A sonnet is a poem of 14 lines usually written in iambic pentameter and traditionally associated with the theme of love. 13th century Italian poet Giacomo da Lentini is credited with the invention of the sonnet. The most influential early sonneteer was Italian scholar Petrarch. The Petrarchan Sonnet consists of an 8-line octave, which usually presents a problem or explores an idea; followed by a 6-line sestet, which usually solves the problem posed in the octave or takes a completely different direction from the previous line of thought. Though Petrarchan sonnet is named after Petrarch, the form was not developed by him. The other prominent sonnet type is known as Shakespearean Sonnet, again not because he was the first to use it, but because he became its most famous practitioner. Shakespearean Sonnet follows the structure of three quatrains, or 4-line stanzas, followed by a final couplet. The beginning of the third quatrain, at times, introduces an unexpected sharp thematic “turn”, the volta; and the couplet usually summarizes the theme of the poem or introduces a fresh new look at the theme. Here are the 10 most famous sonnets including Ozymandias, Remember, How do I love thee and Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18.
#10 Acquainted with the Night
Poet: Robert Frost
In this poem, the speaker tells about his relationship with loneliness. The poem begins and ends with the line, “I have been one acquainted with the night”, and in between the speaker uses imagery to convey to the reader the nature of solitude. It is most often read as the narrator’s admission of having experienced depression. Terza rima (“third rhyme”) is rhyming verse stanza first used by the famous Italian poet Dante Alighieri. Due to the difficulty of using it in English, few writers have attempted the form. Robert Frost is considered by many as the greatest American poet of the 20th century. He was a master of many forms and Acquainted with the Night is one of the most famous examples of an American poem written in terza rima.
I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain—and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.
I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.
I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,
But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
One luminary clock against the sky
Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.
#9 When I have Fears
Poet: John Keats
Published: 1848 (posthumously)
John Keats was an English Romantic poet who rose to fame after his death and by the end of the nineteenth century became one of the most beloved English poets. His work was in publication only for four years before he died at the age of twenty five. This Shakespearean sonnet has now become one of Keats’ most famous compositions. It was written in 1818 and sent in a letter to John Hamilton Reynolds. Through this sonnet Keats expresses his fear that he wouldn’t be able to realize his potential and achieve love and fame during his short stay on earth. The poem is a personal confession of Keats’ fear of an early death that had plagued him from at least 1816.
When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain,
Before high-piled books, in charact’ry,
Hold like rich garners the full-ripen’d grain;
When I behold, upon the night’s starr’d face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love!—then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.-
#8 Those Winter Sundays
Poet: Robert Hayden
Those Winter Sundays does not follow the conventions of the sonnet form apart from its 14 lines length and the theme of love, which is traditionally associated with sonnets. In the poem, the speaker remembers how his father rose up early on Sunday mornings, despite the hard work he did all week, and stroked the furnace fire. He woke his son only when the house was warm and he even polished his son’s “good shoes”. The speaker then regrets being indifferent to his father and not thanking him. The prominent themes of the poem are fatherly love and regret for not being grateful for the various ways in which people express their love. Those Winter Sundays is the most famous work of African American poet Robert Hayden and it ranks among the most anthologized American poems of the 20th century.
Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?
Poet: Christina Rossetti
Christina Rossetti was a 19th century English poet who, though not very popular in her lifetime, influenced many later poets and is now considered a symbol of constrained female genius. Remember, one of her best known works, was written by her in 1849 while she was still a teenager. However, it was published much later in 1862 as part of her first collection Goblin Market and Other Poems. In the octave of the sonnet, the speaker urges her beloved to remember her after she has died; while in the sestet, she shifts her focus from remembrance and concludes that it would be better for her loved one to forget her and be happy than to remember her and be sad.
Remember me when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the silent land;
When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.
Remember me when no more day by day
You tell me of our future that you plann’d:
Only remember me; you understand
It will be late to counsel then or pray.
Yet if you should forget me for a while
And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
For if the darkness and corruption leave
A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad.
#6 When I Consider How My Light is Spent
Alternate Title: On His Blindness
Poet: John Milton
John Milton is regarded “as one of the pre-eminent writers in the English language” and as one of the most prominent sonneteers ever. When I Consider How My Light is Spent is believed to have been composed in 1655, when Milton had become completely blind. The poem was retitled On His Blindness in 1761 by Thomas Newton. It is a Petrarchan sonnet but instead of the conventional theme of love, Milton chooses a very practical problem. In the octave, the speaker struggles to understand how he is to use his talent and serve God after losing his eyesight. In the sestet, he takes a more calmer tone and writes that people can serve God in many different ways. On His Blindness is the most famous sonnet of Milton and its last three lines are particularly well-known.
When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodg’d with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide,
“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies: “God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts: who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly; thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.”
#5 Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Alternate Title: Sonnet 116
Poet: William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616)
Though he is most renowned for his plays, William Shakespeare is also considered one of the most prominent sonnet writers. He wrote a sonnet sequence of 154 poems. Sonnets 1 to 126 of his collection are addressed to an unnamed young man, now referred to as “Fair Youth”; while the rest are known as the Dark Lady sequence. Sonnet 116 provides the definition of ideal love. In the first quatrain, the speaker says that love is not changeable; in the second he says that it is fixed like the north star is to sailors; in the third he says that it not a “Time’s fool”, that it does not change with time; and in the couplet he attests to the certainty of his definition by saying, “If this be error and upon me proved; I never writ, nor no man ever loved.” Sonnet 116 is regarded among the finest in Shakespeare’s entire sequence and it is one of the most famous poems written on love.
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O, no! it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.
#4 How do I love thee?
Alternate Title: Sonnet 43
Poet: Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Sonnet 43 is part of a sonnet sequence of 44 sonnets called Sonnets from the Portuguese. It was written before Elizabeth Barrett married the famous English poet and playwright Robert Browning. In Sonnet 43, Elizabeth expresses her intense love for Robert listing the various ways in which she experiences love for her beloved. Her love, which she considers spiritual, allows her to reach extremes which are otherwise impossible. Elizabeth Barrett Browning was one of the most prominent poets of the Victorian era and How do I love thee is her most renowned sonnet.
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of everyday’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints,—I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life!—and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.
#3 Death Be Not Proud
Alternate Title: Sonnet X
Poet: John Donne
Published: 1633 (posthumously)
Along with Edmund Spenser and William Shakespeare, John Donne is regarded as the most important sonnet writer of the Elizabethan era. Death Be Not Proud is his best-known poem with its opening lines being extremely popular. It is part of his 19 poems known as Holy Sonnets. In it, Donne directly speaks to Death, as though he is a person, and tells him not to be proud due to the awe in which people hold him because he can’t truly kill anyone as their souls live on in the afterlife. He goes on to compare death to “rest and sleep”, which he considers pleasurable, and infers that death would be more pleasurable. He concludes by saying that after death people awake into eternal life leading to the death of death itself.
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
Poet: Percy Bysshe Shelley
Ozymandias was a Greek name for the Egyptian pharaoh Ramses II, perhaps the most powerful king of Ancient Egypt. In Percy’s poem the speaker recalls meeting a traveller who tells him about two huge stone legs and a damaged head of a statue whose sculptor had captured the pride of his subject. On the pedestal of the statue appear the words, “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: / Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” However around the ruin is nothing but “lone and level sands”. The poem focuses on the momentary nature of power with its central theme being the inevitable decline of all leaders, no matter how great they consider themselves. P. B. Shelley was one of the leading Romantic poets and Ozymandias is his most famous work.
I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
#1 Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Alternate Title: Sonnet 18
Poet: William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616)
Sonnet 18 is a part of Fair Youth sequence of Shakespeare’s collection of 154 sonnets. It is a hugely influential and often quoted work; and there are several double meanings in the poem which give it greater depth. Shakespeare starts Sonnet 18 with a flattering question to the beloved: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” He goes on to list some negative aspects of summer to establish that his beloved is better. In the last part of the poem, he states that the beauty of his beloved will never fade as he will make it eternal though the words of this poem which will remind the world of him “so long as men can breathe or eyes can see”. Sonnet 18 is not only the most famous poem written by William Shakespeare but also the most renowned sonnet ever written.
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date;
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.