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Stucture of a Sonnet

Updated on April 11, 2011

There's a lot more to this long-enduring poetic form than Shakespeare



The Sonnet is one of the most popular and well-known poetic forms. Dating as far back as the middle Ages, it has undergone several permutations of structure and use, evolving into the several variations of form and themes we have today. The three most common types of sonnets are The Elizabethan, the Spenserian, and the Italian. All three of these have their own unique approaches to a common form, although there are some features that all share, such as possessing 14 lines and a similar structure.

Willaim Shakespeare, 1564-1616.

Wrote 154 sonnets (no wonder they named the form after him)
Wrote 154 sonnets (no wonder they named the form after him)

The Elizabethan Sonnet

The most commonly known form of a sonnet is the Elizabethan, or Shakespearean, sonnet; reciving its dual names from the Elizabethan era when they became popular, and of course William Shakespeare, who wrote a large quantity of them over the course of his lifetime. Thematically, several are dedicated to his friend the Earl of Southampton, encouraging him to get married. The rest range from subjects as diverse as his own romantic involvments to descriptions of grief and soul-searching. The Shakespearean sonnet is broken down into 3 quatrains and 1 couplet. The rhyme scheme usually runs: ABAB-CDCD-EFEF-gg, as can be seen in the following:

My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun               A

Coral is far more red than her lips' red;                    B

If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;       A

If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.       B

I have seen roses damasked, red and white,           C

But no such roses see I in her cheeks;                    D

And in some perfumes is there more delight            C

Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.      D

I love to hear her speak, yet well I know                   E

That music hath a far more pleasing sound;            F

I grant I never saw a goddess go;                            E

My mistress when she walks treads on the ground. F

And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare             G

As any she belied with false compare.                     G


Another interesting observation that can be drawn from this particular example is that the ending couplet of a Shakespearean sonnet usually reverses the tone or message of the previous quatrains. In the above sonnet, Shakespeare describes a somewhat unattractive woman, then ends by attributing an emphatic statement of admiration usually given to more ‘traditional' sources of inspiration. This twist at the ending can be seen in many of Shakespeare's sonnets, but not exclusively; he did write 154 of them, so of course not all of them follow the same thematic patterns.

Edmund Spenser: 1552-1599.

Better-known for authoring 'The Book of the Faerie Queen', a poetical allegory
Better-known for authoring 'The Book of the Faerie Queen', a poetical allegory

The Spenserian Sonnet:

A variation on the sonnet that was influenced by the Elizabethan form is the Spenserian Sonnet. Like William Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser devided his sonnets into three quatrains and a couplet, unlike the older form of sonnet discussed below, which was often seen as a more 'legitimate' or classic form. Spenser departed from Shakespeare's infulence by using a more interwoven rhyme scheme: ABAB-BCBC-CDCD-ee. This more complex form is a bit more difficult to follow, especially for new students of poetry, but it also allows for a stronger link between quatrains, and thus a more song-like tone. This is fitting, since the word sonnet means "Little Song" in Itallian, and a good example of this particular form can be found in Spenser's highly spiritual Amoretti:

The glorious image of the maker's beauty, A

My sovereign saint, the idol of my thought, B

Dare not henceforth above the bounds of duty A

T'accuse of pride, or rashly blame for aught. B

For being as she is divinely wrought, B

And of the brood of angels heavenly born; C

And with the crew of blessed saints upbrought, B

Each of which did her with their gifts adorn; C

The bud of joy, the blossom of the morn, C

The beam of light, whom mortal eyes admire: D

What reason is it then but she should scorn C

Base things, that to her love too bold aspire? D

Such heavenly forms ought rather worshipped be, E

Than dare be lov'd by men of mean degree. E

The structure of a spenserian sonnet makes it a sort of hybrid between an Elizabethan and Italian sonnet, but does not always incorporate the thematic elements regarding a set-up and reversal.

Sir Tomas Wyatt: 1503-1542.

 First known Englishman to use the Italian sonnet form
First known Englishman to use the Italian sonnet form

The Italian Sonnet

A less well-known form of sonnet is the Italian sonnet. The Italian (or Petrarchan) sonnet predates the Elizabethan and Spenserian by several centuries, and has a slightly more involved structure. Whereas an Elizabethan and spenserian sonnet consists of three quatrains and a couplet, the Italian commonly is made up of two quatrains (or octave), followed by two tercets (or sestet). Also, instead of the fairly simple ABAB...etc. of the Elizabethan version, the Italian sonnet has a more complex frame work, and has more variations. The two quatrains usually runs: ABBA-ABBA, or ABAB-BABA, while the second half was either devided into a sestet of CDC-CDC, or a two tercets of CDE-CDE.

 Thematically, an Italian sonnet most often relates a conflict (whether physical or spiritual) in the first octave, and comes to a solution in the sestet; Similar to the twist at the end of an Elizabethan sonnet, only with more emphasis given to the change in tone. The following sonnet (Desire, by Sir Philip Sydney) demonstrates both the rhyme scheme and the thematic elements common to this form: (Note: despite the fact that the ‘de' lines at the end also rhyme with each other, it still follows the sestet structure)


Thou blind man's mark, thou fool's self-chosen snare, A

Fond fancy's scum, and dregs of scattered thought ;   B

Band of all evils, cradle of causeless care ;                  A

Thou web of will, whose end is never wrought ;            B

Desire, desire ! I have too dearly bought,                     B

With price of mangled mind, thy worthless ware ;          A

Too long, too long, asleep thou hast me brought,         B

Who shouldst my mind to higher things prepare.          A


But yet in vain thou hast my ruin sought ;                     C

In vain thou madest me to vain things aspire ;              D

In vain thou kindlest all thy smoky fire ;                         E

For virtue hath this better lesson taught,-                     C

Within myself to seek my only hire,                               D

Desiring nought but how to kill desire.                          E

 Despite that this form does predate others, and has been used by numerous famous poets throughout history, it has never been quite as popular or recognizable as the Elizabethan sonnet is today.

Just for fun: Pretty funny Shakespeare sketch

You decide:

Pick your favorite type of Sonnet

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    • ajwrites57 profile image

      AJ 4 years ago from Pennsylvania

      Enjoyed reading this informative Hub about the sonnets! Nicely done Jaime Wise!

    • LetitiaFT profile image

      LetitiaFT 5 years ago from Paris via California

      I was looking for precisely this information a couple of months ago and here I stumble on to it! Very thorough. Thanks for posting this.

      PS I think you could eliminate the spam by nunceffinenumb, unless it's a form of poetry that goes over my head...

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