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Italian Sonnets

For people writing in the English language, Italian Sonnets are a more difficult form of poetry to write than Elizabethan Sonnets. This is primarily because Italian Sonnets require finding more words that rhyme, and the English language is not as rich in rhyming words as some other languages such as Spanish and Italian.

The Italian Sonnet is made up of 2 quatrains (called an octave) of iambic pentameter, followed by six lines (called a sestet) with a somewhat flexible rhyme scheme, making a total of 14 lines.

The rhyme scheme for the two quatrains are ABBA, which means that the first and fourth lines rhyme, as do the second and third lines. An example of an ABBA quatrain is shown below:

In the Evening
To pass the evening's swiftly fading light,
I pulled from off the shelf a poet's book,
Swept cobwebs from imagination's nook,
And filled my mind with wonder and delight.

(Copyright 2010 by Douglas Twitchell)

With Italian sonnets, the second quatrain is supposed to use the same rhymes as the first quatrain, which means you would need two more words that rhyme with "light" and two more that rhyme with "book" to continue this poem as a sonnet.

After the 8th line, the Italian Sonnet has the volta, or dramatic turn; this is the point at which the sonnet takes on a change in perspective. This is where the writer may begin putting what came before in a new light, or summarizing his thoughts on the topic at hand.

At the volta the rhyme scheme changes, though the meter still remains iambic pentameter. The rhyme scheme for the sestet is not quite as carefully enforced as it is in the octave; the following are often used:


Some flexibility is allowed, but is generally considered improper, in an Italian Sonnet, to conclude with a heroic couplet. In other words, the last two lines should not rhyme.

The following is an example of an Italian Sonnet, written after my car was struck by lightning.

The Wink of Death
Mortality, that gaunt and ghastly foe,
With spectral smile and vulgar leering eye,
He paused today for me, I know not why;
His scabbed and sunken eyelid drooped, then rose.
What terror then possessed my quaking soul,
For Death had turned on me his winking eye,
Then laughing, cast his lots, and passed on by,
And left me haunted by this chance parole.
They say that only once the lightning strikes
And many - by these words - have been beguiled,
But woe to him, the greatest of all fools,
Who hangs his hopes upon this flimsy pike;
For I have looked on Death's deceptive smile,
And know he does not play by mortal rules.

(Copyright 2008 by Douglas Twitchell)

Notice that this poem uses some slant rhymes; neither foe nor rose rhyme perfectly with soul and parole.

Also notice the change after the octave; the octave discusses the event, while the sestet discusses what we can conclude from the event. The change in subject coincides with the change in rhyme scheme.

Italian Sonnets are a challenge to write, but can give a great sense of satisfaction to the writer!

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