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Spenserian Sonnet: Definition, Form & Examples

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  • 0:01 Spenserian Sonnet
  • 1:28 Form
  • 3:41 Examples
  • 5:45 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

Maybe you've heard of poems called sonnets, but you may not have realized there are different types. Come discover the Spenserian sonnet in this lesson, where you'll hear about its creator and form, as well as get to see a few examples of this lovely poetic work!

Spenserian Sonnet Defined

When most of us hear the word 'sonnet,' the name Shakespeare likely comes to mind. English classes the world over have read from the Bard's 154 sonnets, so you've undoubtedly encountered one at some time.

But Shakespeare was not the only writer of sonnets, considering the English had adapted the poetic form from earlier Italian, or 'Petrarchan', sonnets. In fact, Shakespeare was not even the only author of English sonnets during his lifetime. Edmund Spenser, a contemporary of Shakespeare, innovated the form even further and the resulting poetry has been called the Spenserian sonnet ever since.

For centuries, sonnets of the Petrarchan and Shakespearean varieties have been associated with clichés of love poetry. They're full of flowery descriptions of the poet's beloved and bold declarations of their undying fidelity. Quite frequently, however, these poems express a passionate devotion to a woman whom the author was not actually interested in at all.

Spenser, on the other hand, meant every amorous word he penned. We know this because he wrote his collection of 89 sonnets, or Amoretti, in 1594 to celebrate his coming marriage to his beloved, Elizabeth Boyle. Building on the affectionate framework that already existed, Spenser immortalized his true love by giving the sonnet a fresh purpose and form.

Form of the Spenserian Sonnet

Like other sonnets, Spenser's contain fourteen lines of iambic pentameter, meaning there are five iambic feet, or iambs, per line. However, his rhyme scheme and the manner in which he decided to divide these lines distinguish his form from the others.

The scheme Spenser chose was adapted from the rhyme model he used in his famous epic poem The Faerie Queen and follows the pattern 'abab bcbc cdcd ee.' Here we have the sonnet divided into three quatrains, or segments of four lines, followed by a rhyming couplet. Spenser's form is also commonly referred to as a linking sonnet because the 'b' and 'c' rhyme elements weave the quatrains together.

Let's take a quick look at an example of a Spenserian sonnet so we can see this formatting in action. This is Sonnet No. 41, from Amoretti. The first line is broken into the 4 iambs and the second syllable of each is stressed.

Is it | her na | ture or | is it | her will,
To be so cruel to an humbled foe?
If nature, then she may it mend with skill,
If will, then she at will may will forgo.

But if her nature and her will be so,
that she will plague the man that loves her most:
And take delight t'increase a wretch's woe,
Then all her nature's goodly gifts are lost.

And that same glorious beauty's idle boast,
Is but a bait such wretches to beguile:
As being long in her love's tempest tossed,
She means at last to make her piteous spoil.

Of fairest fair let never it be named,
That so fair beauty was so foully shamed.

In this example, you can see how Spenser links the idea of each quatrain into a continuous thought, which he reflects in the rhyme scheme. We also find that the final couplet, once again distinguished by elements of rhyme, characteristically presents a different idea from the rest of the sonnet or comments on it in some way. Now that we've seen the framework of a Spenserian sonnet, you'll be able to take in the whole picture in the following examples.

Examples of Spenserian Sonnets

Many of the sonnets Edmund wrote for Elizabeth correspond to certain dates in the church calendar. In Sonnet No. 68, Spenser uses the occasion of Easter to discuss God's love, while tying it to the love he and his future wife share in the final lines.

Most glorious Lord of life, that on this day,
Didst make thy triumph over death and sin:
And having harrowed hell, didst bring away
Captivity thence captive us to win:

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