Rules Are Made to Be Broken: Teaching Traditional and Contemporary Sonnets

Ethel Rackin

A distinguishing feature of Crafting Poem and Stories: A Guide to Creative Writing is the pairing of historically important literary models next to notable contemporary ones. In a chapter on traditional form, for instance, a section on sonnets includes historical background, definitions, and a pairing of traditional models with contemporary ones, demonstrating the ways in which poets meaningfully adapt the sonnet form. 

Excerpt from Chapter 4—Traditional Form: Rules Are Made to Be Broken


One of the oldest forms of poetry in English, the sonnet or “little song” originated in Italy and was introduced to England in the early sixteenth century. Traditionally composed of fourteen lines of iambic pentameter, linked by a rhyme scheme, the sonnet’s compact form and orderly structure make it ideal for developing a single thought, theme, or emotion. Sonnets often begin with an idea or conceit (extended metaphor), develop it, and then conclude.

            There are two basic types of sonnets: the Italian or Petrarchan, named after the fourteenth-century Italian poet, Petrarch (1304–74); and the English or Shakespearean, made famous by Renaissance playwright, actor, and poet William Shakespeare (1564–1616). Here are the patterns of these two types:

TypeRhyme SchemeStanzas
Italian or Petrarchanabab abab cde cdetwo rhyming quatrains and two rhyming tercets
English or Shakespeareanabab cdcd efef, ggthree rhyming quatrains and a rhyming couplet

As you can see from this diagram, the Shakespearean sonnet contains more variation in rhymed sounds and is characterized by a final rhymed couplet, whereas the Petrarchan sonnet repeats sounds in the first two quatrains. Both the Shakespearean and Petrarchan sonnet include a volta (Italian for “turn”) after the eighth line. As we’ll see in the following examples, this is often where the poet deepens their point or takes the poem in a slightly different direction.

            To see these patterns in action, let’s take a look at a Shakespearean sonnet by Shakespeare himself and a Petrarchan one by twentieth-century United States poet Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892–1950). Both sonnets are double-spaced so that you can mark up the rhyme scheme, identify the volta, and scan the meter. The first few lines are already marked, as an example.

            William Shakespeare

            My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun

             u    /  |  u      / | u   /  | u    / |  u     / |
            My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;   a
            u   /  |u / | u      /  |  u     / | u     / |
            Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;         b
            u    / |  u     /     | u      /   | u    /     | u    / |
            If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;       a
            If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
            I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
            But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
            And in some perfumes is there more delight
            Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
            I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
            That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
            I grant I never saw a goddess go;
            My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground.
            And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
            As any she belied with false compare.

Craft Questions

  • How does Shakespeare develop his controlling comparison or conceit as the sonnet progresses?
  • Translate the final couplet into ordinary, contemporary speech. What is Shakespeare saying here?

            Edna St. Vincent Millay

            “What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why”

            What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
            I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
            Under my head till morning; but the rain
            Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
            Upon the glass and listen for reply,
            And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain
            For unremembered lads that not again
            Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.
            Thus in the winter stands the lonely tree,
            Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,
            Yet knows its boughs more silent than before:
            I cannot say what loves have come and gone,
            I only know that summer sang in me
            A little while, that in me sings no more.

Craft Questions

  • Paraphrase the poem in contemporary speech. Why might the Petrarchan form suit the subject of this sonnet?
  • Did you find a spot where Millay breaks out of the Petrarchan rhyme scheme, using what’s called a reversal? How might this reversal emphasize meaning?
  • How does Millay keep rhyme and meter subtle?

            Although sonnets were often used for love poems during the Renaissance, as you can see from these examples, from early in their history, the form was adapted to suit poets’ individual interests. In fact, Shakespeare’s ironic, unconventional praise of the beloved responds to earlier poems by Petrarch and others, which exalted the beloved by listing her classically beautiful attributes. And Millay employs the repetitions of the Petrarchan form to emphasize the speaker’s attempts to remember her numerous past lovers: a racy subject for a poem written by a woman in 1923.

            Speaking of adaptation, let’s take a look at a radical leap by contemporary poet Sandra Simonds. You won’t find either the Shakespearean or Petrarchan form here, but Simonds’s sonnet proclaims its identity as such by appearing in her 2014 collection The Sonnets, and it does capture the spirit of the form:

Red Wand

Sometimes I try to make poetry but mostly
    I try to earn a living. There’s something still living
 in every urn, I am sure of it. The ash moves
       around inside the vase like the magnetic filings that make
the moustache of Wooly Willy.[1] Maybe a new face counts
      as reincarnation. The wand says, “I’ll be your ostrich,
 if you’ll be my swan.” In this life, what did I do wrong?
I think my heart is a magnet too. It attracts anything
 that attracts joy like the summer grasses the swans track through.
       OMG, how in love I am with joy and with yours—how I know
that adding to it would only take it further off course,
      off its precarious center, so for once, I won’t touch it.
 I will stand wand-length away—let it
    glide stupidly on its weightless line, without me.

Craft Questions

  • What formal elements does Simonds employ? What elements does she adapt or discard?
  • Is this a love poem? Why or why not?
  • Compare the meaning of the word “line” in Simonds’s poem to the word “lines” in Shakespeare’s “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day” at the end of chapter 2.
  • In what ways might “Red Wand” pose a challenge to our understanding of the role of poetry and the poetic tradition?

The ongoing tradition of adopting and adapting the sonnet form is rich, so we’ll look at a couple of additional examples at the end of this chapter. Suffice it to say, you’ll definitely want to try writing a sonnet or two of your own, whether they’re true to form or loosely adapted.

[1] A toy in which metal pieces are moved with a magnetic wand in order to add features onto a cartoon face. The toy was launched in 1955.

Posted on August 15, 2022