The word sonnet is derived from the Italian word “sonetto,” which means a “little song” or sound. In poetry, a sonnet has 14 lines, and is written in iambic pentameter. Sonnets adhere to a tightly structured thematic organization.
The sonnet has become popular among different poets because it can be adapted for different purposes, though rhythms are strictly followed by all.
It is the perfect poetic style for expressing a feeling or thought. With its short length a poet can use a sonnet to focus on just a single idea. Sonnets typically explore strong emotions but in a manageable 14 lines, making it easier for both the poet and the reader.
A sonnet is simply a poem written in a certain format, but they are easily identified. Sonnets generally have the following characteristics:
– 14 lines. All sonnets have 14 lines which can be broken down into four sections called quatrains.
– A strict rhyme scheme. The rhyme scheme of a Shakespearean sonnet is ABAB / CDCD / EFEF / GG (note the four distinct sections in the rhyme scheme).
– Iambic Pentameter. Sonnets are written in iambic pentameter, a poetic meter with 10 beats per line made up of alternating unstressed and stressed syllables.
A sonnet can be broken down into four sections called quatrains. The first three quatrains contain four lines each and use an alternating rhyme scheme. The final quatrain consists of just two lines which both rhyme.
Each quatrain should progress the poem as follows:
1 First quatrain: This should establish the subject of the sonnet.
2 Number of lines: 4. Rhyme Scheme: ABAB
3 Second quatrain: This should develop the sonnet’s theme.
4 Number of lines: 4. Rhyme Scheme: CDCD
5 Third quatrain: This should round off the sonnet’s theme.
6 Number of lines: 4. Rhyme Scheme: EFEF
7 Fourth quatrain: This should act as a conclusion to the sonnet. Number of lines: 2. Rhyme Scheme: GG
Two sonnet forms provide the models from which all other sonnets are formed: the Petrarchan and the Shakespearean.
The first sonnet is the Petrarchan, or Italian. Named after one of its greatest practitioners, the Italian poet Petrarch, the Petrarchan sonnet is divided into two stanzas, the octave (the first eight lines) followed by the answering sestet (the final six lines).
The rhyme scheme, abba, abba, cdecde or cdcdcd, is more suited for the Italian language which contains more rhyming words. But there are still many great examples of this type of sonnet in English.
In the first 8 lines (the octave) the Petrarchan sonnet presents an argument or a question. After this there is what we call a “volta” between the 8th and 9th lines. This volta, or turn, signifies a shift in the direction of the poem taking it from the octave to the sestet. It is in the sestet, in the final six lines, that the argument or question that was presented in the octave is answered.
After the Petrarchan sonnet was first brought to England by Sir Thomas Wyatt, Henry Howard began translating and writing his own versions of Petrarch. His works were considered more faithful to the original than the work of his English counterparts. He made modifications the Petrarchan sonnet which then became the structure of what we know as the Shakespearean sonnet.
This structure was established to better suit the English language which was somewhat lacking in the rhyming words that Italian boasts.
Shakespeare’s sonnets are famous worldwide (Source: Pexels)
The Shakespearean, or English sonnet, follows a different set of rules. Here, three quatrains and a couplet follow this rhyme scheme: abab, cdcd, efef, gg.
Much like the sestet in the Petrarchan sonnet, in the Shakespearean sonnet the couplet marks a change in the poem. It is used to signal a conclusion, explanation or counterargument to the previous 3 stanzas.
In Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 the first twelve lines focus on the speaker’s mistress, comparing her unfavourably to nature. But the final couplet changes the tone completely, that despite all of her flaws he does love her:
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.
Shakespeare uses Sonnet 130 as a satire of other poets who compare their loves to nature’s beauty. In fact he takes it to the extreme nearly leaving the mistress completely unlovable!
Of course if you’re writing your own sonnet you can choose any style you like. But seeing as it lends itself better to the English language and we all know many of them, our guide will stick to writing a Shakespearean-style sonnet.
When writing a Shakespearean-style sonnet, there are several rules you need to keep in mind. This style of poetry follows a specific format including length, rhythm, and rhyme scheme.
To write a sonnet according to these rules, follow this process:
– Select a subject to write your poem about (Shakespearean sonnets are usually about love).
– Write your lines in iambic pentameter (duh-DUH-duh-DUH-duh-DUH-duh-DUH-duh-DUH.
– Structure the sonnet using 3 quatrains followed by 1 couplet.
– Compose your sonnet as an argument that builds up as it moves from one metaphor to the next, until you counterargue this argument in the concluding couplet.
– Make sure your poem is exactly 14 lines long.
Try your hand at writing your own poem (Source: Pexels)
Here are some of Shakespeare’s greatest works to get you inspired for writing your own:
Full many a glorious morning have I seen
Flatter the mountain tops with sovereign eye,
Kissing with golden face the meadows green,
Gilding pale streams with heavenly alchemy;
Anon permit the basest clouds to ride
With ugly rack on his celestial face,
And from the forlorn world his visage hide,
Stealing unseen to west with this disgrace:
Even so my sun one early morn did shine,
With all triumphant splendour on my brow;
But out, alack, he was but one hour mine,
The region cloud hath mask’d him from me now.
Yet him for this my love no whit disdaineth;
Suns of the world may stain when heaven’s sun staineth.
The emotive language typical of a sonnet is clear to see in Sonnet 33. The metaphors build in the first 12 lines all leading in the same direction until the rhyming couplet comes in at the end, using the word “yet” to mark a change in argument.
How oft when thou, my music, music play’st,
Upon that blessed wood whose motion sounds
With thy sweet fingers when thou gently sway’st
The wiry concord that mine ear confounds,
Do I envy those jacks that nimble leap,
To kiss the tender inward of thy hand,
Whilst my poor lips which should that harvest reap,
At the wood’s boldness by thee blushing stand!
To be so tickled, they would change their state
And situation with those dancing chips,
O’er whom thy fingers walk with gentle gait,
Making dead wood more bless’d than living lips.
Since saucy jacks so happy are in this,
Give them thy fingers, me thy lips to kiss.
This sonnet is written about love and lust and while seemingly light-hearted, when you read it before Sonnet 129 it takes on a darker feel:
The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action: and till action, lust
Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust;
Enjoyed no sooner but despised straight;
Past reason hunted; and no sooner had,
Past reason hated, as a swallowed bait,
On purpose laid to make the taker mad.
Mad in pursuit and in possession so;
Had, having, and in quest to have extreme;
A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind a dream.
All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.
Shakespeare’s sonnets are individual stories in their own right. But put together they create a much larger story made up of individual chapters.
Your sonnet doesn’t have to be all roses and love. Hopefully these examples will inspire you to write your own sonnet based on your own experiences.