In its original 13th-century Italian variant the sonnet was divided into a octave of eight lines and a sestet of six lines. The octave rhymed abbaabba. For the sestet there were different possibilities like cdecde, cdccdc, or cdedce. The most famous writer of Italian sonnets is Petrarch.
In the sixteenth century the sonnet became popular in England. The form changed to three quatrains of four lines and a couplet of two lines. Usual rhyme schemes were abab cdcd efef gg and abab bcbc cdcd ee. One of the first poets to write sonnets in English was Sir Thomas Wyatt. (See Shakespearean sonnet.)
A classic rule of thumb for the writing or reading of a Shakespearean sonnet is to have the final couplet make a sharp thematic or imagistic "turn."
Along with his wonderful plays, Shakespeare is well known for his many sonnets, such as Sonnet 116:
- Let me not to the marriage of true minds
- Admit impediments. Love is not love
- Which alters when it alteration finds,
- Or bends with the remover to remove.
- O no, it is an ever fixed mark
- That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
- It is the star to every wand'ring barque,
- Whose worth's unknown although his height be taken.
- Love's not time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
- Within his bending sickle's compass come;
- Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
- But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
- If this be error and upon me proved,
- I never writ, nor no man ever loved.