Evolution of the Sonnet Form: A Comprehensive Overview

A sonnet is a one-stanza poem of fourteen lines which originated in Italy. The term sonnet derives from the Italian word sonetto, which means “little song”, and by the thirteenth century, it formed a poem of fourteen lines that has a strict rhyme scheme and structure. As far as the development is concerned, the name of Francesco Petrarch is prominent, and this is the reason Italian sonnet is also known as Petrarchan sonnet. In English literature, it wasn’t introduced until the sixteenth century. And here, Shakespeare, wrote about 154, is the legend who mostly used sonnet in England, later followed by others.

Sonneteers are the writers of sonnets, and John Donne, John Milton, William Wordsworth, and William Shakespeare, are some of the best sonnet writers (sonneteers). English sonnet writers always used iambic pentameter as their standard metrical pattern in which a pattern of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable is repeated twice.

Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey introduced sonnet in England in sixteenth century. The Petrarchan sonnet which consists an octave and a sestet, introduced by Sir Thomas Wyatt. While Henry Howard introduced Blank Verse. The Shakespearan sonnet consisted three quatrains and closing couplet. This structure had a strong influence on many English poets like Edmund Spencer, Philip Sidney.

Petrarchan Sonnet or Italian Sonnet

The octave and the sestet are the two parts of this type. The octave is eight lines long with the rhyme scheme CDCDCD or CDECDE. There is normally a pause in thought between octave and sestet, called Volta or turn. The theme is mostly raised in octave and the sestet answers it. The iambic pentameter is the writing style of Petrarchan Sonnet. In English, the first Petrarchan Sonnet writers were Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey.

Shakespearean Sonnet

The name is known because of William Shakespeare, who practised it most in English. We find fourteen lines structure as three quatrains and a closing couplet in Shakespearean Sonnet. The rhyme scheme of this sonnet type is ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. The theme is mostly developed in the first three quatrains, and each quatrains develops a new idea. The Volta or break comes in the couplet, and also, like the Petrarchan Sonnet, it’s also written in iambic pentameter.

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Spenserian Sonnet

Edmund Spenser introduced another style in sonnets, and hence the form is named as the Spenserian Sonnet. The sonnets generally have the 3 quatrains + couplet model with the rhyme scheme ABAB BCBC CDCD EE. The Spenserian Sonnet does not require the octave sestet model. Instead, the structure is three quatrains connected with a rhyme scheme and closed by a couplet.

Modern Sonnet

With the free verse in role, the old sonnet style was seemed as old-fashioned and was rarely being used by some poets. The modern sonnet consists of free verse which does not follow a specific pattern or any rhyme scheme. This makes the similar feel as the free-verse poetry. But there are some differences between the modern sonnet and the old-fashioned (Spenserian, Shakespearean, or the Petrarchan) sonnets as:


As already discussed, the old-fashioned sonnets followed some structural pattern in rhyme scheme or the iambic pentameter. However, the modern sonnet may still use the 14-line structure, but they are more flexible in rhyme scheme and structure.

Language and Diction

The old-fashioned sonnets followed formal language filled with metaphors, similes, and personifications. But the modern sonnets have slangs, colloquialisms, or the unconventional use of language.


The common themes in traditional sonnets were love, beauty of nature, mortality, and the passage of time. As Shakespeare’s sonnets were mostly based on the theme of complexities of love. While on the other hand, the modern sonnets focused on broader themes like technology, identity, social issues, and politics.

Modern and traditional sonnets witnessed the change in themes, language while keeping the basic structure similar. It also brought more diversity in highlighting the social issues.


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