The word comes from Italian for “little song.” This is a fitting title — as a sonnet possesses many musical qualities. In general, sonnets are written in iambic pentameter, are fourteen lines long, possess a set rhyme scheme, and have a recognizable turn or “volta. Many poets gravitate toward free verse simply because it seems easier to compose. However, close attention to a text of fourteen lines draws attention to the power of individual words and patterns of sound.
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Write a Sonnet in Seven Steps
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. In his collections of poetry, William Blake focused on the theme of human perception. This course provides a comprehensive study of Blake’s poetry through lectures and analysis.
2. Pick a Type of Sonnet
There are two main types of sonnets: English and Italian. English sonnets are also knows 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 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. Need some help with rhyming? Read this article for examples of end rhyme.
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. The rhyming words are shown in bold, and the rhyme scheme is represented in the letters at the end of each line.
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 itï¿½this . . . 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 thineï¿½and 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 the following, looser rhyme scheme:
Let’s look at a Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 18.” Once again, the rhyming words are shown in bold, and the rhyme scheme is reflected in the letters at the end of each line.
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. In Browning’s sonnet, a change is noticeable in the ninth line. She reads the note which declares a love for her – words that she had been longing to hear that can now be said aloud marking a monumental change in her life. In Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 18,” there is a shift in language with the word “but” at the beginning of the third quatrain. After describing all of the beauty that ultimately fades, the speaker addresses the poem’s ability to preserve the beauty of the beloved forever.
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. The course, Understanding Romantic Poetry, will introduce poetry from the Romantic Era and instruct how to read and comprehend poetry from the literary period.
With a little discipline, creativity, and passion, you can start writing a sonnet of your own in no time. By working your magic with a set of 14 lines, iambic pentameter, a rhyme scheme, and presentation and resolution of a problem, you could be well on your way to mastering the sonnet. Whether you are a seasoned poet or attempting to compose your first poem, attempting to write a sonnet can help to bring out a multitude of ideas and emotions. If you are a poet and are looking to take the next step, this course shows you how to publish your own poetry through a workshop format.