Types of Sonnets With Examples and How to Tell Them Apart Easily

Types of sonnet cover image

Poetry is the expression of feelings and thoughts through words, but this expression can vary a lot based on rhyming, structure, and individual poet’s style. There are lyrical poems, free verse poetry, ballads, etc. One such famous form of poetry is called sonnet, derived from the word sonetto, the Italian word which means sound. This article will discuss the different types of sonnets; Italian, English, Miltonic, Spenserian, and some other minor variations which are derivative of the major types.

A sonnet is a lyrical poem (that rhymes) composed of two parts; the first part of a sonnet has eight lines or two stanzas of four lines, also called quatrains. The second part is made of six lines, also called the sestet. In total, a sonnet always has fourteen lines that rhyme in a particular rhyming scheme. 

What makes sonnets different? 

The basic groundwork for sonnets has been established. Fourteen lines that rhyme in a particular scheme, divided into two parts of eight and six lines. Then what creates the difference in them? What produces a variety in them? Understanding this is important to understand the types of sonnets.

The two major factors dividing sonnets into different groups are the rhyming scheme and the structure of the sonnet. While the number of lines remains the same, the difference in rhyming and structure creates different types of sonnets. 

Based on the structure, there are two different sonnets; Italian sonnets, also called Petrarchan sonnets and English sonnets, also called Shakespearean sonnets or Elizabethan sonnets. 

Italian sonnets are divided into two parts, one of eight lines and the other of six lines. English sonnets are made of four parts; three quatrains (stanzas of four lines) and a couplet (two lines). This is the major difference between these two sonnets. The rhyming also differs which will be elaborated later. 

Based on rhyme, there are English or Shakespearean sonnets and Spenserian sonnets. English and Spenserian sonnets are the same in terms of structure but differ in the rhyme scheme. English sonnets have a rhyme scheme of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG whereas Spenserian sonnets have a rhyming scheme of ABAB BCBC CDCD EE. Notice how the last rhyme of the first quatrain is taken as the first rhyme of the subsequent quatrain.

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Difference based on theme

Based on the theme, there’s the Miltonic sonnet created by English poet John Milton. Usually, the themes of classical sonnets are love, the romanticization of nature, hope, beauty, etc. But Miltonic sonnets deal with more complex issues and subjects such as morality, religion, politics, etc. 

In terms of structure, Miltonic sonnets are exactly like Petrarchan or Italian sonnets with the sonnet divided into two parts; one of eight lines and the other of six lines. The rhyming scheme is also the same as Italian sonnets. 

Now let’s take a look at some of the examples of different types of sonnets and we’ll add a chart (and an easy way) that will help you determine the difference between the sonnets in a very easy method. 

Francesco Petrarca

Italian or Petrarchan sonnets

Giacomo da Lentini is regarded as the creator of the Italian sonnet structure, although it was the Italian poet Francesco Petrarca who popularized this sonnet form in the 1300s. Famous Italian writers such as Dante Alighieri and Michelangelo also wrote sonnets with this structure. 

As mentioned before, the sonnet is made of two parts; one of eight lines, called an octave, and the other of six lines, called a sestet. Thematically, the first part introduces a question or a dilemma and explores it. Then the second part is where the answer or solution is provided. The switch from questioning to answering occurs in the ninth line (beginning of the sestet) and is called the volta. 

The rhyming scheme is usually ABBA ABBA CDCDCD or ABBA ABBA CDC CDC (or CDE CDE) and these sonnets follow the iambic pentameter. Each line in these sonnets has ten syllables. Take a look at an example of Italian sonnet written by Francesco Pertrarca.

Those eyes, ‘neath which my passionate rapture rose,

The arms, hands, feet, the beauty that erewhile

Could my own soul from its own self beguile,

And in a separate world of dreams enclose,

The hair’s bright tresses, full of golden glows,

And the soft lightning of the angelic smile

That changed this earth to some celestial isle,–

Are now but dust, poor dust, that nothing knows.

And yet I live! Myself I grieve and scorn,

Left dark without the light I loved in vain,

Adrift in tempest on a bark forlorn;

Dead is the source of all my amorous strain,

Dry is the channel of my thoughts outworn,

And my said harp can sound but notes of pain.

Those Eyes ‘Neath Which by Francesco Petrarca, Translated by Thomas Wentworth Higginson

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O Joyous, Blossoming, Ever-Blessed Flowers

O joyous, blossoming, ever-blessed flowers!

’Mid which my pensive queen her footstep sets;

O plain, that hold’st her words for amulets

And keep’st her footsteps in thy leafy bowers!

O trees, with earliest green of springtime hours,

And all spring’s pale and tender violets!

O grove, so dark the proud sun only lets

His blithe rays gild the outskirts of thy towers!

O pleasant country-side! O limpid stream,

That mirrorest her sweet face, her eyes so clear,

And of their living light canst catch the beam!

I envy thee her presence pure and dear.

There is no rock so senseless but I deem

It burns with passion that to mine is near.

– Franceso Petrarca, Translated by Thomas Wentworth Higginson

image of william shakespeare

English Sonnets or Shakespearean Sonnets 

English sonnets change the structure of Italian sonnets and have a different rhyming scheme. Popularized by Shakespeare, it is also called Shakespearean sonnets or Elizabethan sonnets because it was popularized during her reign.

Instead of the octave and sestet making the fourteen lines, English sonnets are made of four parts; three quatrains (four-line stanzas) and a couplet. The usual rhyming scheme for these sonnets is ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. Each line, like Petrarchan sonnets, has ten syllables. 

Thematically, English sonnets provide more room for the dilemma or questions to the explored and revealed. The three quatrains are used to explore the idea or the subject, giving meaning and structure to it. The volta or turn comes at the end of the third quatrain, with the two couplets solidifying the propositions made previously. 

Here are some examples of Shakespearean sonnets; 

Sonnet 18: Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day

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.

– William Shakespeare.

When, in Disgrace with Fortune and Men’s Eyes

When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,

I all alone beweep my outcast state,

And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,

And look upon myself and curse my fate,

Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,

Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,

Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,

With what I most enjoy contented least;

Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,

Haply I think on thee, and then my state,

(Like to the lark at break of day arising

From sullen earth) sings hymns at heaven’s gate;

    For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings

    That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

– William Shakespeare, Sonnet 29

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Edmund Spenser

Spenserian Sonnet

Spenserian sonnet is a derivative of the Shakespearean sonnet where everything remains the same but the rhyming scheme becomes more complex. Instead of a simple ABAB CDCD EFEF GG rhyming scheme, the Spenserian sonnet incorporates a rhyming scheme of ABAB BCBC CDCD EE. The last rhyme of the first stanza is carried to the subsequent one. 

Spenserian sonnets are named after the English poet Edmund Spenser. So an easy way to determine whether the sonnets are Spenserian or not is by looking at the poet. If it is Spenser, it is likely to be a Spenserian sonnet. Here are some examples:

Sweet is the rose, but grows upon a briar

Sweet is the rose, but grows upon a briar;

Sweet in the Juniper, but sharp his bough;

Sweet is the Eglantine, but pricketh near;

Sweet is the fir-bloom, but his branches rough.

Sweet is the Cypress, but his rind is tough,

Sweet is the nut, but bitter is his pill;

Sweet is the broom-flower, but yet sour enough;

And sweet is Moly, but his root is ill.

So every sweet with sour is tempered still

That maketh it be coveted the more:

For easy things that may be got at will,

Most sorts of men do set but little store.

  Why then should I account of little pain,

  That endless pleasure shall unto me gain.

-Edmund Spenser 

One Day I Wrote Her Name Upon the Strand (Sonnet 75)

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 eek my name be wiped out likewise.

Not so (quoth I), let baser things 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, whenas death shall all the world subdue,

  Our love shall live, and later life renew.

– Edmund Spenser

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John Milton, featuring in the article types of sonnets for Miltonic sonnets

Miltonic sonnets 

Like Spenserian sonnets are a derivative of the English sonnets, Miltonic sonnets are a derivative of Italian sonnets. But instead of differing in terms of rhyme or structure, Miltonic sonnets differ from Italian sonnets in the theme.

Instead of love, romance, beauty, nature, etc, Miltonic sonnets focused more on philosophical aspects of life. These sonnets focused on life, religion, morality, internal struggle, etc. 

Here are some examples of Miltonic sonnets. Take a look; 

On His Blindness 

When I consider how my light is spent

Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,

And that one Talent which is death to hide

Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent

To serve therewith my Maker, and present

My true account, lest He returning chide,

“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”

I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent

That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need

Either man’s work or his own gifts. Who best

Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state

Is kingly: thousands at his bidding speed,

And post o’er land and ocean without rest;

They also serve who only stand and wait.”

– John Milton

Late Espoused Saint

Methought I saw my late espoused saint

Brought to me like Alcestis from the grave,

Whom Jove’s great son to her glad husband gave,

Rescued from Death by force, though pale and faint.

Mine, as whom washed from spot of childbed taint

Purification in the Old Law did save,

And such as yet once more I trust to have

Full sight of her in Heaven without restraint,

Came vested all in white, pure as her mind.

Her face was veiled; yet to my fancied sight

Love, sweetness, goodness, in her person shined

So clear as in no face with more delight.

But, oh! as to embrace me she inclined,

I waked, she fled, and day brought back my night.

– John Milton

How to spot the difference in different sonnet

The best way to understand the varying nature of these sonnets, all you need to know is that there is one major form of the sonnet; Italian or Petrarchan sonnet. Changing different parts of this sonnet will create the derivatives. 

Change the structure of the Italian sonnet and you get English Sonnet or Shakespearean sonnet. 

Change the theme of the Italian sonnet and you get the Miltonic sonnet. 

Change the rhyme of the English sonnet and you get the Spenserian sonnet. 

English sonnets will have two rhyming lines in the end.

Here’s a table for the summary:

Change Italian English 
StructureEnglish Italian
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Other  types of sonnets

Apart from the four major types of sonnets, there are multiple varieties of sonnets that have stemmed from creative rhyming and structural changes. An easy way to see if the sonnet is modern is by looking at the structure and rhyme. If the sonnet is a hybrid of two or three of the four types of sonnets, then it’s a modern one. 

Terza Rima sonnets

Terza Rima sonnets are sonnets with a very distinct rhyming scheme. The rhyming scheme is ABA BCB CDC DED EE. Notice how the third rhyme of each stanza becomes the first rhyme of the subsequent one. The word Terza Rima means third rhyme in Italian. Here’s an example;

Ode to The West by P.B Shelley

O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being,

Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead

Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,

Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,

Pestilence-stricken multitudes: O thou,

Who chariotest to their dark wintery bed

The winged seeds, where they lie cold and low,

Each like a corpse within its grave, until

Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow

Her clarion o’er the dreaming earth, and fill

Driving sweet buds like flocks to feed in air 

With living hues and odours plain and hill:

Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere;

Destroyer and preserver; hear, oh, hear

P.B Shelley

Acquainted with The Night by Robert Frost

I have been one acquainted with the night.

I have walked out in rain—and back in rain.

I have outwalked the furthest city light.

I have looked down the saddest city lane.

I have passed by the watchman on his beat

And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.

I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet

When far away an interrupted cry

Came over houses from another street,

But not to call me back or say good-bye;

And further still at an unearthly height,

One luminary clock against the sky

Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.

I have been one acquainted with the night.

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Curtal Sonnet

Curtal sonnet is a compact version of traditional sonnets, created by Gerard Manly Hopkins. It is a proportionally shrunken Petrarchan sonnet. 

A Curtal sonnet consists of 10 and a half lines. The last line is usually one or two words that act as the “tail” of the sonnet. Here are some examples;

Pied Beauty by Gerard Manly Hopkins

Glory be to God for dappled things –

   For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;

      For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;

Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;

   Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;

      And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;

   Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)

      With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;

He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:

                          Praise him.

Peace by Gerard Manly Hopkins

When will you ever, Peace, wild wood dove, shy wings shut,

Your round me roaming end, and under be my boughs?

When, when, Peace, will you, Peace? I’ll not play hypocrite

To own my heart: I yield you do come sometimes; but

That piecemeal peace is poor peace. What pure peace allows

Alarms of wars, the daunting wars, the death of it?

O surely, reaving Peace, my Lord should leave in lieu

Some good! And so he does leave Patience exquisite,

That plumes to Peace thereafter. And when Peace here does house

He comes with work to do, he does not come to coo,

He comes to brood and sit.

This was all about the various types of sonnets and some examples accompanying them. Here are some more interesting articles about poetry that should read. Take a look:

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