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10 Famous Sonnets from the Past 400+ years

On this list you will find ten of the most popular, genre-changing, and memorable sonnets written throughout the last 400+ years. From William Shakespeare to Edna St. Vincent Millay, the writers on this list approach sonnet writing in several different, but equally important ways. Their works range in topic, context, themes, and intent


Sonnet 18: Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? by William Shakespeare 

This very famous sonnet has one of the most memorable lines in the world of English-language poetry: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” The speaker explains in the next lines that the intended listener is better than even the best parts of summer. They are “more lovely and more temperate.” 

The most important part of the poem comes at the end where a real distinction is drawn between the listener and a perfect, warm sunny day. The summer is temporary, it isn’t going to last. But, luckily for the listener, their beauty is.  


What My Lips Have Kissed, and Where, and Why by Edna St. Vincent Millay

‘What My Lips Have Kissed, and Where and Why’ is a poem told from the perspective of a speaker who cannot remember the lovers of her past, only the happy state she must once have inhabited. The speaker describes “what” her lips have kissed, “why” they kissed, and “where” they kissed. She has lost some of her memories, or the sensations from experiences. In the present, she is brought into a depression. The poem concludes sadly with no hope for the future, she says she once knew summer, but that “in me [it[ sings no more.” 


Sonnet 130: My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun by William Shakespeare 

In this very popular sonnet, the speaker compares his lover to other beautiful things. The comparisons do not progress exactly as a reader might expect. The listener doesn’t have any similarities to the natural items he points out. Her lips are dull, her breasts aren’t white enough and she walks on the ground. His love might be not outrageously beautiful, but that doesn’t make her less important or loveable to him. People do not need to have perfume breath to deserve love.


Sonnet 1 by Sir Philip Sidney 

This sonnet is one of 108 that are included in Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella.  Sonnet 1 starts out the sequence an depicts a speaker who desires to share his love with his beloved through writing. He wants nothing more than to win Stella’s heart and thinks that if she reads his writing then perhaps she will come to love or at least pity him. 


Leda and the Swan by William Butler Yeats 

‘Leda and the Swan’ is one of William Butler Yeats most popular, mythology-based poems. This poem is included in Yeats’ collection The Tower, published in 1928. It is now considered to be one of the most important works of the 20th century. ‘Leda and the Swan’ takes its context from a Greek myth in which Leda, a princess from Aetolia,  is seduced by Zeus, in the form of a swan. It is from this union that the entire race of heroes and heroines were born. These were the founders of Athens and many of them feature in Homer’s writings. 


Holy Sonnet 10: Death be not Proud by John Donne 

This poem is also known as Holy Sonnet number 10 was written in 1633. It is devoted to a personified form of death, a familiar character/theme within Donne’s work and that of his contemporaries. Throughout ‘Death be not Proud’, the speaker uses a metaphor to describe how death is impermanent. Rather than being something that one should dread throughout the entirety of one’s life, it is actually a powerless being that frees human souls rather than destroys them.


Sonnet 19: On His Blindness by John Milton 

This sonnet is by far Milton’s most famous. It was written sometime after the poet had gone blind and he was dealing with the implications of this new disability. He expresses in the fourteen lines of this sonnet his frustration with the changes in his life and is uncertainty about how best to serve God throughout the remainder of his life. Milton is faced with the challenge of continuing his works. 


Sonnet: To Time by Sylvia Plath

In ‘To Time,’ one of Plath’s best-known poems, the speaker discusses the comings and goings of death “in a casual steel car”. The speaker describes how human beings address death and its inevitability. Specifically, how we “scorn the dark”. In the last six lines of the poem, the speaker toasts to the great ages of the past that have long since faded into death. In conclusion, she states that time is “a great machine” that works, as a prison does, to “drain…the milk of stars”. 


Sonnet 14: If Thou Must Love Me by Elizabeth Barrett Browning 

‘If Thou Must Love Me’ follows the pattern of a traditional Petrarchan sonnet and declares the speaker’s intentions for how she is to be loved. The speaker says that she does not wish to be loved for any reason other than for love’s own sake. She doesn’t want her lover to love her for her smile or the way in which their thoughts are similar, as these things are liable to change over time. She would rather not be loved, than to lose love later in life. 


Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley 

This memorable poem describes a ruined statue of a king in an empty desert. The statue has a powerful message emblazoned on it saying “Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair”. Despite this message, any great cities or monuments the king built have fallen. Everything is in ruins. The poem was published in 1818 and published the same year in The Examiner of London. Nowadays, it is frequently anthologized.

Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.

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