What Is a Sonnet?

A sonnet is a short lyric poem composed in iambic pentameter, with a twist in meaning, known as a “turn,” toward the end. The word “sonnet” comes from the Italian sonetto, meaning a little sound or song. Sonnets originated in Italy, where they were popularized by the poet Petrarch. Sir Thomas Wyatt brought the sonnet form to England in the early sixteenth century. It soon became a staple of poets like Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, John Milton, and still later, Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

How Do You Identify a Sonnet in Writing?

What characterizes all sonnets is their uniform length –14 lines — and their use of iambic pentameter. There are two basic forms of the sonnet, the Petrarchan (or Italian) and the Shakespearean (or the English). The English sonnet also has a minor variation, named for the poet Edmund Spenser, who invented it. The difference in these forms has mostly to do with rhyme scheme, but because meaning and rhyme scheme are related in the sonnet, it is a significant difference.

  • The Petrarchan sonnet is divided into two stanzas. First comes the eight line octave (abba abba), then the six line sestet (cdecde or cdcdcd). The “turn” occurs in the sestet.
  • The Shakespearean sonnet has three quatrains, followed by a couplet. The rhyme scheme for this variation is abab, cdcd, efef, gg. The “turn” is reserved for the final couplet, which serves to conclude, or even to refute, everything that comes before it.
  • The Spenserian sonnet is more tightly woven than the Shakespearean, as seen by its rhyme scheme: abab, bcbc, cdcd, ee.

Examples of Sonnet

Sonnet Example 1. Petrarch, “Sonnet 131”

I’d sing of Love in such a novel fashion
that from her cruel side I would draw by force
a thousand sighs a day, kindling again
in her cold mind a thousand high desires;

I’d see her lovely face transform quite often
her eyes grow wet and more compassionate,
like one who feels regret, when it’s too late,
for causing someone’s suffering by mistake;

And I’d see scarlet roses in the snows,
tossed by the breeze, discover ivory
that turns to marble those who see it near them;

All this I’d do because I do not mind
my discontentment in this one short life,
but glory rather in my later fame.

Sonnet Example 2. William Shakespeare, “Sonnet 73”

That time of year thou may’st in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day,
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by-and-by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

Sonnet Example 3. Edmund Spenser, “Amoretti, Sonnet 75”

One day I wrote her name upon the strand,

But came the waves and washed it away:

Again I write it with a second hand,

But came the tide, and made my pains his prey.

Vain man, said she, that doest in vain assay,

A mortal thing so to immortalize,

For I myself shall like to this decay,

And eek my name be wiped out likewise.

Not so, (quod I) let baser things devise

To die in dust, but you shall live by fame:

My verse, your virtues rare shall eternize,

And in the heavens write your glorious name.

Where whenas death shall all the world subdue,

Our love shall live, and later life renew.


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