what should a sonnet be about?

by Amy

Sonnets are a revered and historically significant form of poetry known for their fixed structure and expressive depth. Originating in Italy during the Renaissance, sonnets have evolved through various cultural and literary traditions, becoming a staple in Western literature. A traditional sonnet consists of 14 lines, typically written in iambic pentameter, which provides a rhythmic and melodic quality to the poem. The sonnet’s structure is usually divided into specific sections, such as the octave and sestet in Petrarchan sonnets, or three quatrains and a couplet in Shakespearean sonnets. This structured form has allowed poets to explore a wide range of themes with precision and elegance. So, what should a sonnet be about?

Traditional Themes


Perhaps the most enduring and universal theme in sonnet writing is love. Sonnets dedicated to love explore the various facets of romantic relationships, from the exhilaration of newfound affection to the agony of unrequited love. Love sonnets often delve into the physical beauty and inner qualities of the beloved, capturing the intensity and complexity of romantic emotions. William Shakespeare’s sonnets, for example, frequently address themes of love and desire, with Sonnet 18 (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”) celebrating the timeless beauty of the poet’s beloved.


Nature is another traditional theme that has inspired countless sonnets. Poets have long used the sonnet form to reflect on the beauty and power of the natural world, drawing parallels between nature and human experiences. Nature-themed sonnets often celebrate the changing seasons, the majesty of landscapes, and the intricate details of flora and fauna. These poems evoke a sense of wonder and reverence for the environment. John Keats’s “Bright Star, would I were stedfast as thou art” exemplifies how nature can serve as a metaphor for constancy and enduring love.


The theme of beauty, both physical and spiritual, is a common subject in sonnet writing. Poets often use sonnets to praise the beauty of their beloved, drawing on vivid imagery and descriptive language to convey their admiration. The sonnet form allows for a detailed exploration of beauty, capturing its ephemeral nature and its lasting impact on the human soul. Petrarch’s sonnets, dedicated to his muse Laura, are renowned for their celebration of her beauty and the profound emotions it evokes in the poet.


Mortality is a theme that lends itself well to the reflective and contemplative nature of the sonnet form. Sonnets addressing mortality often explore the transient nature of life, the inevitability of death, and the desire for immortality through art and memory. These poems provide a space for poets to grapple with their own mortality and to find solace or meaning in the face of life’s impermanence. Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 (“That time of year thou mayst in me behold”) poignantly reflects on aging and the passage of time, using the changing seasons as a metaphor for the poet’s own mortality.

Contemporary Themes

While traditional themes such as love, nature, beauty, and mortality continue to resonate in sonnet writing, modern poets have expanded the range of subjects to include a broader spectrum of human experiences and societal issues.

Social Issues

Contemporary sonnets often address pressing social issues, such as inequality, justice, and human rights. Poets use the sonnet form to give voice to marginalized communities, to critique social injustices, and to advocate for change. By drawing on the formal constraints of the sonnet, modern poets can create powerful and poignant commentary on the state of society. Claude McKay’s “If We Must Die” is a notable example of a sonnet that addresses social issues, using the form to call for dignity and resistance in the face of oppression.


Themes of identity, including race, gender, sexuality, and cultural heritage, have become prominent in contemporary sonnet writing. Poets explore their personal and collective identities, often challenging societal norms and stereotypes. These sonnets provide a space for introspection and self-expression, allowing poets to navigate the complexities of their identities and to affirm their place in the world. Natasha Trethewey’s “Elegy” delves into themes of personal and cultural identity, using the sonnet form to reflect on her experiences as a biracial woman in America.


Political themes, including governance, power dynamics, and historical events, are also explored in modern sonnet writing. Poets use the form to comment on political matters, to critique authority, and to engage with historical narratives. By infusing their sonnets with political content, poets can create thought-provoking works that challenge readers to consider their own views and to reflect on the political landscape. John Milton’s “On the Late Massacre in Piedmont” is a powerful example of a politically charged sonnet, addressing the brutal persecution of Protestants in Italy.

Personal Reflections

In addition to broader social and political themes, contemporary sonnets often include deeply personal reflections. Poets use the form to explore their own emotions, experiences, and relationships, offering readers a glimpse into their inner worlds. These sonnets can be introspective and confessional, providing a space for poets to grapple with their thoughts and feelings. Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” is a poignant example of a sonnet that explores personal loss and the struggle to cope with it.

Emotional Depth and Complexity

One of the defining features of the sonnet form is its ability to delve into complex emotions and profound ideas. The structured nature of the sonnet, with its fixed length and rhyme scheme, allows poets to explore their themes with precision and depth. Sonnets often capture the multifaceted nature of human emotions, offering a nuanced and layered expression of thoughts and feelings. Whether addressing themes of love, loss, identity, or social justice, sonnets provide a versatile and powerful medium for poetic expression.

Examples of Famous Sonnets

To illustrate the wide range of themes that sonnets can explore, here are some examples of well-known sonnets and their themes:

Sonnet 18 (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”) by William Shakespeare

Theme: Eternal beauty and the power of poetry to immortalize the beloved.

Analysis: In this iconic sonnet, Shakespeare compares the beauty of his beloved to the fleeting beauty of a summer’s day. Through the poem, he asserts that the beloved’s beauty will endure forever, immortalized through the power of verse.

“Bright Star, would I were stedfast as thou art” by John Keats

Theme: Nature as a metaphor for constancy and enduring love.

Analysis: Keats’s sonnet reflects on the steadfastness of a bright star, using it as a metaphor for the poet’s desire for unchanging love. The poem captures the tension between the desire for permanence and the inevitability of change.

“If We Must Die” by Claude McKay

Theme: Resistance and dignity in the face of oppression.

Analysis: McKay’s sonnet is a powerful call to action, urging those facing persecution to stand up with dignity and courage. The poem’s formal structure enhances its emotional intensity and sense of urgency.

“One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop

Theme: Personal loss and the struggle to cope with it.

Analysis: Bishop’s villanelle (a form similar to the sonnet) explores the theme of loss through the lens of personal experience. The poem’s repetitive structure mirrors the process of grappling with and ultimately accepting loss.

Encouragement for Creativity

Ultimately, a sonnet can be about anything that inspires you. While traditional themes like love, nature, beauty, and mortality have enduring appeal, modern sonnets demonstrate that the form can accommodate a diverse array of subjects. Use the structure of the sonnet to your advantage, allowing it to guide your exploration of complex themes and emotions. Whether you choose to write about personal reflections, social issues, or philosophical questions, the sonnet form offers a timeless and versatile medium for artistic expression.

See also: How to Compose A Sonnet?

By considering these points, you can effectively meet the customer’s search intent and provide comprehensive guidance on what a sonnet can be about, inspiring poets to explore a wide range of themes within this classic poetic form.

FAQs about Sonnets

1. What are the 3 requirements for a sonnet?

Fourteen Lines: A traditional sonnet must consist of 14 lines.

Rhyme Scheme: Sonnets follow a specific rhyme scheme, which varies depending on the type of sonnet. For example, a Shakespearean sonnet follows the ABAB CDCD EFEF GG pattern, while a Petrarchan sonnet follows ABBAABBA CDECDE (or CDCDCD).

Meter: Sonnets are typically written in iambic pentameter, which means each line usually contains ten syllables with an alternating unstressed-stressed pattern.

2. What are sonnets usually about?

Love and Romance: Many sonnets explore themes of love, including romantic love, unrequited love, and the enduring nature of true love.

Nature and Beauty: Sonnets often celebrate the beauty of the natural world and the physical beauty of the beloved.

Mortality and Time: Themes of mortality, the passage of time, and the desire for immortality through art are common in sonnets.

Personal Reflection and Identity: Modern sonnets may explore personal identity, introspection, and self-expression.

3. What are the 4 rules for sonnets?

Fourteen Lines: The poem must have exactly 14 lines.

Rhyme Scheme: The sonnet must adhere to a specific rhyme scheme. The Shakespearean sonnet follows ABAB CDCD EFEF GG, while the Petrarchan sonnet follows ABBAABBA CDECDE (or CDCDCD).

Iambic Pentameter: Each line should be written in iambic pentameter, meaning it typically has ten syllables with an unstressed-stressed pattern.

Volta or Turn: There is usually a volta or “turn” in the sonnet, typically occurring between the octave and the sestet in a Petrarchan sonnet, or at the beginning of the third quatrain in a Shakespearean sonnet. The volta signifies a shift in the theme or argument of the poem.

4. What are the topics of the sonnets?

Love and Desire: Exploring the joys and pains of romantic love, unrequited love, and the constancy of affection.

Nature: Reflecting on the beauty, power, and tranquility of the natural world.

Beauty: Praising the physical and spiritual beauty of the beloved or other subjects.

Mortality and Time: Contemplating the transient nature of life, the inevitability of death, and the legacy left behind.

Social Issues: Addressing contemporary social issues, justice, and human rights.

Identity: Exploring themes of race, gender, sexuality, and cultural heritage.

Politics: Commenting on political matters, governance, and historical events.

Personal Reflection: Offering introspective thoughts on personal experiences, emotions, and relationships.

Related Articles


Discover the soulful universe of PoemsHubs, where words dance with emotions. Immerse yourself in a collection of evocative verses, diverse perspectives, and the beauty of poetic expression. Join us in celebrating the artistry of words and the emotions they unfold.

Copyright © 2023 poemshubs.com