The most common form of the English-language sonnet, whether “Petrarchan” or “Shakespearean”—also called, respectively, “Italian” and “English”—is a fourteen-line poem in two parts: an octave (eight lines) and asestet (six lines.) The octave often presents a problem or question, or situation; and the sestet answers it with a solution to the problem, an answer to the question, or a comment on the situation— a dialectical method. The sestet, especially in the Shakespearean sonnet, is divided into a four-line stanza and a couplet which sums up the poet’s conclusion. In between octave and sestet there is often a shift, a changing of gear, called the “volta,” or sometimes just “the turn”—the “seismic shift”. Sometimes the volta is indicated by a line break, sometimes not. Caveat: not all sonnets, even Shakespeare’s, are constructed this way—sometimes, for example, a poet presents related images in three quatrains followed by a couplet.
Traditional sonnets normally use one of two basic rhyme schemes. The Italian/ Petrarchan sonnet has a tight rhyme scheme, typically abba abba cdcdcd; and the English /Shakespearean sonnet is looser, abab, cdcd, efef, gg. Although students like to get hold of these definitions and hang onto them for dear life, many sonnets use a combination of the Italian and English patterns. Ron Padgett, in The Handbook of Poetic Forms points out that “the sonnet involves a certain way of thinking: the setting up or development of a thought or idea which is brought to a conclusion at the end of the poem” (189). The sonnet’s hallmarks are really this “way of thinking” and its dialectical nature, not a particular rhyme scheme. In fact, many contemporary sonnets depart from rhyme and meter altogether, although they are still restricted to 14 lines.
As for meter, almost no sonnet is written entirely in iambic pentameter, which risks being boring. Variations in meter are important, not only for the ear, but also sometimes for developing the central idea or argument. Students don’t really need to study meter and rhythm before approaching sonnets, though that can help; they can learn what they need to from sonnets. Literally walking through a sonnet— walking around in a circle, saying the lines chorally, and stamping hard on the stressed syllables— can help students to understand iambic pentameter and to feel it in their bones. In a space too small to pace, they can beat out the rhythm with their hands, on desk tops. Be sure to look at a wonderful active demonstration called “Living Iambic Pentameter” on the Folger YouTube channel; on the Folger’s Education web site, click on “Audio and Video Resources.”