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What Is a Spenserian Sonnet?

By Debra Barnhart
Updated May 23, 2024
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A Spenserian sonnet is a specific type of sonnet, or poem, that is named after Edmund Spenser, an Englishman who wrote in the late 1500s, during the Renaissance period. One of the origins of the word "sonnet" is the Italian word “sonetto”, which means “little song.” The musical cadence of the sonnet is heightened by the use of iambic pentameter, which means that each line of verse consists of 10 syllables, with five pairs consisting of a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable. Spenserian sonnets have the following rhyme pattern: abab bcbc cdcd ee, with each letter representing a different word sound. For example, the first four lines of a sonnet using this rhyme pattern might end in the words "drew," "yield," "threw" and "field."

Sonnets were first developed in Italy and Great Britain. The best-known sonnet writer is William Shakespeare. Along with the Spenserian sonnet, there are several other types of sonnets with varying patterns of rhyme or similar word sounds, including the Italian sonnet and the English or Shakespearian sonnet.

Poetry is an ancient form of literature and is often thought to be indefinable, but most poems use language sparingly, rely on visual imagery, and use metaphor, the comparison of one object or idea to another. Poetry, especially modern poetry, does not have to use rhyme, but rhyme is essential to the Spenserian sonnet. The use of rhyme and sound cadence such as iambic pentameter provides a strict structure, and it requires a great deal of talent for poets to work within that structure and successfully create a fresh, imaginative poem.

Romance, mythology and philosophy were important elements in Spenser’s poems. A traditional Spenserian sonnet suggests an idea to be considered and then draws a conclusion in the last lines of verse. In one of Spenser’s romantic sonnets, Fair Is My Love When Her Fair Golden Hairs, the beauty of a beloved is described in detail, but Spenser draws the conclusion in the last six lines of the poem that it is not physical beauty, but the beloved’s mind and thoughts that are most appealing.

Spenser is believed to have been born in 1552 in London to a family that had a modest income. He attended the Merchant Taylors school, where he was introduced to literature, Greek philosophy and the Latin language. In 1590, Spenser published the first three books of The Faerie Queene, his most famous work. A second installment of The Faerie Queene was published in 1596. During his lifetime, Spenser was not the successful poetic that he aspired to be, partially because of a political rival that prevented him from getting court patronage.

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Discussion Comments
By Inaventu — On Jul 16, 2014

It seems like the Shakespearean sonnet became far more popular than Spenserian sonnets, but I honestly preferred the Spenserian sonnet format when I had to compose a few for my creative writing classes in high school.

I think I preferred the Spenserian sonnet rhyme scheme because it allowed the writer to introduce more rhyming stanzas, instead of the traditional 8 lines and 6 lines of an English sonnet. I especially liked creating the final "ee" Spenserian stanza, since the really well written ones can stand on their own as couplets.

By Cageybird — On Jul 15, 2014

I remember when we studied poetry in college, the instructor discussed Petrarchan, Shakespearean and Spenserian sonnets. The one thing I remember most about a Spenserian sonnet's format is that the final stanza, with the ee rhyme pattern, was supposed to make an ironic statement about the other stanzas. That's how we could recognize Spenserian sonnet examples on tests.

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