A Sonnet is a type of poem. It is 14 lines long and is written in rhyme.
The sonnet first appeared in Italy during the Renaissance. The Italian poet Petrarch was famous for his sonnets. It became common for poets to write sonnets in connected series, called "sonnet sequences," to tell a story, often one about a love affair. Poets in other countries quickly adopted the sonnet. William Shakespeare wrote the most famous sonnets in English literature, though other poets of his time, such as Ben Jonson, Edmund Spenser, Michael Drayton, and Samuel Daniel, wrote sonnet sequences also.
Later English poets like John Donne, William Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats wrote sonnets that are still admired and studied today. The rigid rhyme scheme of the sonnet went out of fashion during the twentieth century, but a few modern poets still write them sometimes. Edna St. Vincent Millay was one modern poet writing in English who often worked in the sonnet form. Modern poets have often changed the traditional rhythms and rhyme patterns of the sonnet, sometimes radically.
In a traditional "English" or "Shakespearean" sonnet, the first twelve lines are divided into three groups ("stanzas") of four lines each, called "quatrains". The last two lines usually rhyme, and make up a "rhymed couplet" that concludes the poem by summing up the story told in the previous quatrains. In the traditional "Italian" or "Petrarchan" sonnet, the poem divides into a group of eight lines ("octave") followed by a group of six lines ("sestet").
The letters of the alphabet are used to show the pattern of rhyme, or "rhyme scheme," in the 14 lines in a sonnet. The rhyme scheme
- a-b-a-b, c-d-c-d, e-f-e-f, g-g
is the typical pattern of an "English" sonnet. The rhyme scheme
- a-b-b-a, a-b-b-a, c-d-e-c-d-e
is typical of an "Italian" sonnet. However, the rhymes of the sestet in an Italian sonnet can vary widely: cdcdcd, cddcdd, etc.