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Sonnets: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:01 What Is a Sonnet?
  • 0:19 Two Major Types
  • 0:39 The Italian Sonnet
  • 2:41 The English Sonnet
  • 4:39 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Heather Carroll

Heather teaches high school English. She holds a master's degree in education and is a National Board Certified Teacher.

If you want to profess your love in a poem, you might not think to look back a few hundred years for inspiration. Learn how some of the greatest poets in history used the sonnet to woo their lovers.

What Is a Sonnet?

A sonnet, from the Italian word sonetto meaning 'little song,' is a lyric poem usually with 14 lines of iambic pentameter and a set rhyme scheme. While sonnets can explore all sorts of themes, love is the most common, and the original topic of the sonnet.

Two Major Types

The sonnet takes many forms, including the Spenserian sonnet and Miltonic sonnet, which is just fun to say. But the two most-studied sonnets are the Italian sonnet, known as the Petrarchan sonnet, and the English sonnet, known as the Shakespearean sonnet. Each type uses its 14 lines for different purposes and with different rhyme schemes.

The Italian Sonnet

As you might guess, the Petrarchan sonnet is named after a 14th century Italian poet named Francesco Petrarch. He is known for his poems about Laura, with whom he fell hopelessly in love upon first sight of her in a church. Beautiful and worthy, Laura was married and therefore off limits to Petrarch. This did not stop him from writing of Laura in poems such as 'Soleasi Nel Mio Cor,' translated into English by Thomas Wentworth Higginson.

She ruled in beauty o'er this heart of mine,

A noble lady in a humble home,

And now her time for heavenly bliss has come,

'Tis I am mortal proved, and she divine.

The soul that all its blessings must resign,

And love whose light no more on Earth finds room,

Might rend the rocks with pity for their doom,

Yet none their sorrows can in words enshrine;

They weep within my heart; and ears are deaf

Save mine alone, and I am crushed with care,

And naught remains to me save mournful breath.

Assuredly but dust and shade we are,

Assuredly desire is blind and brief,

Assuredly it's hope but ends in death.

In form, the Petrarchan sonnet has two stanzas: the octave and the sestet. The octave consists of the first eight lines that follow the specific rhyme scheme abbaabba. The sestet, the last six lines, usually follows the cdecde or cdcdcd rhyme scheme. The octave offers the reader the subject of the poem, often an argument, observation, or even a question. The sestet then works to make a change to the subject or a resolution. This contrast at line 9 is called the volta.

The English Sonnet

By the 1500s, the English sonnet was borne out of experimentation of the Petrarchan sonnet from poets like Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey. As you can imagine, among those poets influenced by this form was none other than William Shakespeare. Even though Shakespeare is not attributed with creating the updated form, he used it with such finesse that the English sonnet is often called the Shakespearean sonnet.

One of the most famous of his 154 sonnets, is 'Sonnet 18', sometimes noted as 'Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?' Like the Petrarchan sonnet, Shakespeare writes of love and beauty.

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?

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