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The 8 Types of Sonnets and How to Tell Them Apart

Posted by Ashley Robinson | Aug 14, 2019 6:00:00 PM

General Education

 

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You’ve probably heard of the Shakespearean sonnet, or maybe even the Petrarchan sonnet. But those are just two types of sonnets. There are actually many other forms! 

As new poets have tinkered with more traditional approaches to the sonnet over time, they’ve come up with their own approaches to writing sonnets, too. In this article, we’re going to help you learn about all of the major types of sonnets by: 

  • Briefly introducing you to the sonnet
  • Breaking down different types of sonnets, including an example and analysis of each type
  • Explaining nine poetic terms you need to know in order to successfully analyze the different types of sonnets

Are you ready? Let’s check out some sonnets!

 

A Brief Introduction to the Sonnet

Before we get into the types of sonnets, we want to briefly talk about the elements most sonnets have in common. (Check out this article for an expert guide to the sonnet form.) 

 

What Is a Sonnet? 

A sonnet is a type of poem that traditionally has 14 lines that are written in iambic pentameter

 

Sonnet Form and Theme

The formal and structural elements of sonnets became standardized as the sonnet became popular. But over time, new poets found their own ways to write sonnets. 

In other words, as poets have experimented with the form and structure of the sonnet, those new approaches to writing sonnets have created new “types” of sonnets, like the early Italian and the English sonnet. 

Thematically, you can typically sniff out a traditional sonnet if it deals with one main thing: love. However, like with the form and structure of sonnets themselves, the themes portrayed in sonnets have also expanded to include topics like politics, nature, religion and spirituality, and social issues.

 

What Are the Differences Between Sonnet Forms? 

While there are differences between the types of sonnets that have been developed over time, they can be pretty tough to pick out if analyzing sonnets is a new thing for you. To help you identify each type of sonnet all on your own, we’re going to discuss every major sonnet type you need to know. 

One quick note: while our list is comprehensive, it definitely doesn’t contain every type of sonnet known to man! We’re just trying to cover the types of sonnets you’re most likely to read. To learn about the obscure sonnet types that didn’t make the cut, check out the Poetry Foundation.

 

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Italian or Petrarchan Sonnets

We’ll start with the Italian or Petrarchan sonnet because it was the first type of sonnet to become popular! The Petrarchan sonnet was popularized by the Italian poet Francesco Petrarch in the 1300s, which is why it’s interchangeably called an Italian sonnet or Petrarchan sonnet. You’ll be safe using either name to refer to this type of poem. 

Petrarchan sonnets have 14 lines—divided into an octave and a sestet—that follow the rhyme scheme ABBA ABBA CDCCDC or ABBA ABBA CDECDE. (Not sure what rhyme scheme is? We’ll talk about it more later, or you can check out this in-depth guide.) 

Petrarchan poems are divided into two sections so the poet can ask questions and reach an answer. Thematically, the octave, or first eight lines, often makes a proposition, which asks a question or describes a problem. Then the sestet, or final six lines, proposes a resolution or solution

It’s common for the transition from the description of the question/problem to the resolution to happen around the ninth line in Petrarchan sonnets. This shift from problem to resolution is called the “turn,” or volta. So you can think of a Petrarchan sonnet as a fancy Q&A session or a mini-argument! 

Finally, Italian sonnets are almost always written in iambic pentameter. (We’ll talk more about iambic pentameter later!). But now, let’s take a look at a Petrarchan sonnet. 

 

An Italian Sonnet/Petrarchan Sonnet Example: “The Sheaves” by Edwin Arlington Robinson

Where long the shadows of the wind had rolled,
Green wheat was yielding to the change assigned;
And as by some vast magic undivined
The world was turning slowly into gold.
Like nothing that was ever bought or sold
It waited there, the body and the mind;
And with a mighty meaning of a kind
That tells the more the more it is not told.

So in a land where all days are not fair,
Fair days went on till on another day
A thousand golden sheaves were lying there,
Shining and still, but not for long to stay –
As if a thousand girls with golden hair
Might rise from where they slept and go away.

 

Despite being written in the twentieth century, Robinson uses a Petrarchan form and structure in “The Sheaves.” In this sonnet, Robinson ponders the significance and beauty of a field of wheat. 

The imagery Robinson uses in this sonnet creates a romantic feeling: the field of wheat is compared to gold and is described as lending a “vast magic” that’s unexplainable. In fact, the beauty of the world, embodied by the golden field, is even more precious than real gold!

Robinson makes use of a traditional Petrarchan ABBAABBA CDCDCD rhyme scheme. (The matching letters represent similar rhymes.) As is characteristic of Petrarchan sonnets, Robinson structures his sonnet into an octave and a sestet, and makes use of a volta to initiate a turn or shift in the tone of the poem at the beginning of line 9. 

At the volta, Robinson admits that, though the wheat field makes the whole world seem beautiful, “all days are not fair”—a realistic observation compared to the dreamy romanticism of the octave. Robinson knows that the wheat field’s beauty is limited, which we realize when the wheat gets cut and bound into sheaves.  

Robinson’s poem is a good example of a Petrarchan sonnet because it employs the pattern of making a proposition at the beginning in the octave—that all the world is beautiful, as exemplified by the wheat field—and providing a resolution to that proposition in the sestet—that, like the youth of a thousand girls with golden hair, the beauty of the earth changes over time. 

 

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"Romeo and Juliet" by Ford Madox Brown (1869-1870)

 

English or Shakespearean Sonnets

Like the Italian/Petrarchan sonnet, the English sonnet has multiple names as well. The English sonnet is often called a Shakespearean sonnet since the poet William Shakespeare was the most prolific (and famous!) English sonnet-writer during the sixteenth century. You might even hear this type of poem called an Elizabethan sonnet, since Queen Elizabeth I loved them! 

English sonnets have 14 lines of verse, but this type of sonnet has three quatrains and one couplet instead of an octave and a sestet. Also, these sonnets follow an ABAB CDCD EFEF GG rhyme scheme. A single quatrain is made up of four lines of verse, and a couplet is made up of two lines. 

Like Petrarchan sonnets, English sonnets are usually in a Q&A format. But the different structure and rhyme scheme affects how English sonnets communicate their themes. In an English sonnet, the volta happens right before the couplet instead of in the middle of the poem. This means that the three quatrains give the poet more space to ask their question and build tension, but the single couplet at the end gives the poet only two lines to find an answer. 

This structure makes the poem more dramatic, and it often means the poet’s “answer” is more ambiguous! 

 

An English Sonnet Example: “Prologue,” From Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents' strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark'd love,
And the continuance of their parents' rage,
Which, but their children's end, nought could remove,
Is now the two hours' traffic of our stage;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.

 

The Prologue to Shakespeare’s play, Romeo and Juliet, is actually an example of an English sonnet. Shakespeare uses a sonnet to show that romantic love and tragic conflict are going to be two main themes of the play. This creative choice shows just how common it was for people to associate sonnets with themes of love and tragedy during the Elizabethan Era

First, you can tell this is a sonnet because it uses the classic structure of three quatrains and a concluding couplet with the rhyme scheme ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. 

More importantly, this sonnet sets the stage for the conflict that plays out in the play, telling a tale of two well-respected, Italian families who have bad blood between them. For instance, in the second quatrain, the speaker in the poem tells the audience that the conflict between the two families worsens when their children fall in love and, ultimately, decide to take their own lives. 

The sonnet concludes with a couplet—another key feature of the English sonnet. The couplet here makes a shift from the first twelve lines by speaking directly to the play’s audience, encouraging them to listen patiently and pay attention to the story that the Prologue introduced. In other words, it answers the implied question about what happens next. (Answer: just watch!) 

Shakespeare’s approach to the sonnet embodies all the characteristics that the English sonnet is known for today: the structure, rhyme scheme, presentation of a theme and a problem in the three quatrains, and the use of a volta at the couplet to explain how the problem will be resolved. Most of all, The Prologue to Romeo and Juliet embraces the major theme of English sonnets: love.

 

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An engraving of the poet Edmund Spenser

 

Spenserian Sonnets

Spenserian sonnets are slightly different and less common than other forms. Spenserian sonnets are named after the English poet who popularized them, Edmund Spenser. These sonnets use the same structure as English sonnets (three quatrains and a couplet), but rely on a more complicated rhyme scheme: ABAB BCBC CDCD EE. So in order to tell Shakespearean and Spencerian sonnets apart, you have to look closely at the rhyming pattern

What makes the rhyme scheme of a Spenserian sonnet more complicated is that it repeats the same end rhyme several times over. Trying to think of more repeated rhymes that fit naturally into the sonnet can be more difficult for the poet!

Furthermore, Spenser uses each quatrain to develop a metaphor, question, idea, or conflict in a logical way. At the end of his sonnets, he uses the couplet to make a bold statement that resolves the themes presented in the quatrains. Spenser also often included an early volta around line 9 of his sonnets, but the first volta in his sonnets is a red herring—the true resolution doesn’t come until the couplet at the end!

 

A Spenserian Sonnet: XXVI from Amoretti by Edmund Spenser

Sweet is the rose, but grows upon a briar;
Sweet in the Juniper, but sharp his bough;
Sweet is the Eglantine, but pricketh near;
Sweet is the firbloom, but his branches rough.
Sweet is the Cypress, but his rind is tough,
Sweet is the nut, but bitter is his pill;
Sweet is the broom-flower, but yet sour enough;
And sweet is Moly, but his root is ill.
So every sweet with sour is tempered still
That maketh it be coveted the more:
For easy things that may be got at will,
Most sorts of men do set but little store.
     Why then should I account of little pain,
     That endless pleasure shall unto me gain.

 

It’s pretty easy to tell that this is a Spenserian sonnet...since it was written by the poet Edmund Spenser! At first glance, this Spenserian sonnet might seem like an English sonnet, but this poem uses the more complicated rhyme scheme that Spenserian sonnets are known for: ABAB BCBC CDCD EE. By paying close attention to the rhyme scheme, you can tell that this is a Spenserian sonnet that ponders the ideas of love and pleasure.

In this sonnet, Spenser makes use of repetition to reinforce both a theme and a problem in the three quatrains. By repeating the same phrase over and over (“Sweet is the...”) and using the same sentence structure in each line, Spenser makes it clear that “every sweet with sour is tempered still.” In other words, the good and the bad often go together. To reinforce this idea, the first two quatrains name several things that are sweet, like roses and the broom-flower, then point out that these sweet things all grow on sharp, prickly, or sour trees and bushes. 

In the third quatrain, Spenser explains why it’s significant that the sweetest things are often accompanied by things that cause pain: because people like a challenge! Spencer says that people don’t really value things they can get easily. Things that are hard to get prove more satisfying in the end. 

Because of the false volta at the beginning of line 9, signaled by Spenser’s use of the word “so,” it may seem like the problem of sweet but prickly things is resolved in the third quatrain. But there’s still the couplet to come, and that’s where the problem is ultimately resolved. Spenser concludes that because good things and bad things often go together, we shouldn’t worry about enduring a little pain when the sweet thing will reward us with pleasure. That reward, Spenser claims, more than makes up for the trouble. 

 

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Portrait of John Milton circa 1629

 

Miltonic Sonnet

You’re probably catching onto the fact that most types of sonnets are named after the poets who popularized them, and the Miltonic Sonnet is no exception. Named after the English poet John Milton, Miltonic sonnets use the same rhyme scheme (ABBAABBA CDECDE) and structure (an octave and a sestet) of a Petrarchan sonnet. 

Miltonic sonnets deal with different themes than the other types of sonnets, though. Instead of tackling questions of romantic love or nature, Miltonic sonnets often deal with politics and moral issues thematically, and they use something called enjambment to tighten the sonnet’s structure. 

If you’re worried about telling Miltonic sonnets apart from Petrarchan sonnets, don’t! Just take a look at the author. If you find a sonnet written by Milton, then you know it’s this specific form. (Yes, sometimes it’s that simple!) 

 

A Miltonic Sonnet: “Number 7: On His Being Arrived to the Age of Twenty-Three” by John Milton

HOW soon hath Time, the subtle thief of youth,
     Stolen on his wing my three and twentieth year!
     My hasting days fly on with full career,
But my late spring no bud or blossom shew’th.
Perhaps my semblance might deceive the truth,
     That I to manhood am arrived so near,
     And inward ripeness doth much less appear,
     That some more timely-happy spirits indu’th.
Yet be it less or more, or soon or slow,
     It shall be still in strictest measure even
     To that same lot, however mean or high,
Toward which Time leads me, and the will of Heaven,
     All is, if I have grace to use it so,
     As ever in my great Task-master’s eye.

 

We know this is a Miltonic sonnet because it was written by John Milton, but it also demonstrates Milton’s departure from the classic love theme of early sonnets. Instead, this sonnet considers the experience of growing older and what the passing of time means for Milton’s commitment to serving God throughout his life.

One thing that Milton’s sonnets do have in common with English or Petrarchan sonnets thematically is that they tend to focus on the meaning of a single event. The difference is the events in Milton’s sonnets are usually more political, intellectual, or spiritual in nature. That’s certainly the case in this sonnet: Milton is writing about his twenty-third birthday, which leads him to ponder his future. 

Like in Italian sonnets and English sonnets, Milton presents a problem at the very beginning of the octave. His twenty-third year has gone by way too fast! He’s entering “manhood” now, but he doesn’t have much to show for it. 

But then the volta happens at the beginning of the sestet. Milton realizes that despite how he feels about what he’s accomplished so far in life, what matters most is that the passing of time leads him to do the will of “his great Task-master,” which is God. 

See how Milton’s sonnets tend to be a little bit more serious in tone than the love sonnets we looked at earlier? That’s a key way that you can tell a Miltonic sonnet from other types of sonnets.

 

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Modern Sonnets

The sonnet has remained a popular poetic form. Many contemporary poets continue to write sonnets, though modern sonnets don’t adhere to one specific form or theme. In fact, modern sonnets have even been called a “ghost imprint” of traditional sonnets

Sometimes modern sonnets rely on the traditional fourteen lines; sometimes they don’t. They also toy around with rhyme schemes and are more free with the types of themes they choose to employ in their version of the sonnet. 

But, usually, you can spot a modern sonnet because it will follow most (but not all!) of the rules we’ve outlined above. To get a better feeling for a modern sonnet, we’ll break down Adam Kirsch’s “Professional Middle-class Couple, 1927,” a contemporary poem that shows you what to look for when reading modern sonnets. 

 

A Modern Sonnet: “Professional Middle-Class Couple, 1927,” by Adam Kirsch

What justifies the inequality
That issues her a tastefully square-cut
Ruby for her finger, him a suit
Whose rumpled, unemphatic dignity
Declares a life of working sitting down,
While someone in a sweatshop has to squint
And palsy sewing, and a continent
Sheds blood to pry the gemstone from the ground,
Could not be justice. Nothing but the use
To which they put prosperity can speak
In their defense: the faces money makes,
They demonstrate, don’t have to be obtuse,
Entitled, vapid, arrogantly strong;
Only among the burghers do you find
A glance so frank, engaging, and refined,
So tentative, so conscious of  its wrong.

 

Kirsch’s modern sonnet is written in Petrarchan form—sort of. It begins with an octave that pretty much follows the ABBAABBA end rhyme scheme, but instead of ending with a sestet that follows the CDCCDC or CDECDE end rhyme scheme, it ends with another octave that follows ABBAABBA. 

This is a small change that tweaks the sonnet form to make it fresh and new. In fact, Kirsch’s sonnet is an example of another uncommon sonnet type: the stretched sonnet, which refers to sonnets that extend to 16 or more lines. 

Kirsch’s sonnet also puts a modern spin on the age-old theme of romantic love. The title of the sonnet refers to a “professional middle-class couple.” People commonly assume that a “couple” is two people who are in love. But this poem goes in a different direction. 

Kirsch describes what the husband and wife are wearing in the first octave, but these descriptions are not complimentary. For every item that Kirsch mentions about the couple’s appearance—a ring with a giant gemstone, a wrinkled suit—he addresses the unjust labor conditions that made them possible. So, just like in traditional sonnets, Kirsch starts with a proposition: the idea that the middle class couple’s displays of prosperity come at the expense of others

You might notice that this sonnet is made up of two sentences, and that the first sentence ends and the second sentence begins smack-dab in the middle of the sonnet, halfway through line 9. This seems to be Kirsch’s unique take on the volta, which is another small tweak to the classic sonnet form

After the volta at the beginning of the second octave, Kirsch describes the only thing that could redeem the middle class couple: acknowledging the ways that their pursuit of prosperity has hurt and degraded others, and changing how they use their prosperity in the future. 

When you know what to look for, modern sonnets aren’t as tricky to spot! 

 

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A sketch of Percy Bysshe Shelley by Amelia Curran

 

Terza Rima Sonnet

Terza Rima is an Italian term for a poetic verse form that uses an interlaced, or chain, rhyme pattern of ABA BCB CDC DED. Terza Rima translates to “third rhyme” in English, and each individual stanza of a terza rima is often called a tercet since it consists of three lines of poetry. 

The fourteenth century Italian poet Dante made the first known use of terza rima in his famous epic poem, the Divine Comedy. Later on, the Italian poet Petrach—the Petrarchan sonnet’s namesake—made use of the terza rima form as well. 

The terza rima form can be repeated over and over—there isn’t a set number of lines for a terza rima, which makes it different from a traditional sonnet! However, when a terza rima ends, it concludes with either a single line or a couplet that repeats the rhyme of the middle line of the final tercet. Here’s an example: if the rhyme scheme of the final tercet of a terza rima is DED, then the rhyme of the final line will be E, or the rhyme of the final couplet will be EE. 

A terza rima doesn’t have a set rhythm, but poets writing in English will often use iambic pentameter. The terza rima form is better suited to writing in Italian since there are fewer rhyming words in English than Italian! Even so, famous poets like Geoffrey Chaucer, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Robert Frost have made successful use of the terza rima in English over the years. In fact, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem, “Ode to the West Wind,” is a good example of the terza rima! 

 

A Terza Rima Sonnet: “Ode to the West Wind,” by Percy Bysshe Shelley

O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn's being,
Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,

Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,
Pestilence-stricken multitudes: O thou,
Who chariotest to their dark wintery bed

The winged seeds, where they lie cold and low,
Each like a corpse within its grave, until
Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow

Her clarion o'er the dreaming earth, and fill
Driving sweet buds like flocks to feed in air 
With living hues and odours plain and hill:

Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere;
Destroyer and preserver; hear, oh, hear

 

Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” is a long poem, so we’ve only included the first section here. But, that’s okay, because the first section of Shelley’s poem provides a full example of a terza rima! This sonnet follows the ABA BCB CDC DED EE rhyme scheme that the terza rima is known for. If you read the rest of the poem, you’ll also see that the full poem is made up of a series of five terza rima sonnets. 

So what is “Ode to the West Wind” about? Well, the title gives a pretty good clue that Shelley is praising the power of the wind! In this first terza rima of the poem, for example, Shelley marvels at how the west wind has the power to control other things in nature during the different seasons of the year. The west wind has the power to blow away dead leaves in autumn, and blow blooms off of trees during spring. 

In both the first line and next-to-last line of this section, Shelley refers to the west wind as “wild.” In fact, in the final couplet, he calls the west wind a “Wild Spirit.” He makes the west wind sound kind of like a supernatural being or even a god—it has the power to destroy and preserve. This first terza rima is setting up the rest of Shelley’s ode, which explores how Shelley wishes the power of the west wind would change him, just like it changes nature. 

 

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Photograph of a young Gerard Manley Hopkins.

 

Curtal Sonnet

The curtal sonnet was invented by the Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. The simple way to explain a curtal sonnet is that it’s a shortened version of the traditional fourteen line sonnet, shrunk proportionally. Hopkins was really interested in the mathematical proportions of sonnets, so we’ll have to do some math to explain the formulaic way that Hopkins condensed the traditional sonnet into the curtal sonnet. 

A curtal sonnet is made up of eleven lines total, which is three-quarters the length of a traditional sonnet. Petrarchan sonnets are made up of an octave and a sestet, right? So a curtal sonnet shrinks the octave to three-quarters of its length, shortening it from eight lines to six lines. Then, a curtal sonnet shrinks the sestet to three-quarters of its length, shortening it from six lines to four lines. So a curtal sonnet is actually made up of a sestet and a quatrain

To get to that important eleventh line, curtal sonnets include a “tail piece” at the very end. The tail piece just refers to the eleventh and final line of the sonnet, which is usually much shorter than the other lines in the poem.

Since the length of a curtal sonnet is totally different from a traditional fourteen line sonnet, the rhyme scheme is pretty different too. A curtal sonnet follows either an ABCABC DBCDC or ABCABC DCBDC rhyme scheme. 

Very few poets have made use of Hopkins’ curtal sonnet, and Hopkins himself only used the curtal sonnet in three of his poems: “Pied Beauty,” “Peace,” and “Ash Boughs.” We’ll take a look at “Pied Beauty” as an example of a curtal sonnet next!

 

A Curtal Sonnet: “Pied Beauty,” by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Glory be to God for dappled things –
   For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
      For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
   Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
      And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
   Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
      With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
                             Praise him.

 

The first stanza of this English sonnet consists of six lines, making it a sestet, the second stanza consists of four lines, making it a quatrain. It also has a tail piece at the very end, comprising the eleventh line! The rhyme scheme also fits a curtail sonnet. The beginning sestet follows an ABCABC rhyme scheme, and the ending quatrain and tail piece follow a DBCDC rhyme scheme

Now, let’s talk about the English sonnet’s themes. We can tell from the very first line that this is a religious poem—Hopkins is praising God for the creation of the beautiful things in nature. He references several things that are beautiful in very different ways, like the sky, the pattern of a trout’s scales, and that has been farmed. Hopkins is praising God for being a creator of things that exhibit beauty in vastly different ways in the first nine lines of this curtal sonnet. 

But then the volta, or a turn, happens in the tenth line. For the entire poem, he’s been praising the unpredictability and variety exhibited in God’s creations, but he pivots to praising God’s unchangeability in the tenth line: “He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change.” But this change in theme is meant to praise God even more. By describing God as unchangeable and constant, Hopkins emphasizes how God is set apart from nature. 

 

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Sonnet Sequences 

In some cases, poets will write several sonnets that connect with each other through a unified subject or theme. These are called sonnet series or sonnet sequences. There are three main types: the sonnet sequence, the crown of sonnets, and the sonnet redouble. 

A sonnet sequence is a collection of sonnets that address the same subject matter, which often involves a dramatic situation or person. It can be made up of Spencerian, Shakespearean, Petrarchan, or Miltonic sonnets. So a poem like Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 128” can be an example of both a Shakespearean sonnet and a poem in a sonnet sequence about music (in conjunction with “Sonnet 8”). 

The “crown of sonnets,” also called the “sonnet corona,” is comprised of fifteen sonnets and uses a repeated formal constraint to express the same theme in each poem. Here’s how a sonnet corona achieves thematic continuity: the last line of the very first sonnet acts as the first line of the next sonnet in the sequence, and the last sonnet’s final line repeats the first line of the first sonnet in the sequence...making a giant loop! 

There’s another type of sonnet sequence, too. This one is called the “heroic crown” or “sonnet redouble,” which is an advanced form of the sonnet corona. A heroic crown is also made up of fifteen sonnets that are linked in the same way as sonnet coronas, but the last sonnet in the sequence is made up of all of the first lines of the previous fourteen sonnets—in order! The fifteenth sonnet in a heroic crown is called a “master sonnet.” Sounds pretty complicated, huh?

We’ll give you one example of a sonnet sequence here: a crown of sonnet called A Wreath For Emmett Till, found in a children’s book by Marilyn Hacker

 

A Crown of Sonnets: A Wreath for Emmett Till, by Marilyn Hacker

III

Pierced by the screams of a shortened childhood,
my heartwood has been scarred for fifty years
by what I heard, with hundreds of green ears.
That jackal laughter. Two hundred years I stood
listening to small struggles to find food,
to the songs of creature life, which disappears
and comes again, to the music of the spheres.
Two hundred years of deaths I understood.
Then slaughter axed one quiet summer night,
shivering the deep silence of the stars.
A running boy, five men in close pursuit.
One dark, five pale faces in the moonlight.
Noise, silence, back-slaps. One match, five cigars.
Emmett Till’s name still catches in the throat.

IV

Emmett Till’s name still catches in my throat,
like syllables waylaid in a stutterer’s mouth.
A fourteen-year-old stutterer, in the South
to visit relatives and to be taught
the family’s ways. His mother had finally bought
that White Sox cap; she’d made him swear an oath
to be careful around white folks. She’s told him the truth
of many a Mississippi anecdote:
Some white folks have blind souls. In his suitcase
she’d packed dungarees, T-shirts, underwear,
and comic books. She’d given him a note
for the conductor, waved to his chubby face,
wondered if he’d remember to brush his hair.
Her only child. A body left to bloat.

 

We didn’t want to copy an entire sonnet corona for you to read through here (fifteen sonnets is a lot!), but we did want to include a few successive sonnets from a single sequence so you can see it in action. 

These three sonnets from Marilyn Hacker’s children’s book, A Wreath for Emmett Till, loosely employ a Petrarchan end rhyme scheme: ABBAABBA CDECDE. You can also see how sonnets “IV” and “V” make use of the corona by repeating the last line of the previous sonnet in their first line. Here’s an example: 

 

Last line of sonnet “III”: “Emmett Till’s name still catches in the throat.” 

First line of sonnet “IV”: “Emmett Till’s name still catches in my throat.” 

 

See? There’s a very small variation in the wording, but otherwise the line stays the same. This repetition enables the poet to create an overarching theme across the multiple sonnets in the sequence. Ultimately, the last line/first line repetition allows the poet to tell an extended story. In the case of Hacker’s children’s book, the story being told is an extremely important one. 

A Wreath for Emmett Till tells a true story about a young African-American boy who was lynched for a crime he did not commit in 1955. Hacker makes the harrowing story of Emmett Till accessible to young readers by relying on some of the traditional thematic elements of sonnets: providing a vivid, detailed description of the main character’s physical appearance and the environment that surrounds them

 

What’s Next? 

Poetry can be really intimidating, but the best way to learn how to read it is to practice. In this article, one of our experts walks you through analyzing Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night.” By the end of the post, you’ll be analyzing poetry like a pro! 

We’ve talked about nine of the poetic devices you should know to analyze sonnets, but there are many more that can be useful tools as you analyze a poem. Learn more about the 20 poetic devices you should know, and take a deep dive into some of the most important ones (like personification and imagery). 

If you’re trying to brush up on sonnets to prepare for the AP English Literature exam, don’t worry. We have tons of resources for you! Start by reviewing our expert’s guide to the exam, then check out our complete list of practice tests and books you should read for the essay portion.  

Have friends who also need help with test prep? Share this article!
Ashley Robinson
About the Author

Ashley Sufflé Robinson has a Ph.D. in 19th Century English Literature. As a content writer for PrepScholar, Ashley is passionate about giving college-bound students the in-depth information they need to get into the school of their dreams.



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