How to Write a Sonnet

The sonnet is perhaps the most misinterpreted style of poetry in the English language. For too long, it has been associated with Shakespearean dandyism and caricatures of half-witted Don Juans trying to woo their lovers with pithy flower metaphors. This myopic view has prevented many aspiring poets from honing their craft and incorporating structure to their unstructured verse. I’m here today to teach you how to write a sonnet, but I also want to explain how it can be beneficial for the average writer–and even the non-poet–to use the sonnet as a training ground for keeping ideas sound and cohesive.

OK. But what is a sonnet?

A sonnet is a 14-line poem developed by the Italian poet Petrarch (1304-1374) during the 14th century. Enamored by a lifelong love for a mysterious and elusive woman known as Laura, Petrarch composed 366 of these poems (for every day of a leap year) that primarily addressed her, but at times took a contemplative focus toward himself. The poem often contained:

  • Several analogies associating the female figure with natural symbols, such as flowers, celestial objects, water, diamonds, etc.
  • Analogies to pure and fertile animals, such as deer.
  • The colors red (for passion) and white (for chastity) often in conflict with each other.
  • A turn, or a volta. After 8 lines, there would be reversal where the wooer would be rejected or the object of desire would leave. The feeling of longing gets replaced by a feeling of loss or despair.
  • The rhyme scheme abbaabba cdecde is used most often.

While the first three characteristics mentioned above would make the average reader throw up in disgust, the structure of the sonnet remained when it left Italy and became the most popular form of poetry in England during the late 1500s and early 1600s. Unfortunately, English does not contain as much potential for easy rhymes as Italian, so several poets modified the rhyme scheme to make it abab cdcd efef gg, what is now known as the Shakespearean sonnet (though the bard did not invent it). Here are a few of its  characteristics that you must know:

  • Developed by Sir Thomas Wyatt and Sir Philip Sidney, the Shakespearean sonnet contains fourteen ten-syllable lines that are written in iambic pentameter, which means that, of the ten syllables, every odd number is unstressed and every even number is stressed. When writing, enunciate this rhythm in your head: ba-DUM ba-DUM ba-DUM ba-DUM ba-DUM. It will come with time.
  • Unlike the Petrarchan sonnet, the turn is often in the last two lines and not the last six, with the first twelve lines divided into quatrains, or groups of four. This helps build up a certain idea that can culminate in a statement that confirms or denies the design in question.
  • While many English poets replicated the Petrarchan narrative of a longing for a fleeting love, many (including Shakespeare) challenged the norms by denying the conventional message. Consider the beginning of perhaps his most famous effort, sonnet XVIII: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?/ Thou art more lovely and more temperate”. He immediately addresses the inadequacy of associating them with a bland, irrefutably perfect image in lieu of a more genuine one.

Sir Thomas Wyatt

In the past few weeks, I’ve been voraciously reading the work of various sonneteers and trying my hand at a few verses of my own. I think that, like a morning crossword or Sudoku, the sonnet can help you take more control over your language, give rhythm and cadence to your speech and give a bit more weight to your daily contemplations. It can also give you a more lucid understanding of the structure of language in general. That’s why I want to give you a few pieces of advice on how to write a sonnet:

Where to Start

1. Begin with a blanket statement, a quote, an expression, or a basic observation. What is an overused line that people use too often? Did that person really just say what you think they did? This is a good starting point because a sonnet is not a 14-line statement, but an exploration of the language that produces meaning. The sonnet helps break down barriers, and in that way they can be refreshing.

2. If you are addressing your poetry to a spouse, a lover or a friend, don’t rely on conventional stereotypes. Begin with words that are familiar too you both, or perhaps words that have lost their power over time.

Forming the first argument

3. Petrarch was one of the first to use the conventional set of analogies still known today, but don’t fall back on them. Sure, hyacinths and nightingales are sure to please a bumbling fairy strolling some imaginary forest, but if you are addressing someone else, use images closely attached to them. If you are praising them, be creative. If they’re a skateboarder, investigate the workings and movements of the board. If they love crochet, analyze the movements of the hands or the final product. Not only should the subject matter be dear to their hearts, but the rhythm of the poem, as well as its final form, should resemble one of their praiseworthy qualities.

4. If writing a Shakespearean sonnet, the quatrains should in some way be related to one another, and should contain a certain element of progression. Sonnets often mark the progression of a desire–be it blind idealism or immediate gratification–and should, in their rhythm, portray the attempt (and if need be, failure) of the acquisition.

The Turn

5. Once you have completed that progression, the last lines should be epiphanic–they discern a particular truth from the previous twelve. If you’re making a turn after the eighth line, outline in the last six lines how it cannot be, or why your words can’t stay true.

6. Ask yourself: What did I think before I wrote this and what do I know now? Your limitations allow you to include what is most necessary, but they also force you to exclude what is not. Make sure that you directly address elements from the first part of the poem in the second one. Antonyms, opposite elements (such as night/day) allow the reader to see the changes that have occurred.

Other techniques

7. Creativity flourishes when it is most limited, but you can challenge the rigidity of the sonnet, so long as you do so deliberately, and not indifferently. If you want certain phrases to emerge above others, change the rhythm slightly or interrupt the line in the middle. These changes and pauses provide certain discomfort, but they also force concentrated reflection. But don’t dismantle the rhythm altogether. Subtle changes are what make the biggest differences.

Okay, so let’s just see if we can deduce what a sonneteer might be doing based on the aforementioned information. I will use P.B. Shelley’s “Ozymandias” as an example:

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”.

Percy Bysshe Shelley

Okay, How about we break this down step by step. This isn’t an analysis of the poem as much as a close inspection of the form.

I met a traveller from an antique land

(begins with conventional moment–the beginning of tale or parable)
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,

(He interrupts the line to emphasize its STANDING. it’s like its right in front of you)
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command

(Shelley has told us it’s inanimate, but for a second the bodily descriptions make us think otherwise.)
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

(The sculptor makes artificial things but was alive with passion. he’s balancing the Alive/Dead duality)

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

(Same thing)
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.

(Below is the Turn. The line of vision goes from the statue as a whole to the message below, which will make us rethink the first part of the poem.)
And on the pedestal these words appear:

(The narrator quotes the statue, adding another voice to the poem)
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

(Nothing remains, and so little that it warrants three words: Nothing Beside Remains. The word “Round” also prompts the mind’s eye to look around the imagined statue, an act that confirms there is nothing else.)
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,

(Shelley uses elevated words (collosal) and deflates them down to meager qualities (bare). He portrays the idealistic inflation and subsequent deflation of the once-idealized figure.)

The lone and level sands stretch far away”.

(The word level offers some resolution. Everything eventually slips into the sand and erodes into an even plane. The sand, of course, represents time.)

I hope that this walkthrough helped you gain a sense of how to write a sonnet. Remember, the most memorable sonnets are those that move away from regular conventions while staying true to the structure of the work. Sonnets, however, are not an easy thing to write, so aspiring poets should start early. Be sure to speak them aloud, as well. You’ll be surprised by what you’ll change.

As I said before, sonnets provide great training for someone who wants to master the language, as they can teach you how to speak more clearly and economically, while also permitting the release of emotions without seeming too pathetic or too lofty. Let me know what you think and if they’ve helped you in any way.

44 thoughts on “How to Write a Sonnet

  1. I’m sorry but where is the poetic license? Getting all technical, I feel a b’ful piece like “Sonnet” gets robbed of its true intensity and beauty. If we stick to those rules, how is poetry supposed to evolve?

    • I agree with the article that following rules forces you to be concise, and the sonnet form is one proven to capture powerful messages in a romantic and easy rhythm and rhyme. This is about traditional sonnets, but poetic license comes into play when you don’t write about traditional subjects, such as the feminine imagery. Alternatively, a typical sonnet topic can be written in another style, or in a tweaked sonnet style. I myself like keeping to the syllable rules and rhyme, but changing the rhythm to mix up the feel of the poem. The rules have to exist to be followed but also broken! After all, the original sonnets weren’t Shakespearean 😉

  2. Its all what I wrote in my college exam few years back and brought back the memory of reading and writing sonnet…Petrarch wrote sonnets that were about the unrequited love and Shakespeare glorified his beloved in every way…I did not see you mentioning the 8 lines are called Octave and the six lines are called Sestet…nice post congratulations 🙂

  3. Here is my sort of anti-sonnet-

    Subverted Sonnet

    I’m well acquainted with the form;
    I’ve seen clichés lining up,
    hackneyed phrase waiting to be born –
    sun-setted lovers drinking from a cup,
    daffodils and roses as obvious hooks,
    sometimes cigarettes and booze itemised;
    a chic substitute from babbling brooks.
    After the war, horror was legitimised.
    We’ve had skylarks singing for redemption,
    we’ve had our fill of lemon juice,
    we’ve had a surfeit of passion,
    and a dollop of domestic abuse.

    If I really want to stand apart
    this last stanza should be at the start!

  4. Great to see the sonnet (my favourite form) being championed! A useful summary of the traditional ‘rules’ for those wanting to try their hand, too. My only additional suggestion for those wanting to explore the form: once you feel you’ve got a grasp of the tradition, read some less traditional (and non-14 line sonnets) too: you’ll be surprised at how flexible this apparently restrictive form really is.

  5. God’s sake, don’t write a sonnet! What’s the point?
    That boy you like will still be fully dressed,
    And other poets still be unimpressed
    (In fact, their noses may go out of joint).

    Feeling is first! Form’s just an afterthought,
    And rhyming’s unforgiving work at best,
    When every single line feels like a test.
    So, should you write a sonnet? You should not.

    Petrarch, Shakespeare, had their vogue, it’s true,
    But really, fourteen lines is awfully long.
    Best get in — cut the middle — finish strong.
    Who wants a sonnet? You should write haiku.

    Trust me, I’ve thought this out: put down the pen.
    The sonnet’s day is gone, and will not come again.

  6. Pingback: Sonnet: Against Sonnets | Bag of Anything

  7. Very interesting, thank you. Somebody in my family, who was also a poet, wanted to write 1000 sonnets. Not quite ! If you want, you can read two of them on my recent blog – 8th and 9th November.

  8. Poetry is the language of the heart. As the male seeks the female. He looks for the visual first. Her hair, dress and manners. If he likes her, he woos her with compliments and words of love. Eventually the relationship will grow with a simple poem of love.

  9. Fernando Karl 遠山フェルナンド says:

    Indeed sonnets have some sort of philosophical truth in the last lines and not just the rhyme but also the melody in between the lines is important. Have been able to write only a couple of sonnets in English since it demands more time than when writing it in my native language.

    I grew up reading Lope de Vega and Calderon de la Barca’s sonnets from the Spanish Golden Age but recently writers seem to prefer going un-ruled which is something I don’t like. About English sonnets I feel they sound quite strange and unnatural since it’s not the way normal English speakers would communicate themselves unlike Spanish ones where people are able to understand and even use this rhetorical way of expressing themselves as a way of cultural wisdom.
    Liked your post and your site. Such a great effort and use of time you are doing for the whole humanity able to read and understand English. Added you to my Reader List to refresh my English skills and motivate me to write in English.

  10. As a Sonneteer of four-years standing, I came to this form after decades of ditties. My first book of poems (never written) is titled: “A Complete Book of Unfinished Works”. As you state, the sonnet provides external structure and internal form; enough to carry the heavy weight of most poetic passions. As I moved from ditties to sonnets I had to hurdle many challenges. I had to absorb the classic patterns and then adopt an alternative contemporary style suited to my distinct Australian voice; I had to learn how to stretch the form beyond its traditional ‘romantic’ themes; and importantly, establish the self-discipline required of a sonneteer. To fully appreciate the sonnet form it’s important not to read or write a single piece; “Shall I compare thee to a Summer’s day?” is much better for all its before-and-after context. (Tim Grace – http://www.sonneteer155.com)

  11. Pingback: Undoing the sun | 1874: First Impressionist Exhibition

  12. For those interested in going into more depth and finding further modern examples of sonnets, I suggest reading a wonderful book written by the poets, Eavan Boland and Edward Hirsch:
    The Making of a Sonnet
    A NORTON ANTHOLOGY
    Eavan Boland (Editor, Stanford University), Edward Hirsch (Editor)

  13. “half-witted Don Juans trying to woo their lovers with pithy flower metaphors” +++++++++++++++ Thank you! These young people today don’t know what love is much less a sonnet… Percy was a great poet – unfortunately, even a greater asshole. Yet that has no bearing on my desire to avoid form of any kind. I feel it robs the poet. Though can be fun as a personal challenge.

  14. Pingback: Poetry Cheat Sheet | 1874: First Impressionist Exhibition

  15. Pingback: How to Write A Sonnet: The Art of Forgotten Poetry | The Book Keeper's Codex

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s