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Know What Sonnets Are: Read Some Famous Sonnet Examples

May 17, 2024

You probably have already heard the word sonnet but want to know more. Alternatively, you already love sonnets, the rhyme, the flow, but do not understand it satisfactorily. Whatever your reason is, you are welcome to this precise but comprehensive read. 

Here, we will talk about sonnets, what they are, their types, and, of course, a few famous sonnet examples by world-renowned poets.


Decluttering the Structural and Rhyme Facts of Sonnets 

Sonnet is a very famous form of English poetry. And for your knowledge, every poetic form has particular rules and revolves around specific themes. Its standard structure consists of fourteen iambic pentameter lines connected by a complex rhyme pattern. The /poem’s rhythm is known as iambic pentameter; in essence, each line has ten syllables, with the subsequent syllable being stressed. 

That is a lot of technical brainer! Huh?


Let us take a sonnet example to explain this to you in an easy way. Following is the first line of a sonnet by William Shakespeare:

“Shall I compare thee to a Summer’s day?”


Alt text: Sonnet Examples

Now, we can see from the green capitalized parts of the words depicting syllables stressed in this sonnet’s line. There is an iambic parameter in this line known as an ‘iambic pentameter.’ Here, you can see the sections that divide the sonnet line into 5 parts, with each part being an ‘iamb.’ 


So, what is an iambic pentameter? It is a pentameter that is 5 metric feet.

What is an Iamb?

An iamb is a metrical foot in poetry that consists of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. In simpler terms, an iamb is a metric foot consisting of two syllables, one unstressed and the other stressed.


Let’s take another example of an iamb: reLIEVE 

In this word, “re-” is the unstressed syllable, and “-LIEVE” is the stressed syllable. This creates the pattern characteristic of an iamb.


Understand Rhyme Scheme

Alt text: Sonnet Rhyme Example


The rhyme scheme of a sonnet is the pattern of rhymes at the end of each line, and it is not necessary that all sonnets have the same. The rhyme scheme is determined by examining the last word in each line. Each end sound is assigned a letter of the alphabet.

Let us understand this through the example of Shakespeare’s Sonnet number 18. 

  1. Identify the end words/the last word of each line in the sonnet: For example, in this sonnet, the end words like “day” do not rhyme with “temperate,” but with “May,”
  2. Assign Letters to Rhymes: Start with the first line’s end word, followed by the second line’s end word, to check whether they rhyme or not and assign similar alphabets to rhymes and so on.

Putting it all together for Sonnet 18 shared above:

“day” – A

“temperate” – B

“May” – A

“date” – B

On continuing this pattern, we get- ABABCDCDEFEFGG

  1. Determine Rhyme Scheme: ABABCDCDEFEFGG is for a Shakespearean sonnet.
  2. Analyze Content and Structure: The third quatrain (precisely the 9th line) in a Shakespearean sonnet typically begins with a “turn” or “volta,” a shift in the argument or theme.
  3. Identify the Turn:  Turn is signaled by words like “But,” “Yet,” or similar transition words. Here, it is “But” in the 9th line.
  4. Observe the Change in Rhyme Scheme: Note any rhyme pattern changes that reinforce the poem’s shift in argument or theme. Here is the introduction of a new rhyme with “fade” in line 9.

Note: This is an easy approach that helps you understand both the structure and rhyme in a sonnet.

Sonnet: Expressing Human Experience of Desire

After understanding the technicalities of sonnets, let us explore their essence and history. Sonnets are linked to desire because poets have explored the complex feelings of romantic love using the sonnet form for ages. If not about love, poets have persisted in exploiting this style to probe into a variety of topics, such as religion, war, and the intrinsic worth of poetry.

A sonnet is a type of lyrical poetry that dates back to the thirteenth century in Italy. The word ‘sonnet’ comes from the Italian word ‘sonnetto,’ which means ‘little song’ or ‘little sound’. It was a French poet, Francesco Petrarch, who is credited with introducing the sonnet form to English poets. 

Sonnet Types 

Basically, there are four sonnet types, namely, Italian (or Petrarchan), English, Miltonic, and Spenserian. The two basic forms of sonnets are Italian and English; Spenserian and Miltonic sonnets developed from these two.

Let’s discuss a few details about each type of sonnet and also provide you with famous sonnet examples for each.

Italian (Petrarchan) Sonnet

  • Inventor: Attributed to Giacomo da Lentini
  • Popularized by: Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch)
  • Notable Poets: Dante Alighieri, Guido Cavalcanti, Michelangelo
  • Structure:
    • Octave (8 lines): ABBAABBA
    • Sestet (6 lines): Flexible rhyme schemes such as CDECDE or CDCDCD
  • Volta (Turn): Typically occurs between the octave (the first eight lines) and the sestet (the final six lines)
  • Meter: Generally iambic pentameter, but the meter for the sestet can be more flexible, allowing for variations like trochees (stressed-unstressed pairs).

Example of an Italian (Petrarchan) Sonnet

Petrarch’s Sonnet, ‘O joyous, blossoming, ever-blessed flowers!’ translated into English: 

O joyous, blossoming, ever-blessed flowers!

O joyous, blossoming, ever-blessed flowers!

’Mid which my pensive queen her footstep sets;

O plain, that hold’st her words for amulets

And keep’st her footsteps in thy leafy bowers!

O trees, with earliest green of springtime hours,

And all spring’s pale and tender violets!

O grove, so dark the proud sun only lets

His blithe rays gild the outskirts of thy towers!

O pleasant country-side! O limpid stream,

That mirrorest her sweet face, her eyes so clear,

And of their living light canst catch the beam!

I envy thee her presence pure and dear.

There is no rock so senseless, but I deem

It burns with passion that to mine is near.

English (Shakespearean) Sonnet

  • Popularized by: William Shakespeare
  • Structure:
    • Three Quatrains (4 lines each): ABAB CDCD EFEF
    • Couplet (2 lines): GG
  • Volta (Turn): Usually appears in the third quatrain (line 9 or 13)
  • Meter: Strictly iambic pentameter (10 syllables per line, alternating unstressed and stressed syllables).

Example of an English (Shakespearean) Sonnet

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116: 

Let me not to the marriage of true minds

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 wandering bark,

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.

Miltonic Sonnet

  • Popularized by: John Milton
  • Structure: Similar to the Petrarchan sonnet
    • Octave (8 lines): ABBAABBA
    • Sestet (6 lines): Various rhyme schemes such as CDECDE or CDCDCD
  • Volta (Turn): Can be more flexible, not necessarily between the octave and sestet
  • Meter: Iambic pentameter
  • Content: Focuses on self-reflection and interior thinking
  • Variation: Allows the octave to morph into the sestet where needed.

Example of a Miltonic Sonnet

A Miltonic sonnet by John Milton himself- “When I Consider How My Light is Spent”: 

When I consider how my light is spent,

When I consider how my light is spent,

   Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,

   And that one Talent which is death to hide

   Lodged with me useless, though my Soul more bent

To serve therewith my Maker, and present

   My true account, lest he returning chide;

   “Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”

   I fondly ask. But patience, to prevent

That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need

   Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best

   Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state

Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed

   And post o’er Land and Ocean without rest:

   They also serve who only stand and wait.

Spenserian Sonnet

  • Inventor: Sir Edmund Spenser
  • Structure:
    • Three Quatrains (4 lines each): ABAB BCBC CDCD
    • Couplet (2 lines): EE
  • Volta (Turn): Often appears in the final couplet but can vary
  • Meter: Iambic pentameter
  • Unique Feature: Links quatrains with a rhyming couplet between them (e.g., BCBC).

Example of a Spenserian Sonnet

A sonnet by Sir Edmund Spenser, Amoretti LXXV: One Day I Wrote her Name: 

One day I wrote her name upon the strand,

One day I wrote her name upon the strand,But came the waves and washed it away:Again I wrote it with a second hand,But came the tide, and made my pains his prey.”Vain man,” said she, “that dost in vain assay,A mortal thing so to immortalize;For I myself shall like to this decay,And eke my name be wiped out likewise.””Not so,” (quod I) “let baser things deviseTo die in dust, but you shall live by fame:My verse your vertues 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.

Wrapping Up

Now that you know the basics of sonnets and famous sonnet examples. With all the inspiration seeping into your mind, you need not let a dime of worry conquer your little Soul. Sounds poetic? Maybe not, but here at Turito, we have excellent tutoring techniques devised by experienced educators in the field. They bring the values of English Literature to their one-on-one classes. So, why not try your hand at the best of educational platforms? You can study any topic you want here at Turito and raise your grades! 


Is every 14-line poem a sonnet?

Not every 14-line poem is a sonnet. A sonnet has to have two features besides having 14 lines: written in an iambic pentameter and following anyone out of the many common sonnet rhyme schemes. 

How do I recognize a Shakespearean sonnet?

Shakespearean sonnets have 14 lines, three quatrains, and an ending couplet. Plus, they are usually about love.

Who wrote the most sonnets?

Shakespeare released 154 sonnets in a quarto in 1609. Throughout his career, he composed these poems. 

Know What Sonnets Are: Read Some Famous Sonnet Examples


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