The Emporium Gazette
Issue 10 -- February 2000

Poetry World ~ Sonnets
by Bob Nailor

February. The month for lovers and poets, which can be one and the same and many times are.

One of the most popular forms of romantic poetry is the sonnet. Perhaps it's a coincidence, but a sonnet is a lyrical poem consisting of 14 lines. February 14?

What is a sonnet? Fourteen rhyming stanzas consisting of 10 syllables each. There are multiple styles of sonnets; actually, the styles are representative of the rhyming scheme. English, or Shakespearean, is the most popular form, but we shouldn't forget Petrarchan, also known as Italian, sonnets.

The sonnet introduction of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is a great example of octaves and a sestet and give you a better understanding of the quatrains and their concept of themes. Much of this will be explained later.

But let me start now with an explaination of rhyme which is the rhythm of poem. There are four types of rhymes: masculine, feminine, triple and perfect. Masculine is where the final syllable of the word or line is stressed (home, dome). Feminine rhymes consist of two consecutive syllables and are alike in sound and the first syllable is accented (Burton, curtain). The more difficult rhyme is the triple in which all three syllables are identical (tomato, potato). The perfect rhyme is where the syllable is identical in sound, even if spelled differently (one, won or blue, blew).

Without further adieu, the beginning of Romeo and Juliet.

Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents' strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark'd love,
And the continuance of their parents' rage.
Which, but their children's end, nought could remove,
Is now the two hours' traffic of our stage;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.

Petrarchan form is made of an octave and a sestet, or eight lines and six lines. The octave is composed of two quatrains, four line stanzas in a rhyming method of A B B A, A B B A. The couplet is usually avoided in the Petrarchan sonnet.

Perhaps now would be a good time to define and describe couplets. A couplet is made up to two successive lines of verse that form a single thought or unit. There is a closed couplet which has a completed meaning and a fully functional grammatical structure within the two lines. Of course, when the second line doesn't finish and needs to finish on the first line of the next couplet to complete its meaning, then it's called an open couplet. If the first stanza or line thought is extended to the next line, that is called an enjambment.

In Petrarchan sonnets, the octave consists of two quatrains. The first quatrain presents a theme, the second quatrain expands on it. The sestet, usually broken into two sections, reflects on the theme and then unify the close of the sonnet. As stated before, the quatrain rhymes line one with line four while lines two and three rhyme. In the sestet, there are a few possibilities: C D E C D E or C D C D C D or C D E D C E.

A good example of a Petrarchan sonnet would be Divina Commedia by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Oft have I seen at some cathedral door
A laborer, apusingin the dush and heat,
Lay down his burden, and with reverent feet
Enter, and cross himself, and on the floor
Kneel to repeat his paternoster o'er;
Far off the noises of the world retreat;
The loud vociferations of the street
Become an undistinguishable roar.
So, as I enter here from day to day,
And leave my burden at this minster gate,
Kneeling in payer, and not ashamed to pray,
The tumult of the time disconsolate
To inarticulate murmurs dies away,
While the eternal ages watch and wait.

The English sonnet is probably the better known style of sonnet with William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. This style differs from Petrarchan by having three quatrains, each rhymed differently, with a final couplet to close. The rhyming scheme is: A B A B, C D C D, E F E F, G G. It should be remembered even though the rhyming may differ from the Petrarchan, the sonnet still follows the octave and sestet format with the first quatrain presenting the theme, the next expanding on it. The subtle difference is in the sestet. The third quatrain closes and the last two lines usually finalize the sonnet.

By reviewing the sonnet I quoted above that introduces the play, Romeo and Juliet, we can now see the first quatrain tell us about the two families and the city. The second quatrain expands the story with the children and their love for one another. The final quatrain explains the end and the last two lines inform you, the reader or listener, what the players are doing.

And I conclude with William Shakespeare, the English Sonneteer, and his Sonnet XVIII.

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm'd;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature's changing course untrimm'd;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest,
Nor shall Death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st;
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Bob Nailor is author of "The Secret Voice," an Amish-Christian story, "Pangaea, Eden Lost," an adventure story, "Three Steps: The Journeys of Ayrold," a Celtic fantasy, and "2012: Timeline Apocalypse," an end-of-time tale. He is also included in several anthologies and collections. Check his website at

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