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What is Sonnet?

Updated on September 1, 2019
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Muhammad Rafiq is a freelance writer, blogger, and translator with a Master's degree in English literature from the University of Malakand.

What is a Sonnet?
What is a Sonnet? | Source

Definition of Sonnet

Sonnet is regarded as the most popular, passionate and heart throbbing genre of subjective poetry. The term sonnet appears to have been derived from a Greek word sonneto, which means a sound. The Italian word sonnetto likewise means a little song. Hence, sonnet may be defined as a short lyric of fourteen lines with particular rhyme scheme and structure, conveying a single thought within the sphere of fourteen lines. Webster Dictionary has defined sonnet as a poem normally of fourteen lines in any of several fixed verse and rhyme schemes, typically in rhymed iambic pentameter.

It is complicated to trace the exact date and times of origination of the sonnet, yet historians agree with the fact that Dante and Francesco Petrarch perfected and fine-tuned the sonnet in Italy. Sir Thomas Whyatt and the Earl of Surrey introduced the sonnet in England. Though, they didn’t adhere to the exact forms of Petrarchan sonnet, yet they endeavoured to make numerous experiments in the sonnet.

William Shakespeare: A Great Soneteer
William Shakespeare: A Great Soneteer | Source

Characteristics of a Sonnet

Generally, sonnet incorporates 14 lines with octave and sestet. The first part is known as the octave, while the second part is labeled as sestet. Octave comprises of eight lines, while sestet is comprised of six lines. In Octave, the poet proposes a question, problem or an issue, and in Sestet, the poet makes an attempt to resolve the issue. There is certainly a turn or volta in the ninth line, wherein the poet starts shifting from proposition to the resolution of the problem. Should there be no problem, question or argument, there could be a sudden change in the tone of the poet in the ninth line of the sonnet. Meter is a significant feature of a sonnet. That being said, Iambic Pentameter is probably the most conventional rhyme scheme in a sonnet. A sonnet consists of octave and sestet. It should be kept in mind that there are no octave and sestet in Spenserian sonnet.

Sonnet is primarily a subjective poetry and conveys inner thoughts, emotions and feelings of the poet. Love is a major motif in the majority of the sonnets. Love is considered more or less demise, thralldom and mental torture for the poets. The poet perceives his beloved as an extremely gorgeous thing in the world. He compares his sweetheart to moon, star, summer’s day, or even queen. Exaggeration is commonly used to illustrate the beauty of beloved. The poet is highly likely to be overwhelmed by the virtue and additionally beauty of his beloved.

Types of Sonnet

Though there are many kinds of sonnet, yet following are the most popular forms of sonnet:

Petrarchan Sonnet

Francesco Petrarch, an Italian poet, was the very first poet, who composed sonnets to celebrate his love for his beloved Laura. Historians believe that, once, Petrarch had a chance to behold a lovely lady in a church. When he saw the lady, he fell deeply in love with that woman at first sight. He was so much in love with his ideal beloved that he started out composing sonnets in her compliments. Not a single person has found out whether or not Petrarch maintained his relations with her. Nevertheless, the simple truth is that Petrarch gave vent to his passionate feelings and thoughts in his sonnets. This kind of love usually means courtly love and the conventions followed by Petrarch are known as Petrarchan Conventions.

Petrarchan sonnet is composed of two groups. The first part is called octave, which consists of 8 lines, while the second part, which consists of 6 lines, is called sestet. Rhyme scheme of the Petrarchan sonnet is:

ab, ba, ab, ba, cde, cde.

There is a caesura after 8th line in every Petrarchan sonnet. Caesura is a pause in a distinctive line of poetry. Every single sonnet comes with caesura after the first part i.e., octave. Iambic Pentameter is an essential component of a sonnet. Almost every sonnet consists of Iambic Pentameter rhyme scheme. Iambic Pentameter is a form of meter, which is made up of five iambs. Each iamb or each foot consists of two syllables, wherein the first syllable is unaccented, while the second is accented. Robert Frost’s Design is a stunning instance in this particular reference:


I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,

On a white heal-all, holding up a moth

Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth --

Assorted characters of death and blight

Mixed ready to begin the morning right,

Like the ingredients of a witches' broth --

A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,

And dead wings carried like a paper kite.

What had that flower to do with being white,

The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?

What brought the kindred spider to that height,

Then steered the white moth thither in the night?

What but design of darkness to appall?--

If design govern in a thing so small.

(Design by Robert Frost)

Edmund Spenser: Who composed Spenserian Sonnets for the first time in the history of English Literature
Edmund Spenser: Who composed Spenserian Sonnets for the first time in the history of English Literature | Source

Spenserian Sonnet

Spenserian sonnet is a kind of sonnet, which was developed by the poet, Edmund Spenser. He was the first poet to introduce this type of sonnet in the history of poetry. Spenserian sonnet consists of three quatrains and a couplet. It has the rhyme scheme abab, bcbc, cdcd, ee. As it was invented by Edmund Spenser, that is why; this sonnet is labeled as Spenserian sonnet. Characteristics of a Spenserian sonnet are given below:

  • Usually, Iambic Pentameter is utilized in Spenserian sonnet.
  • Rhyme scheme abab, bcbc, cdcd, ee is employed in a Spenserian sonnet.
  • No octave or sestet is employed in Spenserian sonnet.
  • Volta is commonly used in Spenserian sonnet.
  • Three quatrains and a couplet are widely-used in Spenserian sonnet.
  • The Spenserian sonnet differs from Shakespearean sonnet merely in treatment of rhyme scheme.
  • The rhyme scheme of Spenserian sonnet is stringent , difficult as well as monotonous when compared with the rhymes employed by Shakespeare in his sonnets

Look at the following sonnet of Sir Edmund Spenser:

Sonnet LXXV

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.

"Vain man," said she, "that dost in vain assay

A mortal thing so to immortalize,

For I myself shall like to this decay,

And eke my name be wiped out likewise

"Not so." quod I, "Let baser thing 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."

(Sonnet LXXV By Sir Edmund Spenser)


Which sonnet do you like to read?

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Shakespearean Sonnet:

Shakespearean sonnet is a type of sonnet, which was developed by William Shakespeare in 16th century. It can also be termed as Elizabethan sonnet as it blossomed in Elizabethan Age. Even though, he didn’t invent it, yet somehow he took it to the pinnacle of glory. He perfected it, fine-tuned it and made it the most widely used form of poetry. Characteristics of a Shakespearean sonnet are enumerated below:

  • Shakespearean sonnet includes three quatrains and a couplet at the end of the sonnet.
  • Generally, Iambic Pentameter is utilized in Shakespearean sonnet.
  • Rhyme scheme of Shakespearean sonnet varies in structure and composition from Spenserian sonnet. Rhyme scheme abab, cdcd, efef, gg is used in Shakespearean sonnet instead of rhyme scheme abab, bcbc, cdcd, ee, which is often used in Spenserian sonnet.
  • No octave or sestet is utilized in Shakespearean sonnet similar to Spenserian sonnet.
  • Volta is usually employed in Shakespearean sonnet like Spenserian sonnet.
  • Lyrical quality is the prominent feature of Shakespearean sonnet.

Look at the following sonnet of William Shakespeare:

Sonnet XVIII

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.

(Sonnet XVIII by William Shakespeare)

© 2014 Muhammad Rafiq


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    • Rafiq23 profile imageAUTHOR

      Muhammad Rafiq 

      3 years ago from Pakistan

      You are welcome!

    • profile image


      3 years ago

      Thank u very much

    • Rafiq23 profile imageAUTHOR

      Muhammad Rafiq 

      4 years ago from Pakistan

      You are welcome!

    • profile image


      4 years ago

      thanx alot

    • Rafiq23 profile imageAUTHOR

      Muhammad Rafiq 

      6 years ago from Pakistan

      Thank you very much Tolovaj for your comments and encouragement! I am glad that you enjoyed it. Remain blessed!

    • Rafiq23 profile imageAUTHOR

      Muhammad Rafiq 

      6 years ago from Pakistan

      Thanks billybuc for your comments and visit! Have a nice time!

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      6 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you for reminding me of so much that I had forgotten. Excellent tutorial my friend.

    • Tolovaj profile image


      6 years ago

      Sonnet is relatively difficult form of writing, but when you learn it, it can become your second nature and can actually act like a form which just needs to be filled with words. Well, an inspiration can still be helpful.

      It's also a form, where our greatest poet (France Preseren, who is often mentioned in the same sentence as Francesco Petrarca) excelled and when I saw the title of this article on my feed, I had to react. There I am:)

      Thumbs up!


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