What is The Most Important Part Of A Sonnet?

by Amy

A sonnet is a poetic form that has been beloved by poets and readers alike for centuries. Traditionally composed of 14 lines, a sonnet follows a specific rhyme scheme and structure, making it one of the most recognizable and studied forms in literature. Originating in Italy in the 13th century, the sonnet has evolved into various forms, each with its own unique features. The intricate structure of a sonnet is not merely for aesthetic purposes; each part plays a crucial role in conveying the poem’s theme and emotion. Understanding these parts is essential for appreciating the artistry and depth of a sonnet.

Basic Structure of a Sonnet

The three most common sonnet forms are the Petrarchan (Italian) sonnet, the Shakespearean (English) sonnet, and the Spenserian sonnet. Each form has its own distinctive structure and rhyme scheme, which influences the way the poem’s content is developed and presented.

Petrarchan (Italian) Sonnet

The Petrarchan sonnet is divided into two parts: an octave and a sestet. The octave consists of eight lines with a rhyme scheme of ABBAABBA. The sestet follows with six lines and varies in rhyme scheme, often using CDECDE or CDCDCD. This form, pioneered by the Italian poet Petrarch, allows for a clear thematic division between the problem presented in the octave and the resolution or response in the sestet.

Shakespearean (English) Sonnet

The Shakespearean sonnet comprises three quatrains followed by a final rhyming couplet. Its rhyme scheme is ABABCDCDEFEFGG. This form, popularized by William Shakespeare, is known for its flexibility and the way it builds up a theme through the quatrains before delivering a powerful conclusion in the couplet.

Spenserian Sonnet

The Spenserian sonnet, named after the poet Edmund Spenser, features a unique interlocking rhyme scheme: ABABBCBCCDCDEE. This form creates a more continuous flow between the quatrains and the final couplet, often emphasizing unity and cohesion in its thematic development.

Components of a Sonnet

Each part of a sonnet serves a specific function, contributing to the overall impact of the poem. Understanding these components helps in appreciating the craftsmanship involved in sonnet writing.

Quatrains (in Shakespearean and Spenserian sonnets)

In Shakespearean and Spenserian sonnets, quatrains play a crucial role in developing the poem’s theme and setting the scene. Each quatrain typically introduces a new aspect of the theme or advances the narrative, creating a sense of progression. The first quatrain sets up the subject or problem, the second expands on it, and the third often introduces a complication or counterargument. This structured approach allows for a thorough exploration of the theme, leading to a climax in the final couplet.

Octave (in Petrarchan sonnets)

The octave in a Petrarchan sonnet is vital for establishing the poem’s central problem, situation, or emotional state. With its ABBAABBA rhyme scheme, the octave sets up a tension or conflict that demands resolution. This section often presents a narrative, a question, or an argument, engaging the reader and setting the stage for the turn, or “volta,” that will follow in the sestet.

Sestet (in Petrarchan sonnets)

The sestet serves to resolve or respond to the premise set up by the octave. Its varied rhyme schemes (CDECDE or CDCDCD) provide flexibility in how the resolution is delivered. The sestet often contains the volta, a rhetorical shift that changes the direction of the poem, providing insight, a solution, or a counterargument to the octave’s proposition. This turn is crucial for adding depth and complexity to the sonnet, often leaving the reader with a sense of closure or contemplation.

Couplet (in Shakespearean and Spenserian sonnets)

The final couplet in Shakespearean and Spenserian sonnets is of paramount importance. It serves as the resolution or twist, encapsulating the poem’s message or providing a surprising insight. The couplet often contains a volta, similar to the Petrarchan sonnet’s sestet, where the poem’s argument or theme is brought to a powerful conclusion. This concise and impactful ending is one of the reasons why the Shakespearean sonnet has remained so popular.

See also: Compose A Sonnet

The Volta

The volta, or turn, is a pivotal element in a sonnet. It marks a shift in the poem’s argument, perspective, or tone, providing a contrast that adds to the poem’s emotional and intellectual depth. The placement of the volta varies with the sonnet form:

Petrarchan Sonnet: The volta typically occurs between the octave and the sestet, around the ninth line. This shift introduces a resolution or response to the problem presented in the octave.

Shakespearean Sonnet: The volta usually appears before the final couplet, in the ninth or twelfth line. This placement allows the concluding couplet to deliver a powerful punch, often with a twist or profound insight.

Understanding the volta’s role is essential for appreciating the dynamism and structure of a sonnet. It is the moment where the poem takes a turn, adding layers of meaning and enriching the reader’s experience.

Thematic Importance

Different parts of a sonnet contribute uniquely to its overall theme and message. The opening lines (whether quatrains or an octave) introduce the central theme or problem, engaging the reader and setting expectations. The middle sections (subsequent quatrains or the sestet) develop the theme, adding complexity and depth. The concluding couplet or final lines provide resolution, insight, or a twist, often leaving a lasting impression on the reader.

For example, in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”), the quatrains build on the idea of the beloved’s beauty surpassing that of a summer day. The volta, occurring in the third quatrain, shifts the focus to the eternal nature of this beauty as immortalized in the poem. The final couplet then powerfully concludes this argument, asserting that as long as people read the poem, the beloved’s beauty will live on.


In conclusion, while each part of a sonnet plays an integral role, the most important part sonnet can vary depending on the sonnet form and the poet’s intention. The volta stands out as a crucial element, marking a shift that adds depth and complexity to the poem. In Shakespearean sonnets, the final couplet is often the most impactful part, delivering a resolution or twist that encapsulates the poem’s message. Understanding these components and their functions enhances our appreciation of sonnets, allowing us to fully grasp the artistry and emotional power of this timeless poetic form.

FAQs about Sonnets

1. What are the most important features of a sonnet?

The most important features of a sonnet include:

Structure: A sonnet typically consists of 14 lines. Different forms have specific structures: Petrarchan (Italian) sonnets are divided into an octave and a sestet, Shakespearean (English) sonnets have three quatrains followed by a couplet, and Spenserian sonnets feature interlocking quatrains and a final couplet.

Rhyme Scheme: Each sonnet form has its own rhyme scheme. Petrarchan sonnets usually follow ABBAABBA for the octave and various patterns for the sestet (CDECDE or CDCDCD). Shakespearean sonnets use ABABCDCDEFEFGG, and Spenserian sonnets use ABABBCBCCDCDEE.

Volta (Turn): The volta is a rhetorical shift or dramatic change in the poem, which usually occurs between the octave and sestet in Petrarchan sonnets, and often before the final couplet in Shakespearean sonnets.

2. What is the importance of the sonnet?

The importance of the sonnet lies in its versatility and enduring appeal:

Exploration of Themes: Sonnets allow poets to explore complex themes such as love, beauty, mortality, and nature within a concise and structured format.

Emotional and Intellectual Depth: The structured form of sonnets, particularly the use of the volta, enables poets to present and develop arguments or emotions, adding depth to their work.

Literary Tradition: Sonnets are a cornerstone of poetic tradition, with a rich history dating back to the 13th century. They have been used by some of the greatest poets in history, from Petrarch and Shakespeare to contemporary writers.

3. What are the 3 requirements for a sonnet?

The three primary requirements for a sonnet are:

Fourteen Lines: A sonnet must have exactly 14 lines.

Specific Rhyme Scheme: Depending on the form, the sonnet must adhere to a particular rhyme scheme. Petrarchan sonnets have ABBAABBA for the octave and various schemes for the sestet; Shakespearean sonnets follow ABABCDCDEFEFGG; Spenserian sonnets use ABABBCBCCDCDEE.

Consistent Meter: Sonnets are typically written in iambic pentameter, which means each line consists of ten syllables with a pattern of unstressed and stressed syllables (da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM).

4. What is one of the most popular aims of a sonnet?

One of the most popular aims of a sonnet is to explore and express themes of love and beauty. Historically, sonnets have been used to convey deep emotional experiences, often focusing on romantic love, the beauty of the beloved, and the nature of time and mortality. This exploration is evident in many of the most famous sonnets, such as those by Shakespeare and Petrarch, which delve into the complexities and nuances of love and admiration.

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