What Is the Rhyming Scheme of a Sonnet?

Thirteenth century Italians, including Dante Alighieri and Guido Cavalcanti, wrote the first sonnets, but the most famous Italian sonneteer was the fourteenth century poet and scholar Petrarca, who developed the familiar fourteen-line sonnet. His sonnets consist of an octet, or group of eight lines, followed by twin tercets, or groups of three lines. The sonnet takes the form of an argument; the speaker of the sonnet presents a problem in the octet and resolves it in the tercets. Later English writers like Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare and John Milton experimented with a variety of rhyme schemes in their sonnets.

Early English Sonnets

The earliest English sonneteers include Sir Thomas Wyatt; Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey; and Sir Phillip Sidney. In 1557, Richard Tottel gathered various specimens of English poetry, including works by Wyatt and Surrey, into a volume called "Songes and Sonettes." Early sonnets by Wyatt, Surrey and Sidney often imitated overall structure and rhyming scheme. The ABBA-ABBA-CDDC-EE of the following poem, Wyatt's "Whoso List to Hunt," was common among early English sonneteers:

Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind, A

But as for me, helas! I may no more. B

The vain travail hath worried me so sore, B

I am of them that furthest come behind. A

Yet may I by no means, my worried mind A

Draw from the deer; but as she fleeth afore B

Fainting I follow. I leave off therefore, B

Since in a net I seek to hold the wind. A

Who list her hunt, I put him out of doubt, C

As well as I, may spend his time in vain; D

And graven in diamonds in letters plain D

There is written, her fair neck round about, C

"Noli me tangere, for Caesar's I am, E

And wild to hold, though I seem tame." E

Edmund Spenser

Scholars usually praise the Elizabethan poet and courtier Edmund Spenser most for his epic poem "The Faerie Queene" and his "Prothalamion," a poem dedicated to his wife on the occasion of their wedding. Spenser also pioneered many important developments in the English sonnet, however, one of which is the use of a single, concrete controlling image, such as the waves in "Sonnet 75," to convey a variety of meanings. Spenser's "Sonnet 75" also provides an excellent example of how a poet can use a rhyme scheme to reinforce a poem's theme and imagery: the ABAB-BCBC-CDCD-EE scheme carries rhymes over from stanza to stanza, mirroring the motion of the waves Spenser describes crashing continually against the strand.

One day I wrote her name upon the strand, A

But came the waves and washed it away: B

Again I wrote it with a second hand, A

But came the tide, and made my pains his prey. B

Vain man, said she, that doest in vain assay B

A mortal thing so to immortalize, C

For I myself shall like to this decay, B

And eek my name be wiped out likewise. C

Not so (quoth I), let baser things devise C

To die in dust, but you shall live by fame: D

My verse your virtues rare shall eternize, C

And in the heavens write your glorious name. D

Where whenas Death shall all the world subdue, E

Our love shall live, and later life renew. E

William Shakespeare

Most readers probably do not need an introduction to William Shakespeare's poetry and plays. The Bard of Avon wrote 154 sonnets, most of which were published for the first time in a 1609 volume entitled "Shake-speares Sonnets." His sonnets share the same rhyme scheme: ABAB-CDCD-EFEF-GG. Scholars generally refer to sonnets by authors other than Shakespeare whose rhymes follow this scheme as "Shakespearean sonnets," even though Phillip Sidney was actually the first sonneteer to employ it. A famous example of a Shakespearean sonnet written by someone other than Shakespeare is John Keats's "Bright Star."

Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art --- A

Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night B

And watching, with eternal lids apart, A

Like Nature's patient, sleepless Eremite, B

The moving waters at their priestlike task C

Of pure ablution round earth's human shores, D

Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask C

Of snow upon the mountains and the moors --- D

No --- yet still stedfast, still unchangeable, E

Pillow'd upon my fair love's ripening breast, F

To feel for ever its soft swell and fall, E

Awake for ever in a sweet unrest, F

Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath, G

And so live ever --- or else swoon to death. G

Other Schemes

Many later English poets, from John Milton to Percy Bysshe Shelley to Seamus Heaney, wrote sonnets using rhyme schemes that depart from earlier norms. Milton attempted to restore the English sonnet to its Italian roots and published works, such as his "Sonnet 1," using a scheme of ABBA-ABBA-CDCDCD.

O Nightingale, that on yon bloomy Spray A

Warbl'st at eeve, when all the Woods are still, B

Thou with fresh hope the Lovers heart dost fill, B

While the jolly hours lead on propitious May, A

Thy liquid notes that close the eye of Day, A

First heard before the shallow Cuccoo's bill B

Portend success in love; O if Jove's will B

Have linkt that amorous power to thy soft lay, A

Now timely sing, ere the rude Bird of Hate C

Foretell my hopeles doom in som Grove ny: D

As thou from yeer to yeer hast sung too late C

For my relief; yet hadst no reason why, D

Whether the Muse, or Love call thee his mate, C

Both them I serve, and of their train am I. D

Shelley employed a unique rhyme scheme, ABABA-CDC-EDE-FEF, in his sonnet "Ozymandias."

I met a traveller from an antique land A

Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone B

Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand, A

Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown B

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command A

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read C

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things, D

The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed. C

And on the pedestal these words appear: E

"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: D

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!" E

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay F

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare E

The lone and level sands stretch far away. F

Seamus Heaney's "Sonnet 3" makes use of an irregular scheme featuring occasional rhymes: ABCDEFGH-IJJKLL.

When all the others were away at Mass A

I was all hers as we peeled potatoes. B

They broke the silence let fall one by one C

Like solder weeping off the soldering iron: D

Cold comforts set between us, things to share E

Gleaming in a bucket of clean water. F

And again let fall. Little pleasant splashes G

From each other's work would bring us to our senses. H

So while the parish priest at her bedside I

Went hammer and tongs at the prayers for the dying J

And some were responding and some crying J

I remembered her head bent towards my head, K

Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives- L

Never closer the whole rest of our lives. L

  • "Norton Anthology of English Literature"; Stephen Greenblatt, M. H. Abrams, Alfred David and Barbara K. Lewalski (eds.); 2006
  • "A Handbook to Literature"; William Harmon and Hugh Holman; 2002
About the Author

Thomas Colbyry is a writer living in Marquette, Mich. Currently pursuing a B.A. in English, he works as a writing tutor and contributes book reviews to several publications. Colbyry often covers topics related to literature, specializing in early modern, Restoration, 18th-century and Victorian British literature, as well as the literature of Japan.

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