10 Sonnet Examples From Ancient Italy to Today

From ancient Italian poetry to the works of Shakespeare and modern poets, here are 10 sonnet examples to show this art form.

The sonnet is, perhaps, one of the most popular forms of romantic poetry. Sonnets fall into two categories: Italian sonnets (also known as Petrarchan sonnets) or English sonnets (also known as Shakespearean sonnets). All sonnets are poems of 14 lines that typically use iambic pentameter as a meter, a meter that gives 10 beats per line of alternating unstressed and stressed syllables.

Each of the sonnet types has its own rhyme scheme. Italian sonnets have an octet of eight lines that follows the ABBA ABBA pattern followed by a sestet of six lines that follows either CDECDE or CDCDCD pattern. An English sonnet has three quatrains that follow the ABAB CDCD EFEF GG or ABAB BCBC CDCD EE pattern, both ending with a rhyming couplet.

To better understand sonnet, take a look at these 10 sonnet examples from some of the best poets of all time.

Top sonnet examples

1. Sonnet 26 by Giacomo da Lentini

Giacomo da Lentini is an Italian poet who is considered the creator of the sonnet form. His 14-line poems are written in Italian and often translated into the English language, where they lose some of their meter and meaning, but not much. Sonnet 26 talks about the strangeness of love and its immense impact on the speaker. 

“I’ve seen it rain on sunny days
And seen the darkness flash with light
And even lightning turn to haze,
Yes, frozen snow turn warm and bright “

Giacomo da Lentini

2. Sonnet 18 by William Shakespeare

Sonnet Examples by William Shakespeare
Sonnet 18 is one of the most famous sonnets in Shakespeare’s literary library

Shakespeare’s sonnets are numbered, not named, but Sonnet 18 is one of the most famous sonnets in his literary library. Though at its surface, it appears the sonnet is addressing a beautiful woman, it is actually addressing youth, which will eventually fade from summer to fall.

“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:”

William Shakespeare

3. When I Consider How My Light Is Spent By John Milton

This sonnet is not about love and romance, but rather a meditation on life and death. It also talks about the poet’s blindness and how his relationship with God has changed over his life. Because this sonnet is based on the poet’s true account of life, it speaks of his despair about losing his sight, as seen here:

“When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodg’d with me useless, though my soul more bent”

John Milton

4. The World Is Too Much with Us by William Wordsworth

Though it was written by a 19th-century English romantic poet, “The World Is Too Much with Us” is an example of the Petrarchan sonnet form. In the poem, Wordsworth criticizes his world for its growing materialism. He also points people back to nature.

“The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!”

William Wordsworth

5. Whoso List to Hunt by Sir Thomas Wyatt

Whoso List to Hunt” is considered the first traditional sonnet in English literature. It is a poem about trying to win the heart of a lady that the poet had already given his heart to. After rejection, the poet turned to writing poetry to soothe his aching heart.

This poem follows the Italian sonnet form, until the last six lines. For the last six, the rhyme pattern changes to CDDCEE. 

“Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind,
But as for me, alas, I may no more;
The vain travail hath wearied me so sore,
I am of them that furthest come behind.”

Thomas Wyatt

6. Death, Be Not Proud by John Donne

Part of the Holy Sonnets, “Death, Be Not Proud,” is one of 19 religious-themed poems. Published after his death, the sonnet tells Death not to be proud, because the writer’s soul will go into the afterlife. Thus, Death does not have the ultimate victory.

“Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.”

John Donne

7. On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer by John Keats

Over his short life, John Keats wrote 64 sonnets. One of these, “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” was a tribute to the work of George Chapman and a gift for the friend who introduced him to the work. 

“Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold. “

John Keats

8. Sonnet I by Edna St. Vincent Millay 

Sonnet I is an innovative Petrarchan sonnet that follows the theme of loving beauty and how it can be a devastating poison. In the poem, the speaker tries to convince herself that she is not actually attracted to the object of her affection because she does not want to become a victim of the poisonous effects. 

“Thou art not lovelier than lilacs,—no,
Nor honeysuckle; thou art not more fair
Than small white single poppies,—I can bear
Thy beauty; though I bend before thee, though”

Edna St. Vincent Millay

9. Amoretti by Edmund Spenser 

Amoretti is series of sonnets written by Edmund Spenser surrounding his courtship and marriage of Elizabeth Boyle. Though often overlooked by critics, the 89 sonnets in this work are great examples of the Petrarchan sonnet poetic form. It breaks from the traditional sonnet themes by focusing on love that is attainable, rather than out of reach. 

“One day I wrote her name upon the strand,
But came the waves and washed it away:
Again I wrote it with a second hand,
But came the tide, and made my pains his prey.”

Edmund Spenser

10. Sonnet 130 by William Shakespeare 

This is perhaps the most famous Shakespearean sonnet. In the poem, the English poet shows from the very first line that his lady love’s beauty pales in comparison to nature. This seems insulting, until the last lines when he changes the subject matter and states that he finds her rare and beautiful just as she is.

“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.”

William Shakespeare

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