Types of the sonnet in english and american literature

Seminar Paper, 2005

12 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Basic Types of the Sonnet

3. The Sonnet in Literary History
3.1 Milton’s “When I Consider ...” as an Example of the Italian Sonnet
3.2 Daniel’s “Fair Is My Love ...” as an Example of the English Sonnet
3.3 Spenser’s “One Day I Wrote Her Name Upon the Strand” as an
Example of the Spenserian Sonnet
3.4 Shelley’s “Ozymandias” as an Exception to the Rule

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

5.1 Primary Literature

5.2 Secondary Literature


I hereby confirm that this paper was written by myself and that all direct and indirect quotations from other sources have been documented appropriately.

1. Introduction

The sonnet is a form of verse used continuously for more than 750 years now, according to Spiller (1992: ix). It “is probably the longest-lived of all poetic forms, and certainly the longest-lived of all prescribed forms,” according to him (1992: 2). It is a verse form having a prescribed number of lines, namely fourteen, each consisting of ten syllables if written in English (Murfin, Ray 1998: 372-373). The sonnet has to have a division into certain parts and must follow a rhyme scheme, which is allowed to vary in certain ways (compare Oliphant 1932: 136). It is fascinating that such a prescribed verse form is so attractive to poets. It is definitely a challenge to come to a point having fourteen lines of equal length that also have to rhyme in a certain way.

This is a reason to look at the structure of sonnets and its relation to the sonnets’ content in detail. This will be done in the following chapters of this research paper. First, the different types of the sonnet will be explained theoretically. Afterwards, examples of the different types will be given and analyzed. In addition to the common types, there will be a differing example shown. Conclusions are drawn in chapter four.

2. Basic Types of the Sonnet

Summarizing all considered sources, it can be stated that the sonnet is a verse- form consisting of fourteen rhyming lines according to various rhyme schemes of which the most common schemes are the Italian, the English and the Spenserian one. The order listed is also the order of historical appearance of the different sonnet forms. The word “sonnet” comes from the Italian language and means “’little sound’ or ‘song’” (Cuddon 1991: 843). A sonnet is “usually printed as a single stanza” (Murfin, Ray 1998: 372). Sonnets written in English follow a “iambic pentameter” (Brogan, Scott, Zillman 1993: 1167).

It is said that the sonnet was originally invented in Italy around the year 1230 (Spiller 1992: 1). The “best-known proponent [of this Italian form] is the fourteenth- century poet Petrarch” (Murfin, Ray 1998: 183) because of whom the Italian sonnet is also named the “Petrarchan sonnet.” The Italian sonnet is the most common form, according to Cuddon (1991: 844) and others. It is divided by a “‘turn’ or volta” into two parts: the octave and the sestet (Cuddon 1991: 844). The octave, consisting of eight lines, “presents the theme or problem of the poem, the thesis,” which is resolved by the sestet, consisting of six lines (Cuddon 1991: 661). The octave follows the rhyme scheme “abbaabba,” whereas the sestet follows a different scheme, namely “cdecde or cdcdcd” (Murfin, Ray 1998: 373). The “rhymes [in an Italian sonnet] are limited to five” (Cuddon 1991: 661). According to Brogan, Scott, and Zillman, the appearance of three rhymes in six lines after two in eight lines “implies an acceleration in thought and feeling, a mood more urgent and animated” caused by the “more intense rhyme activity […] and the structural interdependence of the tercets” (1993: 1167).

The Italian sonnet “was imported to England” by Sir Thomas Wyatt and the Earl of Surrey in the 16th century (Cuddon 1991: 661, 843). Surrey later established a variant of the Italian sonnet, namely the English sonnet. It consists of three quatrains and one concluding couplet with the typical rhyme scheme “abab, cdcd, efef” for the three quatrains and “gg” for the following couplet (Cuddon 1991: 845). “Shakespeare approximate[d] the standard rhyme scheme by using eye-rhyme and half rhyme” (Murfin, Ray 1998: 367). Another rhyme scheme used for the English sonnet is “abba, cddc, effe, gg,” according to Cuddon (1991: 814). “Shakespeare was [the] greatest practitioner” of the English sonnet (Cuddon 1991: 814), which explains its second name: “Shakespearean sonnet.” Each of the three quatrains expresses “a different idea” (Cuddon 1991: 844) or “aspect of the theme introduced in the first line” (Cuddon 1991: 814); each one of these develops out of the preceding one (Cuddon 1991: 844). The theme or argument is “concluded, ‘tied up’ in the binding end- couplet” (Cuddon 1991: 844). The “more open rhyme scheme” of the English sonnet brought “relief to the greater difficulty of rhyming in Eng[lish]” (Brogan, Scott, Zillman 1993: 1168) than rhyming in Italian.

A variant of the English sonnet is the Spenserian sonnet, named after its developer, the “sixteenthth-century English poet Edmund Spenser” (Murfin, Ray 1998: 375). Just like the English sonnet, the Spenserian sonnet also consists of three quatrains and one final couplet (Murfin, Ray 1998: 375). The “‘Spenserian’ rhymescheme, ABAB BCBC CDCD EE, [was] used in quantity by no other writers except the Scots sonneteers around James VI,” according to Spiller (1992: 143). The recurring rhymes, above designated “B” in the first and second quatrain and “C” in the second and third one, “link[…] the three quatrains together” (Murfin, Ray 1998: 375). The development of the content in the Spenserian sonnet is similar to the one of the English sonnet (Cuddon 1991: 844). The only difference is the obvious linking of the quatrains by using a different rhyme scheme compared to the English sonnet.

According to Oliphant, all sonnet forms have a division at line eight except the Spenserian one where the division is weakened by the link between line eight and nine (1932: 139-140).

There are many other rhyme schemes occurring in sonnets, but the above- mentioned are the most common ones, according to all considered sources. Oliphant mentions that a sonnet “must […] have a formal symmetry: each of its parts must be of a recognisable pattern,” but he also mentions an exception to this rule, namely the sonnet “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1932: 138), which will be discussed in chapter three of this paper. Oliphant names ten rules that a verse has to follow to be defined a sonnet (1932: 136); these rules will be tested on the sonnet-examples in the next chapter.

In all of the different sonnet variants, there is a relationship between form and content, as partly explained above. How this relationship works will be shown in the following chapter by definite examples of the different sonnet types.

3. The Sonnet in Literary History

3.1 Milton’s “When I Consider ...” as an Example of the Italian Sonnet

“When I consider how my light is spent” is the first line of Milton’s English Renaissance sonnet. It is printed in The Sonnet on page 201 (1965). It consists of ten syllables in a iambic pentameter: when-I-con-SI-der-HOW-my-LIGHT-is-SPENT (capitalized syllables resemble stressed syllables) and rhymes with the fourth, fifth and eighth line endings, which are “spent” (1), “bent” (4), “present” (5), and “prevent”

(8). This shall be designated as rhyme “a.” The second line, “Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,” follows the same meter and rhymes with line three, six and seven: “[W]ide” (2) rhymes with “hide” (3), “chide” (6), and “denied” (7). This is the second rhyme of the sonnet and shall therefore be designated “b.” All mentioned lines have the same meter.

These first eight lines of the poem build up the octave. The octave is divided into two quatrains by the way the poem is printed: Lines two, three, and four are indented as are lines six, seven, and eight. It follows the typical Italian sonnet rhyme scheme, explained in the preceding chapter, namely "abbaabba." The division into two quatrains is also reflected by its content: The first quatrain explains the theme of the poem. Milton had become totally blind before he wrote this poem. It is possible, therefore, to suggest that the speaker of the poem is Milton himself, talking of his blindness in the first quatrain, mentioning spent light (1), darkness (2), and “death” (3). In the second quatrain the speaker stops talking about himself and poses a question addressing God in line seven, asking if “God exact[s] day-labor, light denied.”

Line eight begins with “I fondly ask,” followed by a semicolon. The semicolon represents the location of this sonnet’s “turn.” The sestet begins with the next line, which reads, “That murmur, soon replies, ‘God doth not need” (9). “Need,” which shall be designated rhyme “c,” rhymes with “speed” at the end of line twelve. Line ten, “Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best” rhymes with “rest” in line thirteen and shall be designated rhyme “d”. Line eleven, “Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state” rhymes with “wait” in line fourteen and can be called rhyme “e.” This sums up to the typical rhyme scheme of the Italian sonnet’s sestet: "cdecde." The sestet does not only differ from the octave in its rhyme scheme but also in the fact, that run-on lines are used in lines nine to thirteen, which is not done so in the first eight lines. This might be used to connect the meaning of the sestet’s content and to increase the “acceleration in thought and feeling,” as Brogan, Scott, and Zillman call it (compare 1993: 1168). Obvious is the setting off of the last line by a colon at the end of line thirteen. In line fourteen the question of the octave is answered by “They also serve who only stand and wait.” This is part of a quotation that begins in line nine preparing this final statement. The content of this sonnet can be compared to the statement by Murfin and Ray that “the octave often proposes a question or dilemma” (1998:183). Here, this is the question to God and the dilemma of being blind. “[T]he sestet answers or resolves the theme of the octave,” according to Murfin and Ray (1998:183). Here, the answer to the question and dilemma is that the ones that bear their yoke serve God best and that the ones that “only stand and wait” also serve God (10-14).


Excerpt out of 12 pages


Types of the sonnet in english and american literature
University of Cologne
Forms and Genres of Poetry in Literatures in English: From 1500 to the Present
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
354 KB
Types, Forms, Genres, Poetry, Literatures, English, sonnet, italian, shakespearean
Quote paper
Helga Mebus (Author), 2005, Types of the sonnet in english and american literature, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/93219


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: Types of the sonnet in english and american literature

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free