What is a Sonnet? Definition and Examples

Sonnets are one of the most popular forms of poetry, and they have been for hundreds of years. The strict format and short length make them easy to write, and it’s also why they’re common types of poems to study in school.

But what is a sonnet? Learn more about the characteristics that define this form of poetry, as well as the various types and examples.

Sonnet definition

A sonnet is a form of poem with 14 lines and a fixed rhyme scheme. Most sonnets use iambic pentameter, although this isn’t always the case.

Sonnets are thought to have been invented in the 13th century by the Italian poet Giacomo da Lentini, although the form was popularised by Francisco Petrarca in the 14th century.

A fountain pen placed on an open notebook with handwriting on the page.

Characteristics of a sonnet

While there are different types of sonnets, most share few key characteristics:

  • Fourteen lines. The most distinctive feature of a sonnet is its length. Any time you see a poem and it has 14 lines, it’s almost always going to be a sonnet. This strict length can also be divided into quatrains, which separate the poem into four sections.
  • Iambic pentameter. Sonnets are typically written in iambic pentameter, meaning that each line is divided into five pairs of beats, one stressed and one unstressed.
  • Strict rhyme scheme. The exact rhyme scheme will depend on the type of sonnet, but follow distinct patterns. For example, with Shakespearean sonnets are separated into four sections with the following rhyme scheme: ABAB / CDCD / EFEF / GG.
  • Divided into different sections. Sonnets don’t have different verses, but they are often split into different sections based around the rhyme scheme. Shakespearean sonnets are split into four section. The first three are quatrains, which are each four lines long, while the last section is just two lines long with a rhyming couplet.

Different types of sonnets

There a four primary forms of sonnets, each sharing the same core characteristics apart from a few differences.

  • Petrarchan sonnets.
  • Shakespearean sonnets.
  • Spenserian sonnets.
  • Miltonic sonnets.

Petrarchan sonnets

This is the original style of sonnet, named after the Italian poet Francesco Petrarch. 

They are divided into two groups: an octave and a sestet. The rhyme scheme follows a distinctive ABBA ABBA pattern in the octave, while the sestet can either follow CDE CDE or CDC CDC.

Shakespearean sonnets

One of the most common forms of poetry in the English language is the Shakespearean sonnet, which developed during the Elizabethan era and, unsurprisingly, is attributed to William Shakespeare.

Theses are divided into three quatrains and a couplet, following this rhyme scheme: ABAB CDCD EFEF GG.

Spenserian sonnets

The English poet Edmund Spencer developed this variation of the Shakesperean sonnet, which uses the following rhyme scheme: ABAB BCBC CDCD EE.

Miltonic sonnets

The Miltonic sonnet was a form popularised by John Milton. It follows the same rhyme scheme as a Petrarchan sonnet – ABBAABBACDECDE – but isn’t strictly divided into an octave and sestet.

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Examples of a sonnet

Sonnets are one of the easiest forms of poems to recognise at first glance because of their strict length. They have existed for hundreds of years, and they’re a popular form for a reason. Here are some of the top examples of sonnets:

Petrarchan sonnet example

While also known as Italian sonnets, Petrarchan sonnets weren’t only written in Italy. One famous example is William Wordsworth’s ‘Composed Upon Westminster Bridge’, written in 1809:

Earth has not any thing to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!

William Wordsworth, ‘Composed Upon Westminster Bridge’

Shakespearean sonnet example

Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets, with some being well-known even today. Sonnet 18 is perhaps the most famous, to the point where the first line is almost a cliche:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimm’d;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st;
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

William Shakespeare, ‘Sonnet 18’

Sonnet FAQs

How many lines is a sonnet?

Sonnets are fourteen lines long and are typically written in iambic pentameter.

What is the rhyme scheme of a sonnet?

The rhyme scheme of a sonnet depends on what type of sonnet it is. The oldest form, Petrarchan sonnets, often use a ABBA ABBA CDE CDE pattern.

What’s the difference between Shakespearean sonnets and Petrarchan sonnets?

The main difference between Shakespearean sonnets and Petrarchan sonnets, apart from their origins, is the rhyme scheme and how the 14 lines of the poems are grouped. 

Shakespearean sonnets use quatrains with the following structure: ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. Petrarchan sonnets instead combine an octave (eight lines) with a sestet (six lines) with a different rhyme scheme: ABBA ABBA CDE CDE.

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