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Structure of Sonnets

A sonnet is a fourteen-line poem that usually makes use of the metrical pattern of iambic pentameter.

There are several different styles and structures that go along with the label “sonnet” but none are better known than the Petrarchan and Shakespearean sonnet forms. The latter is also known as the English sonnet or Elizabethan sonnet while the former is sometimes called an Italian sonnet. These two forms are the most popular within the world of sonnet writing. 


Meter in Sonnets

As stated above, most sonnets, especially those that were written prior to the modernist movement, make use of the same material pattern: iambic pentameter. This means that each line contains five sets of two beats, known as metrical feet. The first is unstressed and the second stressed. It sounds something like da-DUM, da-DUM. But, there are exceptions. Nowadays, poets are less concerned with the meter that their poems conform to. Sonnets can be written in any pattern or no pattern. 


Rhyme Scheme in Sonnets

While Shakespearean and Petrarchan sonnets, along with less popular although still well-known forms like Miltonic sonnets and Spenserian sonnets, follow iambic pentameter, the rhyme schemes can be quite different. 

  • The Shakespearean sonnet follows a rhyme scheme of ABABCDCDEFEFGG. 
  • Petrarchan sonnets follow a rhyme scheme of ABBAABBACDCDCD (the last six lines often change their rhyming pattern depending on the writer). 
  • Spenserian sonnets follow a rhyme scheme of ABABBCBCCDCDEE.
  • Miltonic sonnets follow a rhyme scheme of ABBAABBACDECDE. 


Octets, Sestets, and Couplets

Another common feature of sonnets is the ability to separate the fourteen lines into smaller sections. There is generally a first part and a second part to sonnets (although Spenserian sonnets often disregard this feature). The first part made up of the first eight lines (the octet) presents a problem, an idea, a situation, or anything else the speaker is interested in talking about. The second half of the poem which is made up of the concluding six lines, presents the reader with an alternative perspective, a solution to the problem, a change in perspective, etc. 

Often, within Shakespearean sonnets, this transition from problem to the solution (known as the turn or “volta” in Italian) comes in the final two lines, known as the couplet.


Famous Examples of Sonnets

Shakesperean Sonnet Example

Sonnet 30′ is one of 154 sonnets that Shakespeare wrote during his lifetime. It belongs, as do the vast majority of the sonnets, to the Fair Youth sequence. This poem, and 125 others, were dedicated and directed to a young man. The man’s identity remains unknown to this day. Whoever he was, he was young and beautiful and inspired the poet to some of his best work. In this particular poem Shakespeare, who may or may not be the speaker, describes a depressive state and what it is that finally lifts him out of it. The Fair Youth is always there if only in his mind, to relieve his sorrows.


Petrarchan Sonnet Example

One of the most famous Petarcahn sonnets ever written in Elizabeth Barret Browning’s ‘How Do I Love Thee’. In these lines, which make use of the traditional structure that Petrarcah made famous, she addresses her husband, Robert Browning, and lays out the many ways she loves him.


Spenserian Sonnet Example

Spenser’s best-loved sonnet is Sonnet 75‘. It is also known by its first line, ‘One day I wrote her name upon the strand’. In the fourteen lines of this sonnet, which conforms to the pattern that Spenser is known for, he addresses his marriage to Elizabeth Boyle. These lines discuss a speaker who attempts to write his lover’s name on the sands of a beach only to be stymied again and again by the tide.


Miltonic Sonnet Example

‘Sonnet 19’ is most certainly the most famous sonnet that Milton penned. It is also known as ‘When I consider how my light is spent’, named as many sonnets are, for the first line of the poem. The sonnet believed to have been written before 1664, after the poet, John Milton, had gone completely blind. The lines follow the Petrarchan rhyme scheme an also make use of iambic pentameter. Throughout the poem, Milton explores his new disability and the emotions he is experiencing because of it. He knows that he is unable to continue as he had been, and he asks and receives an answer from God to his inner query.

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