Here, we’ll answer the question of what is a sonnet in poetry and go over the history of sonnets and the literary devices used to create them.
Taken from the Italian word “sonetto,” meaning “little song,” a sonnet has a distinct rhythm and strict structure, making it one of the most recognizable forms of poetry. Sonnets have fourteen lines and are written in iambic pentameter. There are several types of sonnets, many named after the poet who created the sonnet type.
Here, we’ll learn more about the intricacies of writing a sonnet and look at examples of famous sonnets.
- What Is A Sonnet?
- General Sonnet Format
- Types of Sonnet Forms
- Literary Devices Used In A Traditional Sonnet
- Well-Known Sonnet Poets
- Examples of Sonnets
- 1. Harlem Hopscotch by Maya Angelou
- 2. Amoretti #75 by Edmund Spenser
- 3. Sonnet 20: A Woman’s Face with Nature’s Own Hand Painted by William Shakespeare
What Is A Sonnet?
This line is known to people worldwide, but few know that it’s part of a Shakespearean sonnet. Sonnets are a common form of poetry that follows specific rules. Writing a sonnet takes work–authors must follow specific rhyme schemes and formatting rules. This can create challenges as authors work to express their ideas while still staying within the constraints of the type of sonnet they’re writing. The challenges of writing sonnets often require authors to consider new word choices, resulting in unique forms of self-expression that wouldn’t otherwise develop.
There are several different types of sonnets. While some poets still write sonnets today, this form of poetry is often associated with poets whose work has been cemented in time, including William Wordsworth, William Shakespeare, Giacomo Da Lentini, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
Sonnets are read at weddings, funerals, and other significant life events where people take the time to pause and reflect on the things that matter most. Many sonnets are serious, while others are more lighthearted. Sonnets often employ literary devices like imagery, metaphors, and similes to help readers understand the author’s point in just a few stanzas.
Many sonnets work to grapple with tough truths of being human, such as love, life, death, and trouble in relationships. Other sonnets talk about childhood, play, and fun. Still, other sonnets grapple with complex introspective topics, such as the meaning of existence. There are no hard and fast rules for topics a sonnet can cover, and poets have creative license to choose a topic they want to discuss as long as they stay within the constraints of the sonnet’s rules.
A sonnet’s intricate rhyme scheme means that poets have many parameters to follow as they work to convey their message to their readers. Of course, not all sonnets have the same rhyme scheme, but all sonnets do have some rhyme. Different poets, over time, have worked to create different forms of sonnets, and most sonnets written today fall into one of the four categories discussed in the sections below.
Francesco Petrarch, an Italian poet, first wrote sonnets. But, while the first sonnets came from Italy, poets from other countries quickly adopted this poetic form as it spread worldwide.
General Sonnet Format
There are a few different types of sonnets, but generally, sonnets follow the same format. In addition, sonnets use complicated rhyme schemes that help create a rhythm when the poem is read aloud.
Sonnets follow rhyme schemes. When examining the rhyme scheme of a sonnet, a letter is assigned to represent the final word in each line.
For example, let’s take a look at this excerpt from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 1:
But thou, contracted to thine own bright eyes,
Feed’st thy light’s flame with self-substantial fuel,
Making a famine where abundance lies,
Thyself thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel.
Here, we’ll assign the letter A to the word eyes at the end of the first line. Then, we’ll assign the letter B to fuel at the end of the second line. The rhyme scheme of the first two lines would be written as AB.
As we move on with the sonnet, we see that the word lies at the end of the third line and rhymes with eyes at the end of the first line, making the rhyme scheme to the first three lines ABA. Finally, we see that cruel at the end of the fourth line rhymes with fuel, making the rhyme scheme of this particular stanza ABAB.
There are several common rhyme schemes for sonnets, including:
- ABAB BCBC CDCD EE
- ABAB CDCD EFEF GG
- ABBA ABBA
Most sonnets are fourteen lines written in iambic pentameter–a form of poetry in which each line has ten syllables, and every other syllable is stressed. This format lends itself to a sing-song type rhythm often associated with sonnets. Check out our post detailing the 400-year-old first edition Shakespeare text on display.
Types of Sonnet Forms
Several common types of sonnets, including Petrarchan, Shakespearean, Spenserian, and Miltonic, are each named for the poet associated with the particular form of poetry.
A Petrarchan sonnet is named after Italian sonnet author Francesco Petrarch. Petrarch did not create this type of sonnet (Giacomo da Lentini likely developed it), but Petrarch became most well-known for this type of poetry. A Petrarchan sonnet is comprised of two subgroups. The octave subgroup in a Petrarchan sonnet follows an ABBA ABBA rhyme scheme, while the sestet subgroup follows either a CDE CDE or a CDC CDC rhyme scheme.
A Shakespearean sonnet, named after William Shakespeare, is a different take on Italian sonnets. This sonnet form has four subgroups, including three quatrains and a single couplet at the end. Shakespearean sonnets follow the ABAB CDCD EFEF GG rhyme scheme.
Spenserian sonnets are similar to Shakespearean sonnets but follow a slightly different rhyme scheme of ABAB BCBC CDCD EE. Miltonic sonnets follow the same rhyme scheme as Shakespearean sonnets but deal with increasingly serious themes, such as internal struggles. You might also be interested in our guide on how to poetry slam.
Literary Devices Used In A Traditional Sonnet
In addition to following a rhyme scheme, poets often employ other literary devices to make their points within their poems.
Alliteration, or using several words with similar sounds in a row, is a literary technique often used to create flow within a stanza of a sonnet. Onomatopoeia can be used. This is a technique that uses letters to create the sound the poet is working on describing (such as saying vroom to describe the sound that a car makes).
Using different points of view can also help a sonnet author connect with their reader, as they may choose to use the first-person point of view to describe a personal experience or a third-person point of view when they want to provide the reader with a more removed idea of what they’re working on describing.
Metaphors and similes are also often used to draw comparisons between concepts within a sonnet. With a limited space of just 14 lines, poets often have to condense their thoughts, and it can be easier to use metaphors or similes to explain their thoughts rather than long, drawn-out explanations. If you are interested in learning more, read our round-up of words for poets!
Well-Known Sonnet Poets
Sonnets have been around for centuries, one of the most well-known forms of poetry in the literary world. Well-known sonnet poets include William Shakespeare, John Milton, Edmund Spenser, John Donne, Philip Sidney, Francesco Petrarca, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Edna St. Vincent Millay, William Wordsworth, and Maya Angelou.
Sonnets have evolved, and many people wonder whether the poets of today will create new versions of sonnets. Like all art forms, it’s impossible to say who makes the rules. PerhBut, perhaps a new poet will soon have a sonnet style as their namesake.
Here, we’ll take a look at some examples of well-known sonnets.
Examples of Sonnets
1. Harlem Hopscotch by Maya Angelou
One foot down, then hop! It’s hot.
Good things for the ones that’s got.
Another jump, now to the left.
Everybody for hisself.
In the air, now both feet down.
Since you black, don’t stick around.
Food is gone, the rent is due,
Curse and cry and then jump two.
All the people out of work,
Hold for three, then twist and jerk.
Cross the line, they count you out.
That’s what hopping’s all about.
Both feet flat, the game is done.
They think I lost. I think I won.
Maya Angelou’s poem regarding life in Harlem isn’t simply about hopscotch–it’s about the difficulty of growing up in a racist and classist society. In this poem, Angelou first describes a game of hopscotch and discusses how important it is to keep moving, as it can be dangerous to stop when the heat is on.
Angelou talks about how financial issues and the general view of Black people by much of society–especially Black people who live in a neighborhood that is not highly thought of by others in the city–can have a lasting impact on a child. In the end, Angelou circles around her belief that a difficult upbringing can positively impact a child and reminds readers that it’s possible to use challenging situations to bolster personal growth. If you’re looking for more poems to explore, you might also enjoy our list of poems about life! Or you can also use our search bar to search for many more poems from different poets.
2. Amoretti #75 by Edmund Spenser
One day I wrote her name upon the strand,
But came the waves and washed it away:
Again I write it with a second hand,
But came the tide, and made my pains his prey.
Vain man, said she, that doest in vain assay,
A mortal thing so to immortalize,
For I myself shall like to this decay,
And eek my name be wiped out likewise.
Not so, (quod I) let baser things devise
To die in dust, but you shall live by fame:
My verse, your virtues rare shall eternize,
And in the heavens write your glorious name.
Where when as death shall all the world subdue,
Our love shall live, and later life renew.
Edmund Spenser was a well-known sonnet author and, like many poets before and after him, heavily focused on themes of love and loss.
In this sonnet, Spenser discusses how, even when a person’s body fades away, their memory remains for eternity. Again, like many poets who write sonnets, Spenser worked to discuss topics that can be hard to put into words–an especially challenging task when forced to work within the confines of a specific rhyme scheme.
3. Sonnet 20: A Woman’s Face with Nature’s Own Hand Painted by William Shakespeare
A woman’s face with nature’s own hand painted,
Hast thou, the master mistress of my passion;
A woman’s gentle heart, but not acquainted
With shifting change, as is false women’s fashion:
An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling,
Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth;
A man in hue all hues in his controlling,
Which steals men’s eyes and women’s souls amazeth.
And for a woman wert thou first created;
Till Nature, as she wrought thee, fell a-doting,
And by addition me of thee defeated,
By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.
But since she prick’d thee out for women’s pleasure,
Mine be thy love and thy love’s use their treasure.
There’s no doubt about one of the most often-discussed Shakespearean sonnets: the Bard got a little bit racy from time to time. In this sonnet, Shakespeare discusses the beauty of a person known as the Fair Youth. The Fair Youth was a male subject who took center stage in many of Shakespeare’s early sonnets.
In Sonnet 20, Shakespeare discusses how a man’s beauty is much like that of a woman’s and how he feels that many of the qualities of a man are incongruent with those of a stereotypical woman. While today, this sonnet would be classified as misogynistic, it was regarded as a humorous, poignant piece in its time.
To learn more, check out our guide on the 15 types of poems every writer should know!