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Spenserian Sonnet

Spenserian sonnets are one of the three most popular forms of sonnet found in English Literature. The features of the Spenserian sonnet give it a different structure from other poems of this form. Many famous examples of Spenserian sonnets can be found in Scottish Literature in particular. 

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Spenserian Sonnet

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Spenserian sonnets are one of the three most popular forms of sonnet found in English Literature. The features of the Spenserian sonnet give it a different structure from other poems of this form. Many famous examples of Spenserian sonnets can be found in Scottish Literature in particular.

Spenserian Sonnet: History

The Spenserian sonnet was created by Edmund Spenser (1552-1599). Edmund Spenser was an English poet who was most famous for his work, 'The Faerie Queene' (1590) as well as his poetry collection Amoretti (1595).

Spenserian sonnets were created during the same time period as the Shakespearean sonnet, and so there are similarities in the features of both forms. The Spenserian sonnet was also influenced by the Petrarchan sonnet (named after the Italian poet Petrarch), which is seen in their shared use of the volta.

Volta - A rhetorical device used to create a dramatic shift in tone in a poem. Sometimes, it is referred to as a 'turn'.

The Spenserian sonnet gained popularity in Scotland during the 16th and 17th centuries, with Scottish royalty including King James VI using this form. The Spenserian sonnet was so popular in Scotland that it is sometimes referred to as the Scottish sonnet. A well-known example includes Alexander Montgomery who published 38 Spenserian sonnets in 1821.

Spenserian Sonnet: Examples & Poem

Although they are not seen as frequently as Petrarchan or Shakspearean sonnets, Spenserian sonnets are still a popular form of poetry. Examples of Spenserian sonnets can be found in both Spenser’s ‘Amoretti’ and ‘The Faerie Queene’ as well as some poems by King James VI of Scotland and William Thompson’s ‘Garden Inscriptions’ (1760). The features of a Spenserian sonnet are displayed in Edmund Spenser’s ‘Amoretti LXXV: One day I wrote her name’ found below:

“One day I wrote her name upon the strand,

But came the waves and washed it away:

Again I wrote it with a second hand,

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

"Vain man," said she, "that dost in vain assay,

A mortal thing so to immortalize;

For I myself shall like to this decay,

And eke my name be wiped out likewise."

"Not so," (quod I) "let baser things devise

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

My verse your vertues rare shall eternize,

And in the heavens write your glorious name:

Where whenas death shall all the world subdue,

Our love shall live, and later life renew."

Spenserian Sonnet: Structure

A key way to spot a Spenserian sonnet is to look at what structure is used. Spenserian sonnets use a similar structure to Shakespearean sonnets, as the stanzas are arranged as three quatrains (four lines) and one couplet (two lines). There is a similarity between these two sonnets as they were both created during the same time period, and so have influenced each other.

The first three stanzas in a Spenserian sonnet are written as Sicilian quatrains. These quatrains are written in iambic pentameter and rhyme ABAB.

Features of Spenserian Sonnets

What are the features of a Spenserian sonnet?

Spenserian sonnet meter

Spenserian sonnets use iambic pentameter in all their poems. It is the typical meter that is used in sonnets and is one of the key ways to spot this form. Iambic pentameter occurs when there are five metrical feet (or iambs) in each line. An iamb will consist of one unstressed syllable, followed by one stressed syllable.

One day I wrote her name upon the strand,

But came the waves and washed it away:"

In the example above, the non-bold represents the unstressed syllables, and the bold represents the stressed syllables. Try and count how many are in each line.

Spenserian sonnet, a strand at a beach, studysmarterA strand

Top Tip! To remember the rhythm that iambic pentameter creates, try following the beat of your heart!

Spenserian Sonnet Rhyme Scheme

A key way to spot a Spenserian sonnet is to look at the rhyme scheme! The Spenserian sonnet follows a rhyme scheme of ABAB-BCBC-CDCD-EE. The rhyme scheme is significantly different from the one used for the Shakespearean sonnet, as here each of the quatrains is linked together by a rhyming couplet.

One day I wrote her name upon the strand,But came the waves and washed it away:Again I wrote it with a second hand,But came the tide, and made my pains his prey."Vain man," said she, "that dost in vain assay,A mortal thing so to immortalize;For I myself shall like to this decay,And eke my name be wiped out likewise."

In the first stanza, lines 1 and 3 rhyme with each other (‘strand’ rhyming with ‘hand’), this will be the ‘A’ rhyme in the rhyme scheme. The rhyme in lines 2 and 4 (‘away’ and ‘prey’) continues into the second stanza, with lines 5 and 7 (‘assay’ and ‘decay’) following the ‘B’ in the rhyme scheme.

Spenserian Sonnet Tone

Spenserian sonnets should also include a device called a volta.

Volta - A volta is sometimes referred to as a ‘turn’ in the poem and is typically used to show that the speaker is experiencing either a literal or metaphorical change.

Voltas were first used in Petrarchan sonnets which influenced the creation of the Spenserian sonnet. As with Petrarchan sonnets, when a volta is used in a Spenserian sonnet, it is to show a climax or epiphany. In a Spenserian sonnet, the volta can be found at the end of the second stanza.

And eke my name be wiped out likewise."

Top Tip! You can spot a volta when you look for words like ‘but’, ‘and’, ‘yet’ ‘O’ or ‘never’!

The turn or epiphany caused by the volta is resolved in the final declamatory couplet that the poem ends with.

Where whenas death shall all the world subdue,

Our love shall live, and later life renew."

Spenserian Sonnet Themes

Spenserian sonnets are typically love poems as many of Edmund Spenser’s original Spenserian sonnets focused on his marriage. Spenserian sonnets have expanded into different themes over the centuries. Due to the form’s popularity in Scotland, it has been used to discuss themes of nationality and identity. Spenserian sonnets have also been used to talk about themes such as politics, social issues and religion.

Key differences between Spenserian Sonnets and other Sonnets

All sonnets follow the same basic three characteristics, they are all fourteen lines long, written in iambic pentameter, with a strict rhyme scheme; however, there are differences in how this can be presented. Spenserian sonnets use characteristics that are present in other types of sonnets to create a different style of this form. Use the table below to remember the key differences between Spenserian sonnets and Petrarchan and Shakespearean sonnets.

Petrarchan

Shakespearean

Spenserian

Lines Numbers

14

14

14

Stanza Structures

One Octave

One Sestet

Three Quatrains

One Couplet

Three Quatrains

One Couplet

Metre

Iambic

Iambic

Iambic

Rhyme Scheme

ABBAABBA CDECDE

ABAB CDCD EFEF GG

ABAB BCBC CDCD EE

Volta

Yes

Yes

Yes

Spenserian Sonnet - Key Takeaways

  • Spenserian sonnets were created by Edmund Spenser.

  • They were created during the 16th century.

  • Spenserian sonnets consist of three quatrains and one couplet.

  • Iambic pentameter is used in all Spenserian sonnets.

  • The rhyme scheme in a Spenserian sonnet is ABAB-BCBC-CDCD-EE

  • There is a volta in a Spenserian sonnet.

Frequently Asked Questions about Spenserian Sonnet

Spenserian sonnets have a volta (a turn or climax) while the Shakespearean sonnet does not have this. The two forms also have different rhyme schemes, with the Spenserian sonnet using ABAB-BCBC-CDCD-EE, while the Shakespearean sonnet uses ABAB-CDCD-EFEF-GG. 

The rhyme scheme of a Spenserian sonnet is ABAB-BCBC-CDCD-EE.  

To write a Spenserian sonnet the poem should consist of three quatrains and one couplet, written in iambic pentameter with a rhyme scheme of ABAB-BCBC-CDCD-EE. There should also be a volta at the end of the second quatrain.  

In poetry, a Spenserian sonnet is a form of a poem that consists of three quatrains and one couplet, written in iambic pentameter with a rhyme scheme of ABAB-BCBC-CDCD-EE. It will also have a volta.  

 Examples of Spenserian sonnets include Edmund Spenser’s Sonnet LXXV, it was featured in his work ‘Amoretti’ (1595), which was composed of 87 Spenserian sonnets. 

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