English Sonnet: Definition, Rhyme Scheme, Structure & Examples

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  • 0:02 Definition of a Sonnet
  • 0:34 Structure & Example
  • 2:17 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jason Lineberger

Jason has 20 years of education experience including 14 years of teaching college literature.

In this lesson, you'll learn about one of the most common forms of poetry, the sonnet. In particular, you'll learn the requirements for the kind of sonnet that William Shakespeare made famous, the English sonnet, and you'll have a chance to test your understanding with a quiz.

Definition of a Sonnet

The sonnet is a traditional poetic form. There are two basic types of sonnet: the English sonnet, also called the Shakespearean sonnet, and the Italian sonnet, also called the Petrarchan sonnet.

Both of these types of sonnet have 14 lines, so what distinguishes them is how the sections are broken up and how the poem rhymes. An English sonnet follows the pattern 'abab cdcd efef gg', dividing the poem into three quatrains and a closing couplet.

Structure and an Example

Let's break down the requirements of the sonnet by examining a particularly famous example, 'Sonnet 130' by William Shakespeare, the poem better known by its first line, 'My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun'.

One requirement of the English sonnet is line length. Every line should be ten syllables long. Let's take a look at that first line:

Scanned line of poetry

Not only should the line be ten syllables, but also the syllables should follow a soft/loud pattern in order to qualify as an English sonnet. In this line, the syllables numbered in red are the loud ones, while the ones numbered in black are soft. This 10-syllable pattern is called iambic pentameter, and it's a must for writing English sonnets.

Next, the English sonnet is broken into four parts - three quatrains and a couplet. A quatrain is a group of four lines that rhyme together. For the English sonnet, the first line rhymes with the third one, and the second line rhymes with the fourth one. Take a look at this example:

quatrain broken down by rhyme scheme

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