The Artistry of Sonnet Structure: Crafting Meaning and Expression

Categories: Poems


When delving into the realm of poetry, specific structures can profoundly influence the interpretation and understanding of the message conveyed. Sonnets, with their distinct format of fourteen lines and traditional rhyme schemes, exemplify the interconnectedness of form and meaning. In this exploration, we will closely examine three sonnets: "Sonnet" by Billy Collins, "A Wedding Sonnet for the Next Generation" by Judith Viorst, and "My Mistress’ Eyes are nothing Like the Sun" by William Shakespeare. These poems exemplify how the structure of sonnets, including their rhyme schemes and form, plays a pivotal role in shaping the conveyed messages.

Overview of Sonnet Structure

Sonnets, a poetic form that has endured through centuries, possess a distinctive structure. Typically consisting of fourteen lines, they are divided into an eight-line section known as the octave and a six-line section known as the sestet. The octave often comprises two quatrains, while the sestet may consist of a four-line part and a concluding couplet. The transition between the octave and sestet introduces a shift in mood and tone, resolving the presented situation or problem.

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Understanding these structural elements provides a foundation for comprehending the nuanced artistry embedded in sonnets.

Billy Collins's "Sonnet"

In "Sonnet," Billy Collins masterfully employs the sonnet form to reflect on the nature of sonnets themselves. The initial eight lines discuss the act of initiating a poem, highlighting the structure involved. Collins humorously notes the diminishing number of lines, stating, "All we need is fourteen lines, well thirteen now." Within this section, he metaphorically describes the start of a sonnet as launching a ship on love's storm-tossed seas, emphasizing the traditional association of sonnets with love themes.

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The fifth and sixth lines introduce the playful term "iambic bongos" to describe the rhythm, adding a creative layer to the poem's discourse on form.

The subsequent six lines mark a distinct turn in the poem, moving away from discussions of structure. Collins pivots to the act of concluding the poem, metaphorically putting down the pen and preparing for rest: "No flag is big enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people." The poet's choice to conclude with a departure from sonnet-specific topics enhances the poem's impact, making it a meta-commentary on both sonnets and the broader human experience.

Judith Viorst's "A Wedding Sonnet for the Next Generation"

Judith Viorst's "A Wedding Sonnet for the Next Generation" adheres to a more traditional sonnet structure while introducing imperfections within its form. The octave articulates the enduring love between partners, employing a classic rhyme scheme. Viorst expresses sentiments of everlasting love, proclaiming, "declaring you’re far fairer in his eyes" and urging the couple to "Count all the ways she loves you." This section follows a conventional path, celebrating the beauty of love within the established sonnet structure.

The subsequent sestet introduces a refreshing departure from the conventional, as Viorst encourages the newlyweds to "write your own poem." This departure implies that marriage does not need to conform strictly to traditional expectations. Viorst acknowledges that marriages, like poems, can have unique structures, allowing couples to forge their paths and find joy in unconventional ways. The imperfections within the traditional structure serve as a metaphor for the individuality of each marital journey.

William Shakespeare's "My Mistress’ Eyes are nothing Like the Sun"

Shakespeare, a maestro of the sonnet form, showcases his prowess in "My Mistress’ Eyes are nothing Like the Sun." The sonnet humorously mocks the conventions of traditional love sonnets. In iambic pentameter, Shakespeare describes his lover in unglamorous terms, contrasting her with exaggerated comparisons common in romantic poetry: "Coral is far more red than her lips' red" and "If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head."

The first three quatrains progressively develop the argument, presenting an ordinary yet beloved mistress. Shakespeare expands on the comparisons, demonstrating a departure from the typical structure of immediate resolution in the sestet. The concluding couplet firmly asserts that genuine love need not adhere to idealized standards of beauty: "And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare, / As any she belied with false compare." This deviation in structure underlines the rebellious nature of the poem, challenging conventional notions of love and beauty.


Reflecting on the three sonnets, it becomes evident that the structure of a sonnet is not merely a technical framework but an integral part of the poetic expression. Collins, Viorst, and Shakespeare leverage sonnet structures in diverse ways to convey their messages effectively. The works reveal the intricate relationship between form and meaning, emphasizing the importance of understanding how poets manipulate sonnet structures to craft nuanced and impactful verses.

Updated: Jan 17, 2024
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The Artistry of Sonnet Structure: Crafting Meaning and Expression. (2020, Jun 02). Retrieved from

The Artistry of Sonnet Structure: Crafting Meaning and Expression essay
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