How to Write a Sonnet Poem in 7 Steps
The sonnet is a popular poetry form invented in Italy during the 13th century. This demanding form of poetry was known to be a favorite of famous playwright Shakespeare, who used this 14-line format to write many of his plays. To learn how to write a sonnet, you must follow a thematic pattern: three quatrains and one couplet.
What is a sonnet?
A sonnet is a poem consisting of 14 lines and a final rhyming couplet. Sonnets are often used as a poetic form by poets, usually in the English language but also in other languages. Sonnets have been written by romantic poets, such as Shakespeare, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Pablo Neruda, and more recently by contemporary poets such as Maya Angelou in her poem “Harlem Hopscotch.” Some convey much imagery in literature, while other sonnets focus more on the sound of language.
Shakespearean sonnets are usually written in iambic pentameter and consist of three quatrains followed by a couplet. The rhyme scheme is most often “abab cdcd efef gg.” The first line introduces a problem or a strong emotion, and the last line provides a solution to it. Shakespearean sonnets are usually fourteen lines long. The rhyme scheme of Shakespearean sonnets is “abab cdcd efef gg.” Sonnets contain a number of features. These are the main ones:
- Themes – Sonnet topics generally express a strong emotion, such as love.
- Rhyme scheme – The rhyming pattern is abab cdcd efef gg.
- Structure – These poems are fourteen lines long, with a rhyme scheme of abab cdcd efef gg, and with an iambic pentameter.
- Iambic pentameter – Most of Shakespeare’s sonnets use iambic pentameter, which means there are ten syllables per line.
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How to write a sonnet
Writing a sonnet doesn’t have to be overwhelming. By following these simple strategies, you can write your own sonnet.
1. Choose a theme or problem
Sonnets usually explore universal elements of human life to which many people can relate. Themes such as love, war, mortality, change, and hardship are some common topics featured in the sonnet. Sometimes the poet is trying to answer a larger question about life or provide commentary on a social issue. Choose a theme that appeals to you and you would like to explore on a deeper level. You can also think of a problem that you would like to solve as many sonnets present a problem and then provide an answer near the end of the poem.
2. Pick a type of sonnet
There are two main types of sonnets: English and Italian. English sonnets are also known as Shakespearean sonnets and Italian sonnets are also referred to as Petrarchan sonnets. The poets, Shakespeare and Petrarch, were the most famous sonnet writers of their time within their respective poetic forms. Though both types of sonnets are comprised of fourteen lines, the structuring of the lines and rhyme schemes are different. To be able to write a sonnet, (whether English or Italian) you must follow a specific form.
3. Write in iambic pentameter
Sonnets are written in a rhythm called iambic pentameter. An iamb is represented by two syllables and is an example of a metrical foot in a poem. The first syllable of an iamb is unstressed, and the second syllable is stressed or emphasized. When spoken aloud, the syllables sound like a fall and rise. The term pentameter refers to the act of repeating the iamb five times. Iambs do not need to be perfectly built into two-syllable words. This unstressed, stressed pattern can stretch out across separate words or even repeat within a single word provided that the stresses still work. Pentameter means that there are five metrical feet per line (10 total syllables).
For an example, look at the first two lines of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18. Each iamb is separated by the slashes and the stressed syllables are shown in bold.
/Shall I /compare /thee to /a Sum/mer’s day?/
/Thou art/ more love/ly and/ more temp/er/ate/
4. Organize stanzas
A stanza is a group of lines in a poem. The following types of stanzas are found within sonnets.
- Quatrain: Four-line stanza of a poem.
- Sestet: Six-line stanza.
- Octave: Eight-line stanza.
- Rhyming couplet: Two consecutive lines that must rhyme.
The terms quatrain, sestet, and octet can also refer to an entire poem that is comprised of the according number of lines.
Sonnets are fourteen lines long. An English sonnet is comprised of three quatrains and ends with a couplet. The resolution or volta does not come until the final rhymed couplet making a powerful ending statement. The Italian sonnet is composed of an octave and then a sestet. Generally, the first eight lines introduce a problem and the last six lines provide resolution.
5. Follow a rhyme scheme
A rhyme is made up of matching sounds at the end of lines. In poetry, letters are used to identify rhyme schemes or patterns of rhyme within a poem. Starting at the beginning of the alphabet, letters represent different rhyme patterns.
The Italian/Petrarchan sonnet has a tight rhyme scheme:
The poem, “My Letters! all dead paper…”(Sonnet 28) by Elizabeth Barrett Browning is an example of an Italian sonnet.
My letters! all dead paper, mute and white! (a)
And yet they seem alive and quivering (b)
Against my tremulous hands which loose the string (b)
And let them drop down on my knee tonight. (a)
This said he wished to have me in his sight (a)
Once, as a friend: this fixed a day in spring (b)
To come and touch my hand. . . a simple thing, (b)
Yes I wept for it — this . . . the paper’s light. . .(a)
Said, Dear, I love thee; and I sank and quailed (c)
As if God’s future thundered on my past. (d)
This said, I am thine — and so its ink has paled (c)
With lying at my heart that beat too fast. (d)
And this . . . 0 Love, thy words have ill availed (c)
If, what this said, I dared repeat at last!.”(d)
The English /Shakespearean sonnet has a looser rhyme scheme:
Let’s look at Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 18.”
Shall I compare thee to a Summer’s day? (a)
Thou art more lovely and more temperate (b)
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May, (a)
And Summer’s lease hath all too short a date: (b)
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines, (c)
And oft’ is his gold complexion dimm’d; (d)
And every fair from fair sometime declines, (c)
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d: (d)
But thy eternal Summer shall not fade (e)
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest; (f)
Nor shall Death brag thou wanderest in his shade, (e)
When in eternal lines to time thou growest: (f)
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, (g)
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee. (g)
6. Incorporate a volta
Volta is the Italian word for “turn.” A turn could represent various changes in the sonnet. It might refer to a change in the theme, the sound, the emphasis of the message or image of the poem. The purpose of the volta is to indicate that the sonnet is coming to an end. In the English sonnet, the volta or turn is found in the third quatrain while in the Italian sonnet the volta is often found in the ninth line.
7. Use poetic devices
To enhance the imagery and message of the poem, incorporate poetic devices or literary devices in poetry. Imagery is particularly important when writing a poem. Imagery can be established through word choice, as well as the use of figurative language such as similes, metaphors, and personification. Alliteration and other sound devices such as assonance and consonance can be used to create a musical quality and symbolism will help to create a deeper message for the audience.
Experience with meter
To learn how to write sonnets successfully, it is a good idea to gain experience writing in meter. Try writing your own sonnet or work with a text, analyzing the meter to understand its rhythm and pattern. Meter can be written in a variety of ways including scansion, syllabication, and accent. Scansion is simply the division of words and lines into metrical feet. Also known as scanning or foot-scanning, this method is used to find the basic rhythm of a poem by measuring each stressed syllable. Syllabication involves dividing words into individual syllables with a dot above or below each syllable to indicate its placement. Accent is the emphasis given to particular sounds within a word.
Read sonnets for inspiration
Read many sonnets if you want to write a sonnet. This can serve as inspiration. You wouldn’t try to bake a cake if you never ate one before. This is the same concept. You shouldn’t attempt to write a sonnet if you have never read a sonnet. The reading gives an idea as to what is being asked in the poem and what is being created. You will develop an idea of rhythm, rhyme, and meter. It can also serve as a source of material for you to draw from. Read many different types of sonnets from various poets and time periods for the best inspiration.
Practice writing sonnets
It is also important to practice writing sonnets. In order to become an expert in writing sonnets, it takes many hours of practice. You might start by simply writing down a few examples of well-written sonnets. Look at the lengths, rhymes, and structure while writing them down. Then, it is time to start writing your own.
Use this table to start:
Storytelling with a sonnet
Many sonnets tell stories. Just like any other story, a sonnet has a plot, characters, and themes. A good piece of writing should be able to engage the reader with the story and then impart the meaning of the work once its completion. In a sonnet, the structure of the work is like a plot. The individual lines can be compared to scenes in a story. There can be several scenes in any sonnet, all related to one central theme or plot. The first line contains the beginning scene, the second line would be where the situation is intensified and conflict arises, and then there’s usually also a third line at the end of the poem that focuses on resolution.
The first quatrain is the first four lines. These lines have their own rhyme scheme. This is the part of the poem where the main theme is introduced. The first line is usually an introductory statement. This would be like the introduction to a story. In a sonnet, the narrator is usually looking back on a situation that has already occurred in the past, compared to the present or future in fiction. This line will contain the main conflict of the poem and will set up what is to come.
The second quatrain is the second group of four lines. It likely has its own rhyme scheme. This is the part of the poem where you continue or complicate the story you started in the first quatrain. The conflict of the poem builds here, as the narrator comes to a new realization or conclusion that gives him or her some sort of reward.
The third quatrain is the third group of four lines. It is the turn of the story. This is sometimes referred to as the peripeteia. Sometimes this starts with the word “but.” In this quatrain, things change. It also has its own rhyme scheme.
The couplet is the final two lines. These lines rhyme. This is where you resolve or complete your poem. Many sonnets end with a final image in the couplet.
Examples of sonnets
Reading sonnets is important to learn to write them. In these examples of sonnets, the rhyme schemes are bolded.
In “Sonnet II” by Alan Seeger:
Not that I always struck the proper mean
Of what mankind must give for what they gain,
But, when I think of those whom dull routine
And the pursuit of cheerless toil enchain,
Who from their desk-chairs seeing a summer cloud
Race through blue heaven on its joyful course
Sigh sometimes for a life less cramped and bowed,
I think I might have done a great deal worse;
For I have ever gone untied and free,
The stars and my high thoughts for company;
Wet with the salt-spray and the mountain showers,
I have had the sense of space and amplitude,
And love in many places, silver-shoed,
Has come and scattered all my path with flowers.
Seeger doesn’t follow the traditional rhyme scheme that you find in Shakespearean sonnets. There are 14 lines like a traditional sonnet. The couplet doesn’t rhyme. Instead, line 12 and line 13 rhyme. This is an important example because you can break the rules when it comes to poetry. Some sonnets don’t rhyme exactly as the form states.
In “Sonnet 2” by Gwendolyn Bennet:
Some things are very dear to me—
Such things as flowers bathed by rain
Or patterns traced upon the sea
Or crocuses where snow has lain …
the iridescence of a gem,
The moon’s cool opalescent light,
Azaleas and the scent of them,
And honeysuckles in the night.
And many sounds are also dear—
Like winds that sing among the trees
Or crickets calling from the weir
Or Negroes humming melodies.
But dearer far than all surmise
Are sudden tear-drops in your eyes.
Bennet does follow a traditional rhyme scheme. The beautiful imagery that she uses inspires you to really see the image of the moonlight on the plants. Her lines are shorter than Shakespeare’s take on the form. This is okay.
In Oscar Wilde’s “Sonnet to Liberty:”
Not that I love thy children, whose dull eyes
See nothing save their own unlovely woe,
Whose minds know nothing, nothing care to know,—
But that the roar of thy Democracies,
Thy reigns of Terror, thy great Anarchies,
Mirror my wildest passions like the sea,—
And give my rage a brother——! Liberty!
For this sake only do thy dissonant cries
Delight my discreet soul, else might all kings
By bloody knout or treacherous cannonades
Rob nations of their rights inviolate
And I remain unmoved—and yet, and yet,
These Christs that die upon the barricades,
God knows it I am with them, in some things.
Oscar Wilde was a prolific writer. You probably know him for his plays. His most famous works are The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Importance of Being Earnest. In this sonnet, Wilde makes a political statement. Many sonnets discuss politics.
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