Four Main Types of Sonnets with Examples


A fourteen-lined poem, a sonnet conventionally comprises a total of two parts one of which is an octave and the other is a sestet. Octave, too, has two parts, or two quatrains, each having four lines and a different rhyme scheme, while sestet has a total of six lines. A fixed rhyme scheme in a certain type and the use of iambic pentameter mark the specific features of a sonnet. However, there are various variations since the time sonnets have come into use in English language from the Italian poetic traditions. There are total four types of sonnets written in English.

  1. Petrarchan Sonnets
  2. Shakespearean Sonnets
  3. Spenserian Sonnets
  4. Miltonic Sonnets

Interestingly, these four types of sonnets suggest the impact of four icons of English literature in sonnet writing on future poetic traditions.

Petrarchan Sonnets

These sonnets arrived in English from Italian poetic traditions as the name suggests that Francesco Petrarca was the first to have developed this poetic form. Yet, he is not stated as the founder; rather he picked up this Renaissance poetic convention and made it his specific brand in poetry. As sonnets have a specific rhyme scheme, it is easy to follow this rhyme scheme in Italian but in English, it is highly difficult. Regarding rhyme scheme, an octave follows ABBAABBA rhyme scheme, while the sestet follows CDCDCD or CDE CDE rhyme scheme. Some poets may follow different rhyme scheme that suits their theme or main idea.

Thematically, whereas the octave presents a problem, its explanation through both of its quatrains, sestet sets the state for exposition and then resolution in six lines. These two Petrarchan sonnets translated by Thomas Wentworth Higgins show all of these traits of a sonnet.

Example #1

O joyous, blossoming, ever-blessed flowers!

Translated by Higgins, this Petrarchan sonnet shows all the features of a Petrarchan sonnet. Its octave presents the problem of the blossoming of the flowers, the next quatrain of the octave explains and interprets the problem, while the first part of the sestet shows the start of the solution that is how the face of his beloved is clear and transparent. The final solution is that the poet envies her present thinking of the purity of her beauty. That is why the passion in him burns. The use of different literary devices such as apostrophes, similes, and metaphors along with a specific rhyme scheme has made this to be placed at the top among the best Petrarchan sonnets. The following example is translated by Thomas Wentworth Higgins.

O joyous, blossoming, ever-blessed flowers!            A
’Mid which my pensive queen her footstep sets;       B
O plain, that hold’st her words for amulets               B
And keep’st her footsteps in thy leafy bowers!          A
O trees, with earliest green of springtime hours,       A
And all spring’s pale and tender violets!                   B
O grove, so dark the proud sun only lets                  B
His blithe rays gild the outskirts of thy towers!          A
O pleasant country-side! O limpid stream,                C
That mirrorest her sweet face, her eyes so clear,      D
And of their living light canst catch the beam!           C
I envy thee her presence pure and dear.                   D
There is no rock so senseless but I deem                 C
It burns with passion that to mine is near.                 D

Example #2

When Love doth those sweet eyes to earth incline

This beautiful sonnet is another example of a Petrarchan sonnet translated by Wentworth Higgins. Its rhyme scheme is usual in octave but different in sestet which is a typical Petrarchan style. The style of thematic expansion is based on the problem description and solution. The problem is Love that the speaker feels allured to at which he seems to think that he is going to die but his soul comes to the earth. The beauty of the structure lies in the use of literary devices such as the personification of Love and then alliteration of /s/ in the last line.

When Love doth those sweet eyes to earth incline,    A
And weaves those wandering notes into a sigh          B
With his own touch, and leads a minstrelsy                B
Clear-voiced and pure, angelic and divine,—             A
He makes sweet havoc in this heart of mine,             A
And to my thoughts brings transformation high,         B
So that I say, “My time has come to die,                    B
If fate so blest a death for me design.”                      A
But to my soul, thus steeped in joy, the sound           C
Brings such a wish to keep that present heaven,       D
It holds my spirit back to earth as well.                     E
And thus I live: and thus is loosed and wound           C
The thread of life which unto me was given               D
By this sole Siren who with us doth dwell.                 E

Shakespearean Sonnets

Shakespearean sonnets as the title suggest follows the structure set by Shakespeare in his popular sonnets. It is a continuation of tradition with slight changes. The octave and sestet follow the same structure with the final couplet. However, the rhyme scheme in Shakespearean sonnets considerably different that is ABABCDCD and EFEFGG. These sonnets are also called Elizabethan sonnets as the mood shifts from simple love to celebrated love as two examples show.

Example #1

Sonnet 5

This Shakespearean sonnet presents the typical Shakespearean theme that the poet compares a youth to the season of summer that the winter destroys. However, his argument rests on the distillation process of taking out the perfume if the flower dies. The typical argument presents a problem and resolves in the end in the final couplet. The beauty lies not only in its Shakespearean rhyme scheme but also in the use of literary devices such as personification, metaphor, and sound devices such as consonance and assonance.

Those hours that with gentle work did frame                       A
The lovely gaze where every eye doth dwell                       B
Will play the tyrants to the very same                                 A
And that unfair which fairly doth excel;                               B
For never-resting time leads summer on                            C
To hideous winter and confounds him there,                       D
Sap checked with frost and lusty leaves quite gone,           C
Beauty o’er-snowed and bareness everywhere.                  D
Then, were not summer’s distillation left                             E
A liquid prisoner pent in walls of glass,                               F
Beauty’s effect with beauty were bereft,                              E
Nor it nor no remembrance what it was.                              F
But flowers distilled, though they with winter meet,              G
Leese but their show; their substance still lives sweet.        G

Example #1

Sonnet: 6

Sonnet 6 is the continuation of Sonnet 5. However, it is different from the previous one in that now the poet urges the young man to have his offspring which is quite an usual theme that is resolved when the poet uses the metaphor of treasure. This beautiful thematic strand has also been woven in the same Shakespearean rhyme scheme but with different and unique literary devices.

Then let not winter’s ragged hand deface                  A
In thee thy summer ere thou be distilled.                   B
Make sweet some vial; treasure thou some place       A
With beauty’s treasure ere it be self-killed.                B
That use is not forbidden usury                                 C
Which happies those that pay the willing loan;           D
That’s for thyself to breed another thee,                    C
Or ten times happier, be it ten for one.                      D
Ten times thyself were happier than thou art             E
If ten of thine ten times refigured thee;                      F
Then what could death do if thou shouldst depart,     E
Leaving thee living in posterity?                                F
Be not self-willed, for thou art much too fair              G
To be death’s conquest and make worms thine heir.  G

Spenserian Sonnets

Like Petrarchan and Shakespearean sonnets, sonnets written by Spenser also follow the same metrical pattern of iambic pentameter and the same number of lines which is 14. However, they have an interlocking rhyme. This is ABAB BCBC and CDCDEE. The end is like that of Shakespeare having a heroic couplet. However, the issue that crops up and resolves itself in the other sonnets does not appear in Spenserian sonnets. In fact, it seems that it has three quatrains locked with a rhyme scheme and then a couplet, as given in these examples.

Example #1

Amoretti I: Happy ye leaves when as those lilly hands

This typical Spenserian sonnet shows its rhyme scheme as ABABBCBC and CDCDEE. The ending couplet completes the main theme that starts with the address of the leaves that the beloved of speaker handles with her soft hands. They have been compared to a captive who trembles when he finds himself in captivity. This comparison through a metaphor continues to haunt the entire sonnet until the end the allusion of Helicon surfaces at which the soul of the speaker feels the hunger. The speaker says that he only cares for her and nothing else as the sonnet given below shows.

Happy ye leaves when as those lilly hands,               A
Which hold my life in their dead doing might              B
Shall handle you and hold in loves soft bands,           A
Lyke captives trembling at the victors sight.               B
And happy lines, on which with starry light,                B
Those lamping eyes will deigne sometimes to look     C
And reade the sorrowes of my dying spright,              B
Written with teares in harts close bleeding book.        C
And happy rymes bath’d in the sacred brooke,           C
Of Helicon whence she derived is,                             D
When ye behold that Angels blessed looke,               C
My soules long lacked foode, my heavens blis.          D
Leaves, lines, and rymes, seeke her to please alone, E
Whom if ye please, I care for other none                    E

Example #2

Amoretti III: The Sovereign Beauty

The poet praises the beauty of his beloved, calling it “celestial hue” and showing his astonishment that he could neither speak nor write about it. In fact, his entire wit has stopped responding after looking at the beloved. The same typical Spenserian sonnet shows the use of ABABBCBC and CDCDEE with beautiful use of alliteration and personification of love presented in political terms as the sovereign.

The sovereign beauty which I do admire,                  A
Witness the world how worthy to be praised:             B
The light whereof hath kindled heavenly fire              A
In my frail spirit, by her from baseness raised;           B
That being now with her huge brightness dazed,        B
Base thing I can no more endure to view;                  C
But looking still on her, I stand amazed                     B
At wondrous sight of so celestial hue.                       C
So when my tongue would speak her praises due,     C
It stopped is with thought’s astonishment:                  D
And when my pen would write her titles true,             C
It ravish’d is with fancy’s wonderment:                       D
Yet in my heart I then both speak and write                E
The wonder that my wit cannot endite.                       E

Miltonic Sonnets

Despite following the same convention, Milton is different in his sonnets than his predecessors so much so that he has used different rhyme scheme and different themes. His rhyme scheme is ABBAABBA and CDECDE. Typically considered love poems, now sonnets elaborate themes related to social issues and problems. The use of enjambment sets his sonnets apart from others as the 9th line of his sonnets stays unbroken and shifts the theme to the next line. However, the rhyme scheme is the same as that is of Petrarch.

Example #1

How soon hath Time, the subtle thief of youth

Purely Miltonic in mood and tone, this sonnet presents Time as a thief. Personifying Time, Milton goes on to say that it has hastily stolen his youthful period and has taken away his spring. The use of enjambment makes it clear that the poet is contented over this “will of Heaven” showing his religious inclination. The beauty of the sonnet lines in iambic pentameter and literary devices such as metaphor, similes and consonance.

How soon hath Time, the subtle thief of youth,                     A
Stol’n on his wing my three-and-twentieth year!            B
My hasting days fly on with full career,                         B
But my late spring no bud or blossom shew’th.             A
Perhaps my semblance might deceive the truth                   A
That I to manhood am arriv’d so near;                          B
And inward ripeness doth much less appear,                B
That some more timely-happy spirits endu’th.               A
Yet be it less or more, or soon or slow,                                C
It shall be still in strictest measure ev’n                        D
To that same lot, however mean or high,                       E
Toward which Time leads me, and the will of Heav’n:           C
All is, if I have grace to use it so                                   D
As ever in my great Task-Master’s eye.                         E

Example #2

O Nightingale, that on yon bloomy Spray

Although Milton just presents a Nightingale like that of John Keats, his presentation is different in that his nightingale freshens the hearts of the lovers filling it with the hope of a good day with its notes that melt the hearts. However, he compares it with “the bill of Cuccoo” saying that it is alluring and rudely awakening. Comparing both of these sounds, he goes on to say that he serves both whether it is Love or Muse. His typical way of using literary devices of metaphors, allusions, and consonances has made this sonnet a successful piece of poetry.

O Nightingale, that on yon bloomy Spray                     A
Warbl’st at eeve, when all the Woods are still,              B
Thou with fresh hope the Lovers heart dost fill,             B
While the jolly hours lead on propitious May,                 A
Thy liquid notes that close the eye of Day,                     A
First heard before the shallow Cuccoo’s bill                   B
Portend success in love; O if Jove’s will                        B
Have linkt that amorous power to thy soft lay,                A
Now timely sing, ere the rude Bird of Hate                     C
Foretell my hopeles doom in som Grove ny:                   D
As thou from yeer to yeer hast sung too late                   E
For my relief; yet hadst no reason why,                          C
Whether the Muse, or Love call thee his mate,               D
Both them I serve, and of their train am I.                      E