Rhyme Scheme of Sonnets

From the Shakespearean to the modern form

Sonnets usually conform to one of two different rhyme schemes, those connected to the Shakespearean and the Petrarchan sonnet forms.

E.g. Throughout the ages, the rhyme scheme of sonnets has evolved from the classic Shakespearean form.

The latter, made famous by the Italian poet Petrarch, is also known as the Italian sonnet form. The former, made famous by William Shakespeare, is also known as an Elizabethan or English sonnet. There are many similarities between these two sonnet forms, for instance, the meter, the number of lines, and the most commonly addressed themes. But, the rhyme scheme is markedly different between the two. 

Shakespearean Sonnet

The first, the Shakespearean sonnet, follows the rhyme scheme of ABABCDCDEFEFGG. These lines take a reader through a problem (usually in the first eight or twelve lines) and then present a solution in the final six or two lines, depending on the poem. There are a few moments within the 154 sonnets that Shakespeare wrote over his lifetime where he deviated from this pattern, but they are few and far between. 

Petrarchan Sonnet

The Petrarchan sonnet rhyme scheme is similar in some aspects, but it uses repetition differently. These poems follow a rhyme scheme of ABBAABBACDCDCD.  While the first eight lines (ABBAABBA) are always the same, the last six can change. Other popular endings to these poems include patterns like CDECDE and CDEEDC. It is all up to the poet whether they choose to add in another rhyming ending or in what order these endings come in. 

While the Petrarchan and Shakespearean sonnets are by far the most popular sonnet forms, there are others that should be noted.

Miltonic Sonnet

The Miltonic sonnet, made famous by the English poet John Milton, is similar to the other two forms in several important ways. But, the rhyme scheme is slightly different. These poems follow a pattern of ABBAABBACDECDE. They also have a clear separation between the first eight lines and the second six lines. But, as with any poet, that rhyme scheme, as well as the “problem-solution” structure, could vary. 

Spenserian Sonnet

The Spenserian sonnet is another well-known sonnet form. It was made famous by Edmund Spenser who is best known for his long epic poem ‘The Faerie Queene’ and his series of sonnets included in Amoretti. Spenser made use of the rhyme scheme of ABAB BCBC CDCD EE. It has aspects of both Shakespearean and Petrarchan rhyme schemes. 

Modern/Contemporary Sonnet

Lastly, it is important to note that modern sonnets, those written during the modernist period, and contemporary sonnets, those written during this century, often do not conform to any of the above-mentioned rhyme schemes. Many of these sonnets, aside from having fourteen lines, have little to connect them to the traditions of Shakespeare and Petrarch. They are often written in free verse, meaning that there is no rhyme scheme or metrical pattern within the fourteen lines. 

Famous Examples of Sonnets 

Shakespearean Sonnet Example

Although there are many wonderful and famous Shakespearean poems, Sonnet 18,’ also know as ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’ is perhaps the best-loved. This poem conforms to the rhyme scheme that Shakespeare is known for ABABCDCDEFEFGG and uses iambic pentameter. In it, the speaker describes the Fair Youth as better than even the best parts of summer. He is “more lovely and more temperate.” His face is like an “eternal summer” because he has been immortalized in Shakespeare’s poetry.

Petrarchan Sonnet Example 

‘Whoso List to Hunt’ by Sir Thomas Wyatt is one of the best-known examples of a Petrarchan sonnet. These lines follow the Petrarchan or Italian sonnet form and discuss the obsessive pursuit of a “hind,” or female deer. This deer (a symbol for a woman) is always out of reach. The speaker tells the listener they are welcome to give the hunt a go, but it is really useless. No one is going to be able to catch her. 

Spenserian Sonnet Example

One of Spenser’s best-known poems is ‘Sonnet54: Of this world’s theatre in which we stay’. In these lines, which come from Amoretti, Spenser addresses his lover as an actor on the stage. He tries out several different roles all in an attempt to please her. Despite his best efforts, he’s never able to and the poem ends with the speaker feeling depressed and dejected. 

Miltonic Sonnet Example

Sonnet 23,’ which is also known asMethought I Saw my Late Espoused Saint’ is one of Milton’s best-known sonnets. It is based around the death of Milton’s second wife, Katherine Woodcock who died in 1657. She was his second wife and the second to die in childbirth. It describes a vision that the poet experienced his wife through a series of mythological references. 

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