What Is a Sonnet? Definition, Usage, and Literary Examples

Sonnet Definition


The sonnet (SAWN-it) is a fixed-verse 14-line poem that tends to follow a set rhyme scheme and meter. Sonnets propose a problem in their opening section and resolve it later. The moment in the sonnet where the poem shifts into resolution is called the volta, or “turn.” These poems often address themes like love, nature, religion, morality, and politics.

The word sonnet first appeared in English in 1557 in the title of a poem by Henry Howard, the earl of Surrey. The word derives from the Middle French sonnet (1540s), as well as the Italian sonnetto, meaning “little song.”


The History of the Sonnet


The sonnet originated in the 13th century among court poets in Sicily, who were deeply influenced by the idea of courtly and unrequited love popularized by the Provençal troubadour poets. The form soon spread to Tuscany, where Francesco Petrarch established the Petrarchan sonnet in the 14th century.

Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard are credited with introducing the sonnet form to England in the 16th century, where it soon became one of the most popular forms of English fixed verse. Many of the great English poets wrote sonnets, including William Shakespeare, John Milton, Edmund Spencer, John Donne, Sir Philip Sidney, John Keats, William Wordsworth, Elizabeth Barret Browning, and Gerald Manley Hopkins.

The sonnet has remained popular throughout the modern era. In 2018, American poet Terrance Hayes’s book of modern sonnets, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, was nominated for both the National Book Award and the T. S. Eliot Prize.


Petrarchan and Shakespearean Sonnets


The two most famous types of sonnets are the Petrarchan sonnet and the Shakespearean sonnet. Both sonnets primarily concern themselves with the subject matter of love, but they have different compositions.

Petrarchan Sonnets

This sonnet form, sometimes called the Italian sonnet, is named after Petrarch. People commonly believe that he invented the sonnet, but it was actually invented by Giacomo da Lentini in the 13th century. Petrarch, however, popularized the form with his 366-sonnet cycle Il Canzoniere, a series of unrequited love poems addressed to “Laura.”

Petrarchan sonnets consist of 14 lines, divided into an octave (eight lines) and a sestet (six lines). The octave’s rhyme scheme is ABBA ABBA, and the sestet’s rhyme scheme is either CDE CDE or CDC CDC. The opening octave frequently offers a problem that is resolved in the sestet. The ninth line of the poem, found at the top of the sestet, is the volta.

A key component of Petrarchan sonnets is its incorporation of blason, which is the use of high praise (or occasionally excessive scorn) for the poem’s subject.

Shakespearean Sonnets

These are a variation on the Italian sonnet. The name references William Shakespeare, who wrote many of the most famous sonnets of this type. This form became popular in England in the Elizabethan era, so it is sometimes called the Elizabethan sonnet or English sonnet.

The Shakespearean sonnet is comprised of 14 lines, divided into three quatrains (four-line sections) and a concluding couplet. Shakespearean sonnets are written in iambic pentameter and maintain a rhyme scheme of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. The volta in Shakespearean sonnets is generally found at the end of the 12th line.


Other Types of Sonnets


In addition to the Shakespearean and Petrarchan sonnets, there are many other types of sonnets.

  • Caudate sonnets: These are expanded versions of the sonnet form. A Caudate sonnet is comprised of a traditional 14-line sonnet followed by a coda. This is where the form takes its name, as the Latin cauda means “tail.” This sonnet tends to be used primarily for satire, as in John Milton’s political poem “On the New Forcers of Conscience Under the Long Parliament.”
  • Curtal sonnets: Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, who was interested in the mathematical proportions of sonnets, invented this form. Curtal sonnets are a proportionally shrunken version of a sonnet. They are comprised of 11 lines, which is three-fourths of the length of a traditional sonnet. As Petrarchan sonnets consist of an octave and a sestet, the curtal sonnet is composed of a sestet and a quatrain (proportionally shortened versions of the Petrarchan structure). The 11th and final line of the sonnet is called the tail piece, and it is usually much shorter than the other lines. These sonnets follow either an ABCABC DBCDC or an ABCABC DCBDC rhyme scheme.
  • Miltonic sonnets: These take their name from English poet John Milton. They follow the same rhyme scheme and structure as the Petrarchan sonnet. Unlike Petrarchan sonnets, however, the Miltonic sonnet addresses politics and questions of morality rather than romantic love or nature. Also, Miltonic sonnets often rely on enjambment to assist the poem’s flow.
  • Spenserian sonnets: Named after the English poet Edmund Spenser, who popularized them, these sonnets follow the structure of the Shakespearean sonnet. But, they have a more complicated rhyme scheme than Shakespearean sonnets: ABAB BCBC CDCD EE. Spenserian sonnets also tend to have a false volta early in the poem, generally around line nine, and then a true resolution in the concluding couplet.
  • Submerged sonnets: These sonnets appear as parts of longer poetic works; they are considered submerged within them. The most famous example of this is the submerged sonnet found in lines 235-248 of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.”
  • Word sonnets: A modern variant sonnet form from the New Formalism movement in late-20th century poetry, these sonnets contain only one word per line. They adhere to the traditional sonnet structure only through line count, as they do not utilize meter, and tend to follow the rhyme scheme of the Petrarchan or Shakespearean sonnet. The primary aesthetic effect of word sonnets is to draw the reader’s attention through sparseness and minimalism.


Sonnet Cycles and Sonnet Crowns


Poets will sometimes write a series of sonnets that connect with each other. There are two primary types of sonnet sequences: cycles and crowns.

Sonnet Cycles

These are groups of sonnets that share the same theme and/or are arranged to address the same person. Although each sonnet within the sequence can be read individually, they build upon and amplify the others thematically. Sonnet cycles are meant to be read both for their individual poems and as a single, unified poetic work composed of all the individual sonnets.

The sonnet sequence can focus on any theme but frequently addresses the speaker’s unrequited love for a distant beloved. Petrarch’s Canzioniere sequence, as well as Dante Alighieri’s La Vita Nuova, are notable examples of Italian sonnet sequences. Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella and Edmund Spencer’s Amoretti (a rare exception to the theme of unrequited love, as it is addressed to his wife) are notable examples of English sonnet sequences.

Elizabeth Barret Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese and Dante’s The House of Life are examples of Victorian-era sonnet sequences.

In the 20th century, W. H. Auden wrote two important sonnet sequences: “The Quest” and “In Time of War.” More recently, Wanda Coleman’s American Sonnets and Terrance Hayes’s American Sonnets for my Past and Future Assassin show the continued relevance of the form.

Sonnet Crowns

Also called the sonnet corona, crowns are a poetic form made up of 15 sonnets. These poems are constructed so that the last line of the first sonnet is the first line of the next sonnet, and so on, until the last sonnet’s final line repeats the first line of the first sonnet. This calls up the image of a giant circle (or crown).

An advanced form of the sonnet crown is the heroic crown, or sonnet redouble. The heroic crown is formed in precisely the same way as a regular sonnet crown, but the last sonnet is composed of each of the preceding 14 sonnets’ first lines in order. This final sonnet in the heroic crown is called the master sonnet.


Modern Sonnets


The modern sonnet is simply a poem of 14 lines addressing any theme of the poet’s choosing. They don’t need to adhere to any set rhyme scheme or meter, nor do they need to include a volta. Some modern sonnets are word sonnets, and some are part of sonnet cycles or sonnet crowns. However, the only true requirement for the modern sonnet is that it consists of 14 lines.


Notable Sonnet Writers



Examples of Sonnets in Literature


1. William Shakespeare, “Sonnet CVI

This poem, in its entirety, reads:

When in the chronicle of wasted time
I see descriptions of the fairest wights,
And beauty making beautiful old rhyme
In praise of ladies dead and lovely knights,
Then, in the blazon of sweet beauty’s best,
Of hand, of foot, of lip, of eye, of brow,
I see their antique pen would have express’d
Even such a beauty as you master now.
So all their praises are but prophecies
If this our time, all you prefiguring;
And, for they look’d but with diving eyes,
They had not skill enough your worth to sing:
For we, which no behold these present days,
Had eyes to wonder, but lack tongues to praise.

This sonnet follows all the rules for Shakespearean sonnets precisely: iambic pentameter, a rhyme scheme of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG, and a volta at the final couplet. Shakespeare’s sonnets are almost entirely love poems directed either to a character known as The Fair Youth or one called The Dark Lady. This sonnet is one addressed to the Fair Youth.

2. Harryette Mullen, “Dim Lady

Mullen’s poem is a play on Shakespeare’s famous sonnet “My mistress’s eyes are nothing like the sun.” Mullen updates the famous poem with modern language but keeps the meaning intact. She begins:

My honeybunch’s peppers are nothing like neon. Today’s spec-
ial at Red Lobster is redder than her kisser. If Liquid paper is
white, he racks are institutional beige. If her mop were Slinkys,
dishwater Slinkys would grow on her noggin….

Mullen abandons the rhyme scheme and meter of the traditional sonnet and even brings her poem in at 12 lines rather than the standard 14. She is explicitly experimenting with the form’s convention as she riffs upon a classic example in her modern sonnet.

3. Gerard Manley Hopkins, “Pied Beauty

In this curtal sonnet, Hopkins writes:

Glory be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knew how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beautify is past change:
Praise him.

This sonnet is an 11-line poem. Hopkins shrinks the Petrarchan structure of an octave and sestet proportionally, so they became a sestet and a quatrain, followed by the ending tail piece. In addition to experimenting with the original Petrarchan form, Hopkins plays with the margins of each line, giving the whole poem an additional kinetic energy.

4. Terrance Hayes, “I lock you in an American sonnet that is part prison

Hayes’s 2018 book, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, is a modern sonnet sequence. This sonnet is the seventh in a sequence of 70. All the sonnets are directed toward an unnamed “past and future assassin,” the threat of institutional violence that constantly hovers over the speaker, a black man living in America:

I lock you in an American sonnet that is part prison,
Part panic closet, a little room in a house set aflame.
I lock you in a form that is part music box, part meat
Grinder to separate the song of the bird from the bone.
I lock your persona in a dream-inducing sleeper hold
While your better selves watch from the bleachers.
I make you both gym & crow here. As the crow
You undergo a beautiful catharsis trapped one night
In the shadows of the gym. As the gym, the feel of crow-
Shit dropping to your floors is not unlike the stars
Falling from the pep rally posters on your walls.
I make you a box of darkness with a bird in its heart.
Voltas of acoustics, instinct & metaphor. It is not enough
To love you. It is not enough to want you destroyed.

This modern sonnet deviates from the traditional rhyme schemes and meter but makes explicit reference to the volta at the beginning of the penultimate line.


Further Resources on Sonnets


The Editors of the Encyclopaedia Britannica have an excellent overview of the history of the sonnet, including a short video that introduces love sonnets by women poets of the Renaissance.

Rachel Richardson wrote an excellent history and how-to guide to the sonnet for The Poetry Foundation.

Nightboat Books, working with the literary translation journal Telephone, published an innovative anthology that pairs Shakespeare’s sonnets with modern “English-to-English translations” of his poems.

Adam O’Riordan wrote a lovely analysis of the sonnet form, “The Sonnet as a Silver Marrow Spoon.”


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