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Why is the sonnet still popular?

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Here’s the second – or is it the third? – in our occasional series on poetic forms, in which we invite you to look at and maybe have a go yourself. This time around, it’s the sonnet. Shakespeare is famously associated with the sonnet – after all, he wrote 154 of them, and a few more besides. Wordsworth composed 523, Keats 67, and Coleridge 48. In more recent times, contemporary poet Don Paterson is a big fan of them, too. The sonnet is a poem of 14 lines, usually of iambic pentameter – ie, 10 syllables. There are at least two different kinds, the Petrarchan and the Shakespearean. The Petrarchan is Italian in origin, has an octave of eight lines, with a rhyme scheme of ababcdcd, and a sestet with a rhyme scheme of cdecde. The rhyme scheme of the Shakesperaean sonnet is ababcdcdefefgg. There is no octave/sestet structure to it, but its final couplet is a defining feature.

With the earlier, Petrarchan sonnet, the idea is that a strong opening statement of eight lines is followed by a resolution to the emotional or intellectual question of the first part of the poem. The English (Shakespearean) version was developed by Thomas Wyatt and the Earl of Surrey, before being taken up by the Bard.   

Explaining why he chooses to write so many sonnets, Don Paterson told interviewer Rosanne McGlone in The Process of Poetry:

“The sonnet form is partly a default setting, as I know it from the inside, and it helps me shape my thoughts more clearly. It’s a bit like a twelve-bar blues; you can fill it with a million different things, but it both holds its shape and gives shape to your own thought … The symmetry also has a built-in fracture, what we call the ‘turn’ at around the eighth line. Indeed, it’s often the turn which helps me decide whether it’s going to be a sonnet.”

In truth, there are many different versions of the sonnet, far too many to list here. A crown of sonnets is composed of 15 sonnets that are linked by the repetition of the final line of one sonnet as the initial line of the next, and the final line of that sonnet as the initial line of the previous; the last sonnet consists of all the repeated lines of the previous 14 sonnets, in the same order in which they appeared.

Here are just a few well-known sonnets: Shakespeare’s ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? (Sonnet 18) ; Wordsworth’s ‘Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802’ ; Percy Bysshe Shelley’s 'Ozymandias’: John Keats’ ‘Bright Star’ ; and Edna St Vincent Millay’s ‘What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why’ .

The sonnet has never really gone out of fashion. Don Paterson’s devotion to the 14-line form is particularly evident in his 2016 collection 40 Sonnets; and Jaqueline Saphra’s 100 Lockdown Sonnets is exactly what it says on the cover.

We're hoping that some members of Write Out Loud will pen their own sonnets and post them here. Go on, have a go! Working to a set rhyme scheme may not be as difficult as you might think ... !


Background: Let’s hear it for the Shakespeare 400 Sonnetathon




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Greg Freeman

Wed 5th Jun 2024 20:45

A fine sonnet for D-Day, Graham. Thank you.

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Graham Sherwood

Wed 5th Jun 2024 10:03

people who study these things often say

there’s continual conflict in this world

different tribes hell-bent to have their way

charge headlong into war with flags unfurled

ne’er stopping to think, to count the cost

take a piece of land from some other man

such futile gain for each precious life lost

to satisfy some madman’s masterplan

we never heed those lessons from our past

writ in blood on tablets of graveyard stone

that the fight just ended should be the last

and heinous wicked wars begone and done

to all those lovely boys who sadly fell

we will remember and bid fond farewell!

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Greg Freeman

Thu 30th May 2024 21:11

Very wise, philosophical and thoughtful, Steve. Thanks for getting in on the act!

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Stephen Gospage

Thu 30th May 2024 07:28

Here is my effort, entitled 'Ashes'.


Though many fail and most do not succeed,
All humans crave ambitions they will tend,
And those who bag the cash through stealth and greed
Will finish up as ashes in the end.
We may bring up the rear as also-rans,
While others imbibe chemicals to win,
But we won’t risk suspensions or life bans,
As they digest their tainted meal of sin.
Perhaps it is a part of nature’s law
That some will strive to rise above the crowd,
With practices close to the edge and raw,
Which sometimes travel past what is allowed.
Yet we know such success will fade to guilt,
As milk begins to boil and tears are spilt.

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Greg Freeman

Wed 29th May 2024 11:19

Romantic and thus very Shakespearean, Russell. Well done!

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Russell Jacklin

Wed 29th May 2024 06:14

To love a woman,

Love's sweetened dance. You’ll charm the other's sway.
Securely bonded to an outstretched hand,
Rhythmic gyrations as the music plays
Flawlessly footed beat, timed to the band

Hold on to her dreams, they're now your concern,
Safeguard delicate wings so she may fly,
Joyousness, yes, though often tears may burn,
Stand close by her side. Let love never die.

Listen frequently with an open mind,
Seek to understand her darkness and fears.
Together, as you journey, you may find
In your love's embrace, all doubts disappear.

As in days of yore, be her armoured knight,
Dedicate love, screen wrong, embody right

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Greg Freeman

Tue 28th May 2024 19:36

Nice work, and certainly topical, RA. I particularly like 'orison' and 'Horizon'.

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R A Porter

Tue 28th May 2024 14:57

Here you go... not an obvious subject for a sonnet, but topical:

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M.C. Newberry

Sun 26th May 2024 15:12

It must be very satisfying to compose something in the form of
what might be termed "Received wisdom". It is intriguing how
such "forms" came about and the reasons they have endured.
But as a perceived "upstart" French figure of note acted upon
being mocked for his lack of noble progenitors, he responded
by commenting that HE was an ancestor, not just a mere descendant.
In short, he was an original. Might not the same be sought by
those writing poetry today?

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Greg Freeman

Sun 26th May 2024 10:05

To get the ball rolling, here's my effort, posted this morning, written last year

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