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Sonnet

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English Literature

The sonnet is a poem with a distinct form and meaning that has been popular in English literature for centuries. While the sonnet does follow a strict form, typically consisting of 14 lines, there are many different types of sonnets that will be discussed in this article.

History of the Sonnet

Sonnets have been used in poetry for centuries - the first recorded sonnet was written in Italy in the 12th century. The Italian sonnet was developed during the Renaissance called the Petrarchan sonnet after the Italian poet, Francesco Petrarca, who popularised the form. During the 16th and 17th centuries, the sonnet was developed by various poets including William Shakespeare and Edmund Spenser. The two poets created separate forms of the sonnet known as Shakespearean sonnets and Spenserian sonnets.

Since the 16th century, poets have developed the connection between sonnets and the concept of love, using the form to discuss love in its many different forms, including spiritual love, sexual love, and aesthetic love. Because of this close connection, poets have also used the form to subvert readers' expectations about love.

Claude McKay's, 'America' (1921) subverts the typical expectations of a sonnet as, instead of being about love, the poem centres around the topic of racism and violence in 1920s America.

It is due to this strong connection to the concept of love that the sonnet has remained a popular form of poetry throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.

Sonnet Form

While there are different types of sonnets, they all follow the same 3 basic characteristics. This is a strict structure that all sonnets must follow.

14 Lines

All sonnets must consist of 14 lines. However, these lines can be presented differently according to the type of sonnet by dividing them up into octaves (8 line stanza) sestets (6 line stanza), quatrains (4 line stanza), or couplets (2 line stanza).

How these lines are structured is a key way to spot what type of sonnet you are reading!

Iambic Pentameter

Sonnets must be written in a type of metric line called Iambic Pentameter. When a line is written in iambic pentameter, it will consist of five metrical feet (or iambs) that begin with an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable.

'Shall I | compare | thee to | a sum | mer’s day?

Thou art | more love | ly and | more tem | perate'

The words in bold show the stressed syllables in each metrical foot and each foot is often marked by a dash (-) or a line (|).

Top Tip! The rhythm of the iambic pentameter is the same rhythm as your heartbeat - ba (unstressed) - dum (stressed), ba-dum!

Regular Rhyme Scheme

Many sonnets have a regular rhyme scheme. The type of rhyme scheme used depends on what form of sonnet the poem is written in. The distinction between rhyme schemes is a key way to tell the difference between the types of sonnet.

Types of Sonnet

There are three, main types of sonnet that we will explore here: the Petrarchan sonnet, the Shakespearean sonnet, and the Spenserian sonnet.

Petrarchan Sonnet

The Petrarchan sonnet (or Italian sonnet) is the oldest form of a sonnet and is thought to have been brought to England by Sir Thomas Wyatt in the 16th century. The sonnet was named after the Italian Renaissance poet, Francesco Petrarca.

The Characteristics of the Petrarchan Sonnet

The Petrarchan Sonnet has the same three characteristics as all sonnets, however, there are certain differences that set them apart.

  • Structure:The Petrarchan sonnet has 14 lines which are divided into an octave (eight lines) and a sestet (six lines). The octave will also be split into two quatrains (four lines). This division is only found in Petrarchan sonnets so it can be a key way to spot one while you are reading. The Petrarchan sonnet also follows an iambic pentameter rhythm throughout these stanzas.
  • Rhyme Scheme: The Petrarchan sonnet also follows its own rhyme scheme. The rhyme scheme will follow an ABBA-ABBA-CDE-CDE structure, where the octave has one rhyme scheme (ABBA-ABBA) and the sestet follows a different one (CDE-CDE).
  • Tone: Petrarchan sonnets are typically used to discuss themes of romance and love, which is where the idea that sonnets are love poems comes from. Petrarchan sonnets also have a tonal shift during the poem, known as a volta. The volta is introduced at the end of the octave and acts as the climax of the poem. The purpose of the sestet is to resolve the volta.

Top Tip! You can spot the volta by looking for words such as ‘but’ and ‘yet’.

Example of a Petrarchan Sonnet

Earth has not any thing to show more fair:

Dull would he be of soul who could pass by

A sight so touching in its majesty:

This City now doth, like a garment, wear

The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,

Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie

Open unto the fields, and to the sky;

All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.

Never did sun more beautifully steep

In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;

Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!

The river glideth at his own sweet will:

Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;

And all that mighty heart is lying still!

(William Wordsworth, 'Composed Upon Westminster Bridge', 1802)

This is a Petrarchan sonnet as it is composed of fourteen lines divided into an octave and a sestet. These lines follow an ABBA-ABBA-CDE-CDE rhyme scheme and are written in iambic pentameter:

'And all | that might | ty heart | is ly | ing still!'

There is also a volta in the ninth line (at the start of the sestet), starting with the word 'never'. When this happens, there is a shift in the tone of the poem — a key characteristic of the Petrarchan sonnet.

Shakespearean Sonnets

The Shakespearean sonnet, otherwise known as the English sonnet, was adapted from the Petrarchan sonnet during the Elizabethan period (around the late 16th century and early 17th century). It was first developed in William Shakespeare's Sonnets, however, it has also been used by poets such as John Donne and John Milton. During his lifetime, Shakespeare wrote 154 of these sonnets.

The Characteristics of the Shakespearean Sonnet

  • Structure:Shakespearean sonnets are structured differently as their lines are divided into three quatrains (four lines) and one rhyming couplet at the end of the poem. This is a key way to recognise Shakespearean sonnets, for the voltas typically occur in this final couplet (the end of the 12th line of the poem). They are also written in iambic pentameter.
  • Rhyme Scheme:These sonnets have their own rhyme scheme, ABAB-CDCD-EFEF-GG. Typically, each stanza will be used for a separate idea, and so the rhyme scheme varies in order to represent this.
  • Tone:Unlike Petrarchan sonnets, Shakespearean sonnets can be centred around various themes, such as love, politics, or humour. This means that the themes and tones of each poem can be different from one another.

Example of a Shakespearean Sonnet

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 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 prov'd,

I never writ, nor no man ever lov'd.

(William Shakespeare, 'Sonnet 116', 1609)

This is a Shakespearean sonnet, as it is composed of fourteen lines divided into three quatrains and a rhyming couplet. These lines follow an ABAB-CDCD-EFEF-GG rhyme scheme and are written in iambic pentameter. Sometimes, a Shakespearean sonnet will deviate from this pattern and lines will be written in iambic tetrameters, such as in lines 5, 7, and 12 in the above example.

'Let me | not to | the ma | rriage of | true minds'

Spenserian Sonnets

The Spenserian sonnet is a type of sonnet that was developed by Edmund Spenser in the 16th century. It was inspired by the Petrarchan sonnet and builds upon the developments made by Sir Thomas Wyatt.

The Characteristics of the Spenserian Sonnet

  • Structure: Spenserian sonnets follow a similar stanza structure to Shakespearean sonnets as they are both divided into three quatrains followed by a rhyming couplet. They are also written in iambic pentameter.
  • Rhyme Scheme: The rhyme scheme for a Spenserian sonnet is ABAB-BCBC-CDCD-EE. This rhyme scheme is a key way to spot the Spenserian sonnet as it features a rhyme that is present in one stanza, following through to the next.
  • Tone: Like the Petrarchan sonnet, the Spenserian sonnet also uses a volta. The volta is typically presented at the end of the second stanza and works as an epiphany or climax. The end of the poem will focus on resolving or developing this epiphany, with the rhyming couplet providing a conclusion to this idea.

Example of a Spenserian Sonnet

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 devise
To 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.'

(Edmund Spenser, 'Amoretti LXXV', 1595)

This is a Spenserian sonnet as it is composed of fourteen lines divided into three quatrains and one rhyming couplet. These lines follow an ABAB-BCBC-CDCD-EE rhyme scheme and are written in iambic pentameter also, for example:

'Our love | shall live, | and la | ter life | renew.'

There is also a volta in the eighth line (at the end of the second quatrain), starting with the word 'but'. This is a key characteristic of the Spenserian sonnet, as it provides an epiphany in the poem that is resolved in the final couplet.

Sonnets: Key Differences

Petrarchan

Shakespearean

Spenserian

Lines

14

14

14

Stanza Structures

One Octave

One Sestet

Three Quatrains

One Couplet

Three Quatrains

One Couplet

Metre

Iambic

Iambic

Iambic

Rhyme Scheme

ABBA-ABBA-CDE-CDE

ABAB-CDCD-EFEF-GG

ABAB-BCBC-CDCD-EE

Volta

Yes

Yes

Yes

Location of Volta

8th or 9th line

12th line

8th or 9th line

Sonnet - Key takeaways

  • A sonnet is a type of poem.
  • Sonnets must be fourteen lines long and must be written in iambic pentameter with a strict rhyme scheme.
  • There are three main types of sonnet: Petrarchan, Shakespearean and Spenserian.
  • Petrarchan sonnets are formed from one octave and one sestet. They must include a volta and have an ABBA-ABBA-CDE-CDE rhyme scheme.
  • A Shakespearean sonnet is formed as three quatrains and one couplet and it has an ABAB-CDCD-EFEF-GG rhyme scheme.
  • A Spenserian sonnet has three quatrains and one couplet and is written with an ABAB-BCBC-CDCD-EE rhyme scheme, it must include a volta.

Sonnet

A sonnet is a type of poem that is comprised of fourteen lines and is written in iambic pentameter with a strict rhyme scheme. 

Examples of sonnets include Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 116’, Wordsworth’s ‘Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3 1802’ and Spenser’s ‘Amoretti LXXV: One day I wrote her name’. 

The Shakespearean sonnet is a type of sonnet that consists of fourteen lines divided into three quatrains and one rhyming couplet. It is written in iambic pentametre and follows an ABAB-CDCD-EFEF-GG rhyme scheme. 

The characteristics of the sonnet include that is comprised of fourteen lines, is written in iambic pentameter and has a strict rhyme scheme. Petrarchan and Spenserian sonnets also must include a volta, which is a climax in the poem. 

Final Sonnet Quiz

Question

What is a sonnet?

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Answer

A sonnet is a fourteen-line poem written in iambic pentameter with a strict rhyme scheme. 

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Question

How many lines are in a sonnet?


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Answer

14

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Question

What metre is the sonnet written in?


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Answer

It is written in iambic pentametre.

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Question

 Does the sonnet have a regular rhyme scheme?


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Answer

Yes! A sonnet does have a regular rhyme scheme

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Question

What are the three major types of sonnets?


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Answer

The three major types of sonnets are the Petrarchan, Shakespearean, and Spenserian sonnets.

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Question

What sonnet is also referred to as the Italian sonnet?

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Answer

Petrarchan sonnets

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Question

How many stanzas are there in a Petrarchan sonnet?


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Answer

 There is one octave and one sestet. 

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Question

What is an octave?


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Answer

It is a stanza with eight lines.

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Question

What is the rhyme scheme of the Petrarchan sonnet?


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Answer

The rhyme scheme is ABBA-ABBA-CDE-CDE

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Question

What is a volta?


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Answer

A volta is a shift in tone that provides a climax or epiphany in the poem. It is usually signified by words such as ‘but’ and ‘yet’. 

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Question

Which sonnet is referred to as the English sonnet?


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Answer

Petrarchan sonnets

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Question

How many sonnets did Shakespeare write?


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Answer

154

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Question

True or false: there is a volta in a Shakespearean sonnet.


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Answer

False! There is no volta in a Shakespearean sonnet.

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Question

How many stanzas are there in the Shakespearean sonnet?


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Answer

In a Shakespearean sonnet, there are three quatrains, followed by one rhyming couplet. 

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Question

The sonnet developed by Edmund Spenser is called the…

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Answer

Spenserian sonnet

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Question

How many stanzas are there in the Spenserian sonnet?


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Answer

In a Spenserian sonnet there are three quatrains, followed by one rhyming couplet.

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Is there a volta in the Spenserian sonnet?


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Answer

Yes! There is a volta in the Spenserian sonnet.

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Question

What is the rhyme scheme of the Spenserian sonnet? 


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Answer

The rhyme scheme of the Spenserian sonnet is ABAB-BCBC-CDCD-EE.

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Question

Where is the volta in the Spenserian sonnet typically located? 


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Answer

It is located at the end of the second stanza.

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Question

 What is iambic pentameter?


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Answer

It is when a line is written with five metrical feet (or iambs) that switch between an unstressed stressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable

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