What Is a Sonnet? Definition & 10+ Examples

Have you ever wondered how poets express vast emotions and profound thoughts in just 14 lines? If so, you’re not alone! The sonnet, an age-old poetic form that originated in Italy, achieves just this.

The power of a sonnet lies in its structure, which serves as a versatile container for ideas and feelings. From their historical origins to the hands of master poets, sonnets have an uncanny ability to capture human emotion in a neat, poetic package.

This article will dive into the structure, rhythm, and magic that defines the sonnet, unearthing the secrets behind its ageless allure. We’ll also provide tips on making this small but mighty form of poetry that has captivated hearts and minds for centuries.

So let’s get started:

Table of Contents

What is a Sonnet?

A sonnet is a beautiful and intricate form of poetry, consisting of 14 lines and often written in iambic pentameter. This unique structure lends itself to rich expressions of emotion and complex thoughts, making it a favorite amongst poets for centuries.

Sonnets often explore themes of love, beauty, and the passage of time, captivating readers with their rhythmic cadence and lyrical sophistication.

Did You Know? Shakespeare, the famous playwright, was also a prolific sonneteer. He wrote a total of 154 sonnets, exploring a wide range of themes and becoming a significant influence in the development of this poetic form.

The Origin and Evolution of Sonnets

Italian Roots

The sonnet originated in Italy in the 13th century, where it was invented by Giacomo da Lentini, a court poet, and notary. It was popularized by:

  • Dante, who wrote sonnets to his beloved Beatrice in his Vita Nuova (New Life).
  • Petrarch, whose Canzoniere (Songbook) contains 317 sonnets dedicated to his idealized love, Laura.

Petrarch’s sonnets influenced many poets across Europe, who adopted and adapted his form and style.

From Italy to England

The sonnet reached England in the 16th century, where it was introduced by Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey. They translated and imitated Petrarch’s sonnets, but also modified the form to suit the English language.

Shakespeare and His Impact

Surrey is credited with creating the English sonnet form, which was later used by William Shakespeare and other Elizabethan poets. Shakespeare’s sonnets are among the most famous and celebrated in English literature, exploring themes such as love, time, beauty, and mortality.

Romantic Sonnets

The sonnet continued to flourish in the Romantic period, where poets such as Wordsworth and Keats used it to express their feelings and thoughts about nature and emotion.

Modern Experimentation With Sonnets

In the 20th and 21st centuries, the sonnet has been experimented with and reinvented by many poets, who have challenged and played with its traditional rules and conventions.

Fun Fact! The word 'sonnet' comes from the Italian 'sonetto', which means 'little song'. So every time you read a sonnet, you’re actually reading a little song that has evolved and adapted throughout centuries!

Celebrated Sonneteers: Pioneers and Contemporary Masters

The Olden Masters

Petrarch: The Father of the Sonnet

Petrarch, a 14th-century Italian scholar and poet, is widely hailed as the “Father of the Sonnet”. He composed 317 sonnets that played a pivotal role in shaping this form of poetry.

Now termed Petrarchan sonnets, his poems set a template in terms of structure and thematic conventions, leaving a lasting influence on the generations of sonneteers to follow.

William Shakespeare: The Bard’s Sonnet Legacy

William Shakespeare, often known as “The Bard,” left an indelible mark on the world of sonnets. He penned 154 sonnets, exploring themes such as love, time, beauty, and mortality.

Shakespeare’s sonnets, with their distinctive ABAB CDCD EFEF GG rhyme scheme, remain among the most studied and celebrated works of English literature, captivating readers with their profound themes, rich imagery, and linguistic artistry.

Modern Maestros

Elizabeth Barrett Browning: Sonnets from the Heart

In more contemporary times, Elizabeth Barrett Browning made a noteworthy contribution to the sonnet’s evolution.

Her collection, Sonnets from the Portuguese, a compilation of 44 love sonnets penned to her then-future husband, Robert Browning, showcases her command over language and her poignant exploration of love and vulnerability.

Edna St. Vincent Millay: A Sonnet Pioneer

Edna St. Vincent Millay, a prominent 20th-century American poet, was renowned for her innovative use of the sonnet form. Her unique poetry, which often revolved around themes of feminism and personal autonomy, defied traditional sonnet themes.

Millay’s pioneering exploration of these themes within the sonnet structure demonstrated her mastery of the form and established her as a significant figure in the history of sonnet writing.

Claude McKay: The Harlem Renaissance Sonneteer

Claude McKay, a pivotal figure in the Harlem Renaissance, is celebrated for his distinctive sonnets. As a Jamaican-American poet, he melded traditional sonnet forms with themes of social and political concerns, racial identity, and cultural expression.

His sonnets such as If We Must Die and America underscore the power and versatility of the sonnet, reflecting its enduring appeal in addressing the complexities of modern life.

Pro Tip: Modern sonnets may not always play by the traditional rules. Embrace the unexpected! Keep an open mind and enjoy these fresh, innovative variations. They are the poetic rebels pushing boundaries in the name of creativity.

The Different Types of Sonnets

Petrarchan Sonnets (Italian)

The Petrarchan or Italian sonnet consists of an octave (eight lines) and a sestet (six lines), which create distinct sections:

  • The rhyme scheme for the octave is typically ABBA, ABBA.
  • The sestet can vary, such as CDECDE or CDCDCD.
The theme usually involves love, and the poet utilizes this structure to explore opposing ideas, such as unrequited love and passionate attraction.

Shakespearean Sonnets (English)

The Shakespearean or English sonnet comprises three quatrains (four lines each) and a closing rhymed couplet (two lines). The rhyme scheme is ABAB, CDCD, EFEF, GG.

These sonnets often explore themes of:

  • Love
  • Beauty
  • The passage of time
One notable characteristic of the Shakespearean sonnet is the volta, a sudden shift in thought that typically occurs near the end of the poem, such as after the eighth or twelfth line.

Spenserian Sonnets

The Spenserian sonnet, named after Edmund Spenser, is similar to the Shakespearean sonnet but has a unique rhyme scheme: ABAB, BCBC, CDCD, EE. This interlocking pattern creates a sense of continuity, blending the quatrains together.

Spenser's sonnets are known for their themes of love, beauty, and morality, but these are not exclusive to this form.

Miltonic Sonnets

The Miltonic sonnet is a variation of the Petrarchan sonnet, popularized by John Milton. This form also consists of an octave and a sestet, but there is no break between them, and the rhyme scheme is highly flexible, often following an ABBAABBA CDECDE or similar pattern.

Miltonic sonnets, as opposed to focusing mainly on themes of love, explore deeper philosophical and spiritual concepts. Milton also introduced new themes such as politics, religion, and history to the sonnet form.

Other Forms

Various other forms of sonnets have evolved throughout history, adapting to different languages and cultural contexts.

Example: The Pushkin sonnet, also known as the Onegin stanza, is a unique poetic form named after Russian author Alexander Pushkin.

Unlike traditional sonnets with 14 lines, it comprises 14 lines of iambic tetrameter but with a complex rhyme scheme (AbAbCCddEffEgg). The scheme distinguishes between the two below:

  • Feminine rhymes (ending on an unstressed syllable, represented by capital letters).
  • Masculine rhymes (ending on a stressed syllable, denoted by lowercase letters).

This form, featured in Pushkin’s novel-in-verse Eugene Onegin, is celebrated for its musicality and the emotional depth it can convey. It is distinctive from traditional English or Italian sonnet structures.

These sonnets often encompass a wide range of themes, such as love, nature, and politics.

Other forms of sonnets are:

  • The Curtal sonnet (a shortened version of the Petrarchan sonnet)
  • The Terza Rima sonnet (a form that uses tercets with interlocking rhymes)

These are less conventional but still valid forms of sonnets that have their own distinctive features and themes.

Here’s a simplified table based on the information above:

TypeStructureRhyme SchemeThemes
Petrarchan (Italian)Octave (8 lines)
Sestet (6 lines)
Octave: ABBA, ABBA; Sestet: CDECDE or CDCDCDLove, opposing ideas
Shakespearean (English)Three quatrains (4 lines each)
Closing couplet (2 lines)
ABAB, CDCD, EFEF, GGLove, beauty, the passage of time
SpenserianThree quatrains (4 lines each) Closing couplet (2 lines)ABAB, BCBC, CDCD, EELove, beauty, morality
MiltonicOctave (8 lines)
Sestet (6 lines)
Flexible, often ABBAABBA CDECDE or similarDeeper philosophical and spiritual concepts, politics, religion, history
Pushkin (Onegin)14 lines of iambic tetrameterAbAbCCddEffEggWide range, such as love, nature, and politics
Other Forms (Examples: Curtal, Terza Rima)VariesVariesVaries
Pro Tip: 
To differentiate these sonnets, remember: Petrarchan sonnets use an octave and a sestet, Shakespearean sonnets consist of three quatrains and a couplet, and Spenserian sonnets employ a continuous interlocking rhyme scheme.

The Beauty in Words: Sonnet Examples

A sonnet is a 14-line poem typically focused on themes of love, beauty, or nature. Shakespearean and Petrarchan sonnets are two prevalent forms of this style of poetry.

Sonnet 18 (Shakespearean Sonnet)

Sonnet 18, in which Shakespeare ponders the eternal beauty of his subject, even as they age and change. This sonnet’s opening lines are iconic:

"Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate."

Sonnet 90 (Petrarchan Sonnet)

Sonnet 90 by Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch), where the poet explores love’s torment and the beautiful sorrow it can bring.

Within the octave, Petrarch invokes relentless love, while the sestet reveals his pain:

"Love has made me of two almost one, a heart united in consciousness with beauty."

What role does beauty play in these sonnets?

In both forms, beauty often serves as the driving force, transcending time and the instability of nature, and manages to convey the powerful emotions surrounding love and devotion.

These examples showcase how the sonnet manages to convey its message through the constraint and structure imposed upon it.

The rhythmic nature of the sonnet allows the poet to explore deeper themes within a confined literary space, ultimately revealing the true beauty in words.

Pro Tip: If you've spotted a 14-line poem with a rhyming rhythm, you've likely just encountered a sonnet in the wild. Trust your 'sonnet spidey sense,' but do double-check for other telltale signs such as iambic pentameter and a thematic turn (volta).

Worldly Sonnets: The Sonnet Form Beyond Europe

The sonnet’s influence stretches far beyond its origins in Italy, becoming a global phenomenon embraced by different cultures. Although they share literary terms and themes, the variations and styles of sonnets are vast across international regions.

In The Cambridge Companion to the Sonnet, one can find a diverse range of sonnets, showcasing how different countries create their own unique styles. These variations bring forth new perspectives and expand the reader’s understanding of the sonnet form.

When examining non-European sonnets, one should be mindful of cultural nuances shaping the poems. Keep an open mind and appreciate the creativity and adaptations that these international poets bring to the cherished form.

Example: The Art of the Sonnet includes contemporary poems that overflow the traditional sonnet boundaries. These modernist examples challenge the reader’s expectations and provide a fresh perspective on this classic poetic form.

Unleashing Your Inner Bard: Sonnet Composition Tips

Sonnet Components

A sonnet is a 14-line poem with a specific rhyme scheme and meter, often exploring themes of love, beauty, or mortality. To begin writing a sonnet, familiarize yourself with the key components, such as:

  • The rhyme scheme, which differs for each type.
  • The iambic pentameter rhythm.

How to Start Writing Your Own Sonnets

Step 1: Choose a Theme

Begin by selecting a theme or central idea you want to explore in your sonnet. This could be love, nature, time, beauty, or any other topic that interests you.

Step 2: Select Sonnet Type

Decide whether you want to write an Italian (Petrarchan) or a Shakespearean sonnet. Each has its unique structure and rhyme scheme.

Step 3: Understand the Structure

For an Italian sonnet, write an octave (8 lines) and a sestet (6 lines) with a typical rhyme scheme of ABBA, ABBA, and CDECDE, respectively. For a Shakespearean sonnet, write three quatrains (4 lines each) and a closing couplet (2 lines), following the rhyme scheme ABAB, CDCD, EFEF, GG.

Step 4: Write in Iambic Pentameter

This is a rhythm that consists of ten syllables per line, with the pattern being an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. It’s the classic meter used in sonnets.

Step 5: Draft Your Sonnet

Begin writing your sonnet. Don’t worry about it being perfect on the first try.

Step 6: Revise and Refine

Practice and revise your work, refining your ideas and language. Remember, writing is a process, and revision is a key part of it. Don’t be afraid to make changes and improvements.

Some sources recommend starting with the rhyme scheme before writing the lines, while other sources suggest writing the lines first and then adjusting the rhyme scheme.

Stuck on Your Sonnet? Try a simple trick. Write a 14-line story with a twist at the end. Once you have this skeleton, you can start to mold your story into the sonnet structure. It's all about finding that initial creative spark.

Tips for Composing Your Sonnet

  • Tip 1: Begin by deciding on a theme or subject to explore in your sonnet. This can help guide your focus and creativity.
  • Tip 2: Use imagery and metaphors to create a vivid mental picture in the reader’s mind.
  • Tip 3: Write in iambic pentameter, using stressed and unstressed syllables, which creates a rhythmic pattern that adds an artistic quality to your sonnet.
  • Tip 4: Experiment with the rhyme scheme, either by adhering to the established patterns or creating a variation that suits your personal style.

To the Reader

Believe in your ability to compose a sonnet. Practicing and experimenting with different techniques will help you develop your writing skills and find your poetic voice.

Remember, the more you write, the more confident and skillful you will become. 
So, unleash your inner bard and get started on your sonnet today.

How to Interact More With Sonnets

Reading and writing sonnets can be an enjoyable experience, but engaging with them more actively can further enrich one’s appreciation for this poetic form.

There are several ways to interact with sonnets, such as:

  • Participating in reading groups.
  • Attending writing workshops.
  • Joining competitions.

Participate in Reading Groups

Sonnet-focused reading groups provide a space for participants to discuss their favorite sonnets, exchange ideas, and gain insight into the themes and structure of the poems.

Some groups may focus on specific poets, such as Shakespeare, while others explore sonnets more broadly.

Attend Writing Workshops

Workshops dedicated to the art of writing sonnets can help aspiring poets hone their craft. These sessions often include guidance on:

  • Sonnet structure
  • Rhyme schemes
  • Themes

Some workshops even offer opportunities for participants to share their own sonnets and receive feedback from peers and mentors.

Joining Competitions

Sonnet competitions, like the ones organized by Leigh Hunt in the past, can be exciting challenges for poets and help promote the appreciation of this literary form.

Competitions not only provide a platform for poets to showcase their talent but also expose participants to various interpretations of sonnets and foster networking opportunities.

What to Do: Advice on Getting the Most Out of These Interactive Experiences

To truly immerse yourself in the world of sonnets, try these tips for getting the most out of reading groups, workshops, and competitions:

  • Tip 1: Participation

Engage actively in discussions, ask questions, and share your thoughts and interpretations. Not only will this deepen your understanding of sonnets, but it will also foster meaningful connections with fellow enthusiasts.

  • Tip 2: Experimentation

Use workshops and competitions as opportunities to explore different themes, styles, and structures of sonnets. Challenging yourself in this way will help you grow as a writer and expand your creative horizons.

  • Tip 3: Reflection

After reading a sonnet or participating in interactive events, take time to reflect on your experience, the ideas presented, and how they relate to your understanding of the form.

This mindful approach will contribute to a more profound appreciation and enjoyment of sonnets.

Sonnets in Popular Culture: Films, Music, and More

Sonnet adaptations have been brilliantly executed in various forms of art, including movies and music.


  • In the film industry, sonnets frequently serve as a foundation for adaptations, inspiring creative exploration of themes and characters.
  • On the musical side, composers have crafted melodies around sonnets, translating them into songs and operatic performances, further enriching the world of popular culture.

Examples of Usage or References in Popular Culture

Sonnets in TV: ‘My So-Called Life’

In the American teen drama television series, My So-Called Life, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 is used as a source of inspiration, showcasing the adaptability of sonnets in modern storytelling.

Sonnets in Music: Russian Compositions

Russian composers, such as Dmitri Shostakovich, have incorporated Shakespeare’s sonnets into their music, creating unique hybrids that resonate with both classical and contemporary audiences.

Sonnets in Radio: ‘Sonnets in the City’

Sonnets in the City is a series of five radio dramas that take place in different cities from sunset to sunrise, inspired by Shakespeare’s most powerful sonnets. The sonnets are read by Maxine Peake, and the dramas explore their themes and emotions in imaginative and intriguing ways.

This fusion of storytelling and verse showcases the versatility and relevance of Shakespeare’s poems, and their potential to resonate with modern listeners.

The Role of Sonnets in Academic Study ????

Academic studies on sonnets also explore their cultural and historical significance.

Example: A research paper on “Matters of Love as of Discourse: The English Sonnet, 1560-1580 delves into the early English sonnet tradition and its development in parallel to different cultural contexts.

This type of exploration is of great importance for understanding the evolution of English literature and poetry.

In the realm of teaching, sonnets serve as a rich source of material for various disciplines. The sophisticated linguistic structures and unique sonnet features offer numerous opportunities to engage students in the art of close reading, critical thinking, and literary analysis.

Moreover, the study of sonnets can provide valuable insights into the historical and social conditions of their time, enabling students to connect the past with their present-day experiences.

Thus, the role of sonnets in academic study spans across multiple disciplines and offers valuable contributions to our understanding of literature, history, and the human experience.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are there any contemporary poets who write sonnets?

Yes, many contemporary poets continue to write sonnets. Some well-known examples include:

• Elizabeth Bishop
• Ted Berrigan
• Natasha Trethewey

These poets often experiment with the traditional sonnet form, updating it to reflect modern concerns and sensibilities.

Do sonnets always have to follow a strict rhyme scheme and meter?

While sonnets traditionally follow specific rhyme schemes and meters, some modern poets take liberties with the form by deviating from these rules.

However, even when sonnets do not adhere to the traditional constraints, they still maintain the 14-line structure that defines the genre.

Are there any notable variations in the sonnet form?

Yes, there are a few variations of the sonnet form:

The Spenserian sonnet: named after the poet Edmund Spenser, it has a unique rhyme scheme of ABAB BCBC CDCD EE.
The curtal sonnet: a 10½-line form developed by Gerard Manley Hopkins, which consists of a shortened octave and sestet with a final half-line.


Sonnets hold a unique place in the world of poetry, with their intricate structure, blending of rhyme schemes, and rich history. This timeless form of verse evokes deep emotions and explores complex themes, making it as relevant today as it was in the time of Shakespeare and Petrarch.

As a reader delves into the realm of sonnets, they will encounter various forms and styles, such as the Shakespearean, Petrarchan, and Spenserian sonnets. Each style showcases the poet’s linguistic prowess, creative vision, and insightful expression of the human experience.

So, it’s time for poetry enthusiasts to embark on this captivating journey, exploring more sonnets and appreciating the beauty, complexity, and continued relevance of this remarkable poetic form.

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Jessa Claire is a registered healthcare provider. Music lover. Daydreamer. Thalassophile. Foodie. A hardworking Capricorn. Most days, an incurable empath. An old soul. Down-to-earth. Vibrant. When she's not writing, she can be seen relaxing with headphones on or engrossed in her favorite fan fiction book.