche the grene,
Or where his beames do not dissolue the yse:
In temperate heate where he is felt and sene:
In presence prest of people madde or wise.
Set me in hye, or yet in lowe degree:
In longest night, or in the shortest daye:
In clearest skye, or where clowdes thickest be:
In lusty youth, or when my heeres are graye.
Set me in heauen, in earth, or els in hell,
In hyll, or dale, or in the fomyng flood:
Thrall, or at large, aliue where so I dwell:
Sicke, or in health: in euyll fame, or good.
Hers will I be, and onely with this thought
Content my selfe, although my chaunce be nought.

In Petrarch’s original Italian we have the classic division, in the rhyme scheme, between octet and sestet: ABBAABBACDCDCD. Yet the rhetorical structure of the poem does not feature a volta between octet and sestet; rather the shift in meaning comes much later, at the colon at the end of line 12, before a final couplet. There is a suggestion here of an accumulative building up towards a final, conclusive couplet, something which the English version of the sonnet crystallises. We see this in Surrey’s translation, which features the classic English rhyme scheme: ABABCDCDEFEFGG. Each quatrain builds on the previous, emphasized by the repeated word ponmi, or ‘set’ in Surrey’s translation. This accumulative sense is pitched up in the English sonnet, which often features a rhetorical structure along the lines of:

if this (4) – then that (4) – and that (4) – and so (2)

Here, we see how this structure actually emerges out of the Italian sonnet. Students can see that in the Italian, Petrarch has a similar idea of a movement towards an epigrammatic conclusion.

Canzoniere 189: The louer compareth his state to a shippe in perilous storme tossed on the sea
Sir Thomas Wyatt (c1503-42)

My galley charged with forgetfulnesse,
Through sharpe seas, in winter nightes doth passe,
Twene rocke, and rocke: and eke my fo (alas)
That is my lord, stereth with cruelnesse:
And euery houre, a thought in readinesse,
As though that death were light, in such a case.
An endlesse wynd doth teare the sayle apace
Of forced sighes, and trusty fearfulnesse.
A rayne of teares, a clowde of darke disdayne
Haue done the weried coardes great hinderance,
Wrethed with errour, and wyth ignorance.
The starres be hidde, that leade me to this payne.
Drownde is reason that should be my comfort:
And I remayne, dispearyng of the port.

Here we have another Petrarch sonnet, this time translated by Wyatt. Again, students can examine the rhetorical structure and find elements of both the Italian (with the storm seeming to ratchet up in intensity after the octet) and the English (with the accumulative build towards the last line). Students can also see here many of the classic thematic hallmarks of the sonnet, which portrays the male speaker or lover as a victim of his tyrannous beloved ‘An endlesse wynd doth teare the sayle apace / Of forced sighes’. The poet here uses a stock language of storms, sighs, tears – this imagery becomes a cliché of the sonnet, something Shakespeare later picks up on and makes fun of.

Sonnet after Wyatt after Petrarch, Jill McDonough

The poets swear their love in little cubes
with tidy borders: stressed, unstressed and rhyme.
As if by slicing our lives up in lines
the regiments of words would follow rules
in life like in those sonnets: it’s not true.
This ‘in the field with him to live or die’
looks good on paper, no? But it’s a lie.
At least I know I couldn’t see it through.
Not for this guy I sleep with every night.
If our love dies it’s dying on its own.
Words like these could bring on domestic strife;
maybe he’ll leave. I’ll cry after the fight.
But if he finds some other girl to bone
I do recall I liked living alone.

The longë love that in my thought doth harbour (Petrarch, Rime 140)

The longë love that in my thought doth harbour
And in mine hert doth keep his residence,
Into my face presseth with bold pretence
And therein campeth, spreading his banner.
She that me learneth to love and suffer
And will that my trust and lustës negligence
Be rayned by reason, shame, and reverence,
With his hardiness taketh displeasure.
Wherewithall unto the hert’s forest he fleeth,
Leaving his enterprise with pain and cry,
And there him hideth and not appeareth.
What may I do when my master feareth
But in the field with him to live and die?
For good is the life ending faithfully.

Finally, we have here an example of modern play with the Petrarchan form, in the form of McDonough’s wittily titled ‘Sonnet after Wyatt after Petrarch’. Much of McDonough’s poem is itself a reflection on the sonnet form: how it ‘slic[es] our lives up’ into ‘little cubes’ in an attempt to set the messiness of life into a fixed order. The poem is an interesting reflection of how the sonnet suggests a certain kind of order through its form, and reveals some of the potential dangers or challenges of this.

McDonough also mocks, in her poem, the typical sonneteer’s language of courtly love. She quotes from another of Wyatt’s translations of Petrarch, where the poet describes love as being like a long war campaign: see Wyatt’s imagery of ‘spreading his banner’, ‘the field’, his master calling him into battle. McDonough has fun with this idea, making fun of love as a life or death issue.

The Sonnet in England

Having examined the origins of the sonnet in the Italian poets Cavalcanti and Petrarch, we now move on to the extraordinary variety and flexibility of the sonnet as it is taken up by English poets, who have used it, in both its English (or Shakespearean) and Petrarchan forms, for all kinds of different purposes and effects.

Sonnet 73, William Shakespeare

That time of year thou mayst in me behold,
When yellow leaves, or none, or few do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou seest the twilight of such day,
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self that seals up all in rest.
In me thou seest the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed, whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was nourished by.
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well, which thou must leave ere long.

We start, of course, with Shakespeare. Sonnet 73 displays the classic English organisation by quatrain, rather than by octet and sestet, with an accumulative sense of building up to a final couplet, where the poet, nearing death, shows gratitude for the love of the younger lover, who will outlive him. The poem is filled with different images of nearing later life: evening, autumn, the fire dying out. Though still essentially a love poem, we see here Shakespeare instilling the sonnet with a very different tone – it is as much a meditation on death, age and time as it is a poem to the beloved. We see here the sonnet moving away from its beginnings as a courtly love poem, a token of affection, towards other subjects and other purposes.

Prayer, George Herbert

Prayer the Churches banquet, Angels age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth;
Engine against th’ Almightie, sinners towre,
Reversèd thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-daies world transposing in an houre,
A kinde of tune, which’all things heare and fear;
Softnesse, and peace, and joy. and love, and blisse,
Exalted Manna, gladnesse of the best,
Heaven in ordinarie, man well drest,
The milkie way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the starres heard, the soul’s blood,
The land of spices; something understood.

Herbert’s sonnet uses the same English rhyme scheme as Shakespeare’s, but again imbues it with quite a different rhetorical feel. The poem is a series of metaphors for prayer, which are offered to us as separate, distinct images: ‘the soul in paraphrase’, ‘reversed thunder’, ‘a kind of tune’. These metaphors accumulate and lead up to the final phrase ‘something understood’, which pulls the whole poem together. We see here the sonnet being taken completely away from its traditional subject of the psychology of love, and used instead as a form of theological meditation, and a framework for the creation of different images.

To Toussaint L’Ouverture, William Wordsworth

Toussaint, the most unhappy Man of Men!
Whether the rural milk-maid by her cow
Sing in thy hearing, or thou liest now
Alone in some deep dungeon’s earless den,
O miserable chieftain! where and when
Wilt thou find patience? Yet die not; do thou
Wear rather in thy bonds a cheerful brow:
Though fallen thyself, never to rise again,
Live, and take comfort. Thou hast left behind
Powers that will work for thee; air, earth, and skies;
There’s not a breathing of the common wind
That will forget thee; thou has great allies;
Thy friends are exultations, agonies,
And love, and Man’s unconquerable mind.

To Toussaint L’Ouverture, William Wordsworth

Toussaint, the most unhappy Man of Men!
Whether the rural milk-maid by her cow
Sing in thy hearing, or thou liest now
Alone in some deep dungeon’s earless den,
O miserable chieftain! where and when
Wilt thou find patience? Yet die not; do thou
Wear rather in thy bonds a cheerful brow:
Though fallen thyself, never to rise again,
Live, and take comfort. Thou hast left behind
Powers that will work for thee; air, earth, and skies;
There’s not a breathing of the common wind
That will forget thee; thou has great allies;
Thy friends are exultations, agonies,
And love, and Man’s unconquerable mind.

Toussaint L’Ouverture was a liberator in Haiti in the slave rebellion. In this sonnet, Wordsworth contemplates Toussaint’s imprisonment, describing him as a great hero of liberty, an ambassador for freedom. We see the sonnet being used here as a political form, the vehicle for a stirring hymn to freedom and revolution. Wordsworth is following Milton here in wielding the sonnet for political purposes.

This is a Petrarchan sonnet, so we see again the Italian structure with the volta as the most important element. In the octet, Wordsworth laments Toussaint’s current state, ‘alone in some deep dungeon’s earless den’; then, in the sestet, he pivots to take comfort in the fact Toussaint’s revolutionary ideas cannot be destroyed, concluding that the forces of liberty will prevail.

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme’, Gerard Manley Hopkins

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme:
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves – goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I do is me: for that I came.
I say more: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is –
Christ – for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

Hopkins is looser than Wordsworth or Herbert in his version of the sonnet, lengthening certain lines beyond the pentameter and deviating from the iambic rhythm as he experiments with his famous ‘sprung rhythm’. He does, though, keep the rhyme scheme of the Petrarchan sonnet very closely, as well as the balance between octet and sestet – in both these senses, it’s a very tight Petrarchan sonnet. In the octet, we see Hopkins meditating on his idea of the ‘instress’ or ‘thisness’ of every object, while in the sestet, he expands out from this to consider the religious implications of his meditations in the octet.



The Modern Sonnet

The week finishes with two 20th century poets, Denby and Berrigan, showing students how the sonnet has still proved itself adaptable to new ways of writing and thinking more than 600 years after its invention.

The Subway, Edwin Denby

The subway flatters like the dope habit,
For a nickel extending peculiar space:
You dive from the street, holing like a rabbit,
Roar up a sewer with a millionaire’s face.

Squatting in the full glare of the locked express
Imprisoned, rocked, like a man by a friend’s death,
O how the immense investment soothes distress,
Credit laps you like a huge religious myth.

It’s a sound effect. The trouble is seeing
(So anaesthetized) a square of bare throat
Or the fold at the crotch of a clothed human being:
You’ll want to nuzzle it, crop at it like a goat.

That’s not in the buy. The company between stops
Offers you security, and free rides to cops

Denby’s poem ‘The Subway’ connects back to some of the themes from the Sappho week, but also shows how recent poets have used the sonnet to explore ideas about modernity, 20th Century technology and mass transportation. From the first line onwards, poet uses the sonnet as an engine to create unusual and startling metaphors – particularly haunting is the image of the passengers rocked ‘like a man by a friend’s death’. Although following an English rhyme scheme, the rhetorical structure is closer to the Petrarchan, with the volta coming in the third quatrain, where the poet, having created a sense of being anaesthetised by travel, turns to the theme of unexpected desire.

Sonnet XV, Ted Berrigan

In Joe Brainard’s collage its white arrow
He is not in it, the hungry dead doctor.
Of Marilyn Monroe, her white teeth white-
I am truly horribly upset because Marilyn
and ate King Korn popcorn,” he wrote in his
of glass in Joe Brainard’s collage
Doctor, but they say “I LOVE YOU”
and the sonnet is not dead.
takes the eyes away from the gray words,
Diary. The black heart beside the fifteen pieces
Monroe died, so I went to a matinee B-movie
washed by Joe’s throbbing hands. ”Today
What is in it is sixteen ripped pictures
does not point to William Carlos Williams.


Ted Berrigan was writing in the 1960s, as a part of the New York arts scene, and enjoyed performing various modernist experiments on the sonnet form, as collected in his book The Sonnets. In this poem he describes a collage, the artistic technique of cutting up and rearranging, while at the same doing something similar to the sonnet form. Berrigan has written a fairly ordinary unrhymed sonnet, then cut it up and rearranged it: the line numbers at the bottom indicate the ‘original’ order, in which the sonnet makes more logical sense. By cutting it up and collaging it in this way, the poet not only creates an equivalence in language to the collage, but also creates interesting collisions between different elements.

For more examples of modern sonnets, including 21st century examples, see Jeff Hilson’s The Reality Street Book of Sonnetswhich focuses on the transformations of the sonnet post-1945. There are also numerous other anthologies of sonnets, such as Don Paterson’s 101 SonnetsPhillis Levin’s The Penguin Book of the Sonnetand Eavan Boland and Edward Hirsch’s The Making of a Sonnetwhich also discusses the history of the form.



The tasks this week are focused on getting students to move beyond thinking of a sonnet as just a rhyme scheme, but to explore its enormous flexibility as a method of rhetorical organisation – to think about the many things the form itself says, and the many things it might be made to say. So, while the task is essentially to ‘write a sonnet’, you might like to ask students to focus on one particular aspect such as:


  • Playing with variation between octet and sestet – what different kinds of shift or turn can they create? How unexpected can they make this turn?
  • Playing with the accumulative sense of the English sonnet – Can they write a poem that builds up through three quatrains towards a final epigrammatic couplet?
  • Playing with the subject of the sonnet – can they find an unlikely subject for a sonnet? A sonnet about taking out the rubbish in your slippers? A sonnet about the war on terror? A sonnet about attending a funeral you don’t really want to attend? A sonnet about a job interview? A sonnet about a divorce?
  • Playing with the typical emotions of the sonnet – What other emotional registers can they use the sonnet form to explore? Can they write an ugly sonnet? Or an angry sonnet? Or a lusty sonnet? Or a funny sonnet? How far away from the tradition of the courtly poem can the sonnet be taken?