10 Famous Sonnet Examples + Their Meaning Explained

April 29, 2024

sonnet examples meaning

These days, poets are more likely to be rule breakers than rule followers. Pick up a collection of contemporary poems at your local bookstore (which we highly recommend doing!), and you’ll find that very few poets are consistently following formal patterns of rhyme and meter. But in centuries past, poetry was all about fitting artistic expression into inflexible parameters. The sonnet is a prime example of exactly that: it’s one of the oldest and most strict poetic forms still in use today.

Despite all its formality, poets throughout the ages have found ways to put their own spin on the sonnet. Below, we’ll offer examples of some of the most famous sonnet examples from history and explain what they mean. We’ll also show you modern sonnet examples that showcase how poets are utilizing this classic form today.

In this article, we’ll cover:

  • What is a Sonnet?
  • Tips for Reading Poetry
  • 10 Famous Sonnet Examples – Classic Sonnets
  • 10 Famous Sonnet Examples – Modern Sonnets
  • More Resources

10 Famous Sonnet Examples – What is a Sonnet?

The sonnet originated in the 13th century in Italy and Francesco Petrarca first made the form famous. In Italian, sonetto means “little song,” which should help you remember that the sonnet is a) short and b) musical. In its traditional forms, it follows a meter (aka rhythm) that gives it a song-like quality. During the Elizabethan period, English poets took a liking to the sonnet.  William Shakespeare put his own spin on the form, giving us the style of sonnet we consider to be the most traditional today.

Sonnet quick facts:

  • 14 lines
  • Rhymed iambic pentameter
  • A structure divided into two parts: the proposition and the resolution
  • A volta (aka a pivot) that divides the proposition from the resolution
  • Petrarchan sonnets follow an ABBA ABBA CDECDE or ABBA ABBA CDCDCD rhyme scheme
  • Shakespearean sonnets follow a ABAB CDCD EFEF GG rhyme scheme

Not all sonnets, old or new, will exactly follow these rules. It’s good to know the basic formula, though, because, when you analyze poetry, you’ll want to compare and contrast what you’re reading to traditional sonnet examples. It’s often noteworthy when poets revise tradition.

10 Famous Sonnet Examples – Tips for Reading Poetry

With sonnets, it’s especially important to pay attention to the form’s two-part structure. Sonnets often contain a proposition and a resolution. This means that a sonnet might pose a question or declare a problem in its first part and then go on to answer the question or address the problem in the second part. The volta is the place where the poem pivots, so look out for changes in rhyme, tone, and imagery to help you identify the pivot. What follows the volta will often change the meaning of the poem, and you can’t interpret the proposition without the resolution.

Other things to pay attention to:

  • Metaphors, similes, and other figurative language
  • Patterns in imagery
  • Repetition and breaks in repetition
  • Tone

For a full list of poetic terms, explore the glossary at Poets.org.

10 Famous Sonnet Examples – Classic Sonnets

1) William Shakespeare, “My Mistress’ Eyes are Nothing Like the Sun” (1609)

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;

Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;

If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;

If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.

I have seen roses damasked, red and white,

But no such roses see I in her cheeks;

And in some perfumes is there more delight

Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.

I love to hear her speak, yet well I know

That music hath a far more pleasing sound;

I grant I never saw a goddess go;

My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground.

And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare

As any she belied with false compare.

We can’t have a list of famous sonnet examples without including Mr. Shakespeare! Known as “the bard,” Shakespeare wrote poems that have stood the test of time in addition to his well-known plays. Shakespeare’s sonnets follow his own form. In Petrarca’s sonnets, the volta comes after the eighth line. In Shakespeare’s, it comes after the twelfth.

For the first twelve lines, Shakespeare seems to be insulting his lover. He says her eyes don’t gleam like the sun, her lips aren’t coral red, her breath smells nothing like perfume, and her voice doesn’t sound at all like music. A bit rude, right? But remember that sonnets are composed of a two-part structure that always comes with a twist. “And yet” marks the volta. In the final two lines, after declaring his lover is not so hot, he tells us that he still thinks she is “rare.” In this poem, Shakespeare is making fun of poetic conventions of the time that set unattainable standards for female beauty. Instead, Shakespeare offers us a refreshingly realistic portrait of his lover.

2) William Shakespeare, “Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day?” (1609)

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.

Here, Shakespeare is no longer making fun of poetic exaggeration. While “My Mistress’ Eyes are Nothing Like the Sun” is satire, this poem is much more earnest. We can take Shakespeare at his word when he says his lover is more lovely and temperate than a summer’s day. But this poem isn’t just about his lover’s beauty. The rest of the lines move on to other topics: the changing of the seasons, the changing course of nature, losing possession of fairness, eternal lines, death.

Shakespeare uses the words “fair” and “fairness” four times in this poem, and in this case, the word doesn’t just mean “beauty,” it means “youth.” In the first eight lines, Shakespeare is saying that his lover, over time, will lose her beauty and youth. But then in the ninth line, he writes, “But thy eternal summer shall not fade.” He declares that his lover’s vibrancy is more than skin deep—it is a quality she will have with her for life, regardless of age.

3) Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “How Do I Love Thee?” (1850)

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 every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
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.

Like Shakespeare’s sonnet examples above, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “How Do I Love Thee?” is a love poem. However, Barret Browning offers us none of the flashy romantic imagery that Shakespeare makes fun of in “My Mistress’ Eyes.” This sonnet is a much more straightforward declaration of a true and enduring love.

What can we infer about Barrett Browning’s relationship from this poem? She loves by “sun and candle-light,” suggesting she spends days and nights with her lover. Since this was published during the Victorian era when couples had limited contact before marriage, that suggests Barrett Browning is writing this poem for her husband. She also makes references to grace, her soul, faith, saints, and God. In this poem, love is not just a matter of passion. Rather, Barrett Browning writes about love with a sense of religious conviction—she loves her husband with all her soul and her marriage nourishes her soul. After death, she hopes her love will continue on in heaven.

4) William Wordsworth, “Composed upon Westminster Bridge” (1802)

Earth has not any thing to show more fair:

Dull would he be of soul who could pass by

A sight so touching in its majesty:

This City now doth, like a garment, wear

The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,

Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie

Open unto the fields, and to the sky;

All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.

Never did sun more beautifully steep

In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;

Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!

The river glideth at his own sweet will:

Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;

And all that mighty heart is lying still!

Much like Shakespeare, William Wordsworth is thinking about beauty in this sonnet example. But Wordsworth isn’t thinking about how beautiful his lover is. Instead, he’s thinking about the beauty of a bridge. Yes, that sounds a little silly, but bear with me.

Wordsworth wants this poem to feel like it’s written in a single moment. He tells us he’s in London looking at the River Thames. He’s watching the morning sun come up and he notices how majestic Westminster Bridge looks. Another poet might think the bridge or London itself is an eyesore that blights the landscape, but Wordsworth thinks the bridge makes the whole scene more lovely. He writes, “Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie/Open unto the fields, and to the sky,” suggesting that the buildings are open to nature. It’s as if nature and the city are one. A Romantic poet writing during the Industrial Revolution, Wordsworth shows a surprising level of idealism about cities.

5) John Milton, “When I Consider How My Light is Spent” (1673)

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-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.”

John Milton lost his sight young, likely in his mid-forties. This, of course, would be a big deal for anyone. But for Milton, a writer and translator by profession, losing his sight meant an enormous change to his work. In this sonnet, Milton (who was devoutly religious) wonders how best to serve God if he can no longer work in the way he’s used to. In the first few lines, he considers “how my light is spent.” Here, “light” has a double-meaning: it is his sight but also his gift, the talent he has to offer to God and the world.

He has lost that part of him, but he wonders, “Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?” By this, he is asking whether God demands work as proof of faith. No, Milton decides. Even those who simply “stand and wait” can be seen as worthy in the eyes of Gods. He concludes that faith itself is enough to please God.

6) Christina Rossetti, “Remember” (1849)

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.

Christina Rossetti wrote this sonnet when she was just 19, perhaps a bit young to be writing a poem with such mournful themes. “Remember” is a poem about grief in which a speaker tells her beloved how she should be remembered after her death. Rossetti’s request is carefully considered. She wants her beloved to remember her even though they can no longer be together, planning for their future or passing their days hand in hand. But she is careful to tell her love that he doesn’t need to think of her during every passing moment. “Yet if you should forget me for a while,” she instructs, “do not grieve.” By this, she means her beloved should not feel guilty for putting her out of mind from time to time. She asks him to remember her with fondness, not with guilt or sadness.

7) Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Ozymandias” (1818)

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.”

Unlike most of the sonnet examples above, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias” is not concerned with love or beauty. Rather, this sonnet considers themes of power and impermanence. In the story this poem tells, a traveler exploring the desert comes across a statue’s crumbling legs a pedestal with an inscription. The text is a message written by Ozymandias, an alternate name for Ramses II, the ancient Egyptian pharaoh. Ozymandias says, “Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!” but nothing remains. As we know, the ancient Egyptians built pyramids and many other enormous edifices. Many of those do still stand, but this poem imagines a situation in which nothing achieved by a great king remains. Kingdoms and kings come and go, Shelley tells us, and time erodes all power.

10 Famous Sonnet Examples – Modern Sonnets (Continued)

8) Edna St. Vincent Millay, “I, Being Born a Woman and Distressed” (1923)

I, being born a woman and distressed
By all the needs and notions of my kind,
Am urged by your propinquity to find
Your person fair, and feel a certain zest
To bear your body’s weight upon my breast:
So subtly is the fume of life designed,
To clarify the pulse and cloud the mind,
And leave me once again undone, possessed.
Think not for this, however, the poor treason
Of my stout blood against my staggering brain,
I shall remember you with love, or season
My scorn with pity, —let me make it plain:
I find this frenzy insufficient reason
For conversation when we meet again.

Unlike Shakespeare’s sonnet examples above, we can think of this poem as an anti-love sonnet. Speaking with remarkable candor about romance and sexuality for 1923, Edna St. Vincent Millay tells her listener that she’ll never be with him. In the first five lines, she admits she feels an attraction to her listener. But, after the volta, she clarifies that she sees attraction as a burden that can “cloud the mind.” Though she might long to “bear your body’s weight upon my breast,” that weight would be just that—something to bear. She wants to make it plain: just because she’s attracted to her listener doesn’t mean she’ll even speak to him the next time they meet. Though depictions of women at the time of this sonnet’s publication tended to show them as weaker and driven by feelings, Millay shows the dominance of reason over her desires.

9) Sylvia Plath, “Sonnet: To Time” (1952-1953)

Today we move in jade and cease with garnet

Amid the ticking jeweled clocks that mark

Our years. Death comes in a casual steel car, yet

We vaunt our days in neon and scorn the dark.


But outside the diabolic steel of this

Most plastic-windowed city, I can hear

The lone wind raving in the gutter, his

Voice crying exclusion in my ear.


So cry for the pagan girl left picking olives

Beside a sunblue sea, and mourn the flagon

Raised to toast a thousand kings, for all gives

Sorrow; weep for the legendary dragon.


Time is a great machine of iron bars

That drains eternally the milk of stars.


Although most sonnets aren’t broken into stanzas, Sylvia Plath breaks this sonnet into four of them. The structure might be different, but it still has 14 lines and follows a Shakespearian rhyme structure.

Here, Plath considers the passing of time, the loss of youth, and the bitter inevitability of death. When she writes that “we vaunt our days in neon and scorn the dark,” she is suggesting that young people are able to live life fully and ignore the passing of time. But, for Plath, death always looms. “Death comes in a casual steel car” and is a “diabolical steel” from which she can’t seem to escape. In the third stanza, she asks us to feel sorrow for the loss of youthful fantasies. In the final, she says time is like “a machine of iron bars” that “drains the milk of stars.” For Plath, time is something mechanical and unnatural that robs life of hope and joy.

10) Aimee Nezhukumatathil, “Are All the Break-Ups in Your Poems Real?” (2011)

If by real you mean as real as a shark tooth stuck

in your heel, the wetness of a finished lollipop stick,

the surprise of a thumbtack in your purse—

then Yes, every last page is true, every nuance,

bit, and bite. Wait. I have made them up—all of them—

and when I say I am married, it means I married

all of them, a whole neighborhood of past loves.

Can you imagine the number of bouquets, how many

slices of cake? Even now, my husbands plan a great meal

for us—one chops up some parsley, one stirs a bubbling pot

on the stove. One changes the baby, and one sleeps

in a fat chair. One flips through the newspaper, another

whistles while he shaves in the shower, and every single

one of them wonders what time I am coming home.

Famous Sonnet Examples (Continued)

The only living writer on our round-up of sonnet examples, Aimee Nezhukumatathil is an award-winning poet and a professor at the University of Mississippi. Much like Shakespeare’s “My Mistress’ Eyes,” which satirized love poems 400 years ago, this sonnet takes its own playful twist on the form. The title, “Are All the Break-Ups in Your Poems Real?” poses a question Nezhukumatathil likely hears from readers or interviewers. Yes, she responds, they’re as real as “a shark tooth stuck in your foot” or “the wetness of a finished lollipop stick.” By which she means that, even if the stories are embellished, they feel real—viscerally real.

She then plays out the premise, imagining she actually married each and every ex. She gives us a brief glimpse into a multiverse of a life in which every relationship worked out. But the irony is that each husband ends up the same: “every single one of them wonders what time I am coming home.”

10 Famous Sonnet Examples – More Resources

Whether you’re writing an essay or curious to learn more about poetry, we’ve got resources that can help.

English 101

Creative Writing Resources