What is a Sonnet? Definition, Examples of Literary Sonnets

Sonnet definition: A sonnet is a lyric poem that is comprised of fourteen lines and usually follows a rhyme scheme.

Different Types of Sonnet

Sonnet meaning: A sonnet is a type of poem that is fourteen lines in length and follows a rhyme scheme. Sonnets are typically written to address themes or issues revolving around love.

There are three main types of sonnets:

Italian Sonnet: The Italian sonnet, also referred to as a Petrarchan sonnet, consists of fourteen lines broken down into two parts, the octave and the sestet. Usually, the octave follows the rhyme scheme of abbaabba . The sestet typically follows either the cdecde or cdcdcd rhyme scheme, but at times, the sestet rhyme scheme could vary among Italian sonnets.

  • An example of the Italian sonnet would be John Keat’s “On the Grasshopper and Cricket”. This sonnet is comprised of 14 lines. The octave follows the abbaabba rhyme scheme, and the sestet follows the cdecde

Shakepearean Sonnet: The Shakespearean sonnet, also referred to as the English sonnet, consists of 14 lines that are divided into three quatrains and an ending couplet. The ending couplet is where the theme of the poem is revealed. The Shakespearean sonnet follows the abab cdcd efef gg rhyme scheme.

  • An example of the Shakespearean sonnet would be “Sonnet 18” by William Shakespeare. In this sonnet, Shakespeare explores how beauty of a person can be preserved through poetry. This sonnet consists of fourteen lines and follows the rhyme scheme of a typical Shakespearean sonnet.

Spenserian Sonnet: The Spenserian sonnet is like the Shakespearean one because it also includes three quatrains and an ending couplet. However, the Spenserian sonnet follows the rhyme scheme abab bcbc cdcd ee.

  • An example of the Spenserian sonnet would be from “Amoretti” by Edmund Spenser. In this sonnet, Spenser writes about the power of beautiful women. It includes fourteen lines and follows the abab bcbc cdcd ee rhyme scheme.

The Function of Sonnets

While today’s modern poets do not commonly write sonnets, they do serve an important purpose. Sonnets allow the poet to delve deeper in order to examine an emotion or idea in a short, structured poem. For the readers, the structure allows the poems to be more easily interpreted because many times the poem explores the idea or emotion in the beginning and often ends with the thematic message.

Examples of Sonnets in Literature

Here are some examples of sonnets in literature:

William Shakespeare included Shakespearean sonnets in his play Romeo and Juliet. The first lines spoken by the chorus are written in sonnet form. It is comprised of fourteen lines that are divided into three quatrains and an ending couplet. The lines follow the abab cdcd efef gg rhyme scheme:

“Two households, both alike in dignity,

In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,

From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,

Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.

From forth the fatal loins of these two foes

A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;

Whole misadventured piteous overthrows

Do with their death bury their parents’ strife.

The fearful passage of their death-mark’d love,

And the continuance of their parents’ rage,

Which, but their children’s end, nought could remove

Is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage;

The which if you with patient ears attend,

What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.

An example of an Italian sonnet would be “London, 1802” by William Wordsworth. This sonnet is comprised of fourteen lines that are divided into an octave and sestet. It follows the abbaabba cddefcf rhyme scheme.

Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour:

England hath need of thee: she is a fen

Of stagnant waters: altar, sword, and pen,

Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower,

Have forfeited their ancient English dower

Of inward happiness. We are selfish men;

Oh! raise us up, return to us again;

And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power.

Thy soul was like a Star, and dwelt apart:

Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea:

Pure as the naked heavens, majestic, free,

So didst thou travel on life’s common way,

In cheerful godliness; and yet thy heart

The lowliest duties on herself did lay.

Summary: What are Sonnets?

Define sonnets in poetry: A sonnet is a structural poem that is comprised of fourteen lines that follow a rhyme scheme. These poems address particular issues that often involve emotions or ideas about love.

Final example,

“Sonnet 73” by William Shakespeare is another example of a Shakespearean sonnet that is comprised of fourteen lines that are divided into three quatrains and an ending couplet. Again, this sonnet follows the rhyme scheme abab cdcd efef gg.

That time of year thou may’st in me behold

Then yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang

Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,

Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.

In me thou see’st the twilight of such day,

As after sunset fadeth in the west,

Which by-and-by black night doth take away,

Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.

In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire

That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,

As the death-bed wereon it must expire

Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.

This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,

To love that well which thou must leave ere long.