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What Is a Miltonic Sonnet?

Mark Wollacott
Mark Wollacott

John Milton created the Miltonic sonnet as a variant to the then highly popular Petrarchan sonnet. The Miltonic sonnet keeps the Petrarchan length and rhyming scheme, but does away with the stanza break between the octave and the sestet. Otherwise, the Miltonic sonnet is a normal sonnet with its own form and where the topic and theme of the poem are down to the poet.

A sonnet is a 14-line poem originating from medieval Italy. The typical sonnet uses iambic pentameter in English. The most common form of sonnet found in English is the form popularized by William Shakespeare towards the end of the 16th century. The Shakespearean sonnet has the familiar a-b-a-b-c-d-c-d-e-f-e-f-g-g rhyming scheme with alternating rhymes finished off with a rhyming couplet.

The Miltonic sonnet is named for John Milton.
The Miltonic sonnet is named for John Milton.

There can be a large variety in the rhyming scheme of a sonnet. Petrarch popularized a form created by Guittone of Arezzo in the 14th century. The rhyming schemes of the octave and the sestet are different to produce the following sequence: a-b-b-a-a-b-b-a and c-d-e-c-d-e. The Petrarchan sonnet was introduced into English by poets such as Sir Thomas Wyatt.

Petrarch divided the poem into two unequal halves. The octave was an eight-line opening stanza that proposed a problem. The sestet was a closing six lines of verse that commented on the problem.

John Milton was a 16th century thinker and poet. His early poems were published anonymously and his most famous work is “Paradise Lost.” His variation on the Petrarchan sonnet inspired poems from other sonneteers such as William Wordsworth and Percy Shelley. Milton kept the distinction between the octave and sestet in terms of function, but merged them into one 14-line stanza. One example used to demonstrate the Miltonic sonnet is “On His Blindness,” which goes like this:

“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 Lodged 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-labor, 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.'”

In this poem, the octave’s rhyming scheme is represented by spent-wide-hide-bent-present-chide-denied-prevent. The sestet rhyming scheme is shown using need-best-state-speed-rest-wait. The octave considers the concept of being blind, something that afflicted Milton in his later years. The sestet then relates blindness to God’s will.

Discussion Comments


@Scrbblchick -- It's not the most well known sonnet form, for sure. When I was taking poetry classes, my professor was a sonnet nut. She loved them. So, we had to write a Shakespearean sonnet, a Petrarchan sonnet and a Miltonic sonnet.

I didn't have too many problems with the Shakespearean sonnet, but the Miltonic about drove me nuts. Rhyming the lines was the worst part. I finally cobbled one together, but I never thought it was my best work, by any means. Seems like I got a decent grade on it, but I wasn't particularly thrilled with the quality.


I have a degree in English, and I took British Literature. I honestly don't remember covering the Miltonic sonnet. Milton, yes. "Paradise Lost," yes. But not the sonnets. I need to do some study on this form, I think, since I'm not familiar with it.

I've always liked Milton, so I think I'd enjoy reading more about this aspect of his writing. I'll have to pull out my lit books and reacquaint myself with his work. I think it will be a good way to spend some winter afternoons.

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    • The Miltonic sonnet is named for John Milton.
      By: Georgios Kollidas
      The Miltonic sonnet is named for John Milton.