Sonnet – History Structure Types

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As a poetic form, the sonnet has enjoyed popularity for centuries. Poets have composed poems in this form on a variety of subjects. It is a fine means to write about love and intense emotions. It is a pleasing medium for the expression of ideas, feelings, and emotions. This article is an attempt to look into the history, types, and structure of this poetic form. It is going to be of great value to the students and teachers of English literature.

History of the Sonnet

The sonnet emerged as a poetic form in Italy in the 13th century. The Sicilian school of court poets introduced this form of poetry. It reached the pinnacle of popularity during the 14th century in Tuscany. Petrarch, an Italian poet, wrote ‘Canzoniere’ which is a collection of over three hundred sonnets. All of them are in praise of his idealized beloved, Laura. They reflect Petrarch’s intensity of love for this woman. Inspired by the Italian sonnet, Henry Howard and Sir Thomas Wyatt introduced it in England in the 16th century. In English literature, Shakespeare popularized this form. Edmund Spenser and John Milton also used this form of poetry.

The Structure of the Sonnet

Traditionally, a sonnet is a poem composed of fourteen lines arranged in two parts. The first part consists of eight lines, called the octave. The second part consists of six lines, called the sestet. The poem presents a problem or point of contention in the octave. In the sestet, the poet offers a resolution or conclusion to the problem or contention. A sonnet is composed in iambic pentameter. In its classical Italian form, it follows the rhyme scheme ABBA ABBA CDC DCD. However, in English or Shakespearean form, its rhyme scheme is ABAB CDCD EFEF GG.

Types of Sonnets

The types of sonnets depend on the different structures, rhymes, and meters employed by different poets in different ages. The models introduced by Petrarch, Shakespeare, Spenser, and Milton inspired other poets who followed these models.

Italian/Petrarchan Sonnet

The Italian sonnet is the origin of this form of poetry. Petrarch, in the 14th century, played an important role in promoting it. Therefore, it earned the name Petrarchan sonnet. The fourteen lines of the poem composed in this structure are divided into two stanzas. The first stanza, octave, consists of eight lines that introduce a problem or situation. The second stanza, sestet, has six lines that offer a solution to the problem or clarify the situation. The rhyme scheme of the Italian sonnet is ABBA ABBA CDC DCD.

English/Shakespearean Sonnet

Shakespeare’s sonnets are the most popular works in this form of poetry in English literature. It is for this reason that The English sonnet has another name, that is, the Shakespearean sonnet. The structure of the poem in this tradition is the same as in the Petrarchan model. The first eight lines are an octave while the next six lines are a sestet. The difference occurs in the rhyme scheme. The rhyme scheme of the English sonnet is ABAB CDCD EFEF GG.

Spenserian Sonnet

The poet, Edmund Spenser, used this form with slight variation in the 16th century. In a Spenserian sonnet, there are three quatrains (4 lines) and a couplet (2 lines). The rhyme scheme of the Spenserian sonnet is ABAB BCBC CDCD EE.

Miltonic Sonnet

The Miltonic sonnet has its name from the great poet John Milton. It shows a slight variation from the English sonnet in rhyme scheme and meter. The rhyme scheme of a Miltonic sonnet is ABBA ABBA CDE CDE (or CDCDCD). Milton also experimented with the meter. Instead of employing the traditional iambic pentameter, Milton used a loose and fluid meter.

Some Famous Sonnets

Sir Thomas Wyatt

Whoso List to Hunt, They Flee From Me, and Blame Not My Lute

Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey

Complaint of the Absence of Her Love Being Upon the Sea, Of the Death of Sir T. W. The Elder, and The Things That Cause a Quiet Life

William Shakespeare

Shall I Compare Thee to a Summar Day?, To Me, Fair Friend, You Never Can Be Old, and  My Mistress’ Eyes Are Nothing Like The Sun

Edmund Spenser

Happy ye Leaves!, The Sovereign Beauty, and Men Call You Fair

John Milton

On His Blindness, On His Being Arrived to the Age of Twenty-three, and On His Deceased Wife

John Keats

O Solitude! if I Must with Thee Dwell, When I Have Fears, and On the Grasshopper and Cricket

Robert Frost

Mowing, The Oven Bird, and The Silken Tent

These are only a few examples of sonnets. There is a lot that we cannot capture in an article of this length.


The sonnet is a beautiful poetic form with certain variations. Poets have been using it to express ideas and emotions for centuries.  It addresses a wide range of emotions. Having understood the types and functions of a sonnet will enable you to appreciate this antique form of poetry in a better way.

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