Columns > Published on May 23rd, 2014

Poetry Fun-0-1: How to Write a Sonnet

I love sonnets. The only poem I have memorized is a sonnet. I probably wouldn't be a poet if sonnets didn't exist; I'd have to invent them or something. Sonnets are the best.

I'm getting a bit ahead of myself, though. Let me back up a bit. What exactly is a sonnet anyway?

A sonnet is a short poem that is usually 14 lines, that usually rhymes, and that is usually written in iambic pentameter. There are plenty of beautiful exceptions to these rules, but the essence of what makes a poem a sonnet is bound in the form's history.

A Brief History of Sonnets

Unlike odes, which have been making the rounds on the European poetry circuit since at least the days of Ancient Greece, and epics, which are basically older than God, sonnets are relative youngsters in the lyrical world. In fact, we actually know the dude who came up with the idea for sonnets. Giacomo de Lentino (????-????), a Sicilian poet, is said to have invented sonnets in the 13th century. It was another Italian, though, Francesco Petrarca (1304-1374), who made them famous a century later. "Sonnet VI: Of His Foolish Passion For Laura" is a great example of what he brought to the poetical world:

My tameless will doth recklessly pursue
Her, who, unshackled by love's heavy chain,
Flies swiftly from its chase, whilst I in vain
My fetter'd journey pantingly renew;
The safer track I offer to its view,
But hopeless is my power to restrain,
It rides regardless of the spur or rein;
Love makes it scorn the hand that would subdue.
The triumph won, the bridle all its own,
Without one curb I stand within its power,
And my destruction helplessly presage:
It guides me to that laurel, ever known,
To all who seek the healing of its flower,
To aggravate the wound it should assuage.

What came to be known in Renaissance Europe as a "Petrarchan sonnet" is characterized by 14 lines of iambic pentameter with either an abbaabba cdecde or abbaabba cdccdc rhyme scheme. Petrarchan was the go-to sonnet form for poets for a good couple centuries, and many of the most famous poems written in English are Petrarchan sonnets, like "On His Blindness" by John Milton (1608-1674):

When I consider how my light is spent,
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest He returning chide;
“Doth God exact day-labor, light denied?”
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need
Either man’s work or His own gifts. Who best
Bear His mild yoke, they serve Him best. His state
Is kingly: thousands at His bidding speed,
And post o’er land and ocean without rest;
They also serve who only stand and wait.”

Milton's use of the Petrarchan sonnet was a bit of a throwback at the time, though. Everybody in Europe had loved Petrarchan sonnets for a couple hundred years, but they really topped the poetic charts in 16th-century England. Poets like Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586) and my boy Edmund Spenser (1552-1599) upped the game by writing immensely popular sonnet sequences that focused on the traditional themes of love and nature, but also loosely strung together a narrative. It was an upstart dramatist named William Shakespeare (1564-1616) who really shook things up, though. His collection of 154 sonnets broke the Petrarchan octet-sestet mold, as he instead built his 14 lines using three quatrains and a rhyming couplet. This usually took the form of abab cdcd efef gg, and while Shakespeare wasn't the first poet to write sonnets this way, he certainly made the practice popular. He even made fun of the traditional tropes of love sonnets in his own sonnet sequence with "Sonnet 130":

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.

I haven't tried the, "Damn, girl, your hair is like black wires," pickup line, but it's Shakespeare, so it must work. After Shakespeare, people cooled off on sonnets for a few decades, but Milton brought them back in a big way, and they've remained fairly popular ever since.

Modern Sonnets

Fast forward a few centuries, and most poets do whatever they want when writing a sonnet. Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) tried tercets with "Ode to the West Wind", and an irregular ababacdcedefef rhyme scheme with "Ozymandias" (my vote for the best sonnet ever). Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861) wrote a collection of Sonnets from the Portuguese in the mid-19th century that introduced the Victorian dramatic monologue to the form. The sonnet slightly dipped in popularity again for a while after that, but it came back in the 20th century through poets like Robert FrostEdna St. Vincent Millay, Ted Berrigan, Elizabeth Bishop, and many others. Americans in particular seem to love the sonnet, though Chilean Pablo Neruda wrote some of the most beautiful sonnets of the last century. Take "One Hundred Love Sonnets: XVII," for example:

I don’t love you as if you were a rose of salt, topaz,  
or arrow of carnations that propagate fire:  
I love you as one loves certain obscure things,  
secretly, between the shadow and the soul.

I love you as the plant that doesn’t bloom but carries  
the light of those flowers, hidden, within itself,  
and thanks to your love the tight aroma that arose  
from the earth lives dimly in my body.

I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where,  
I love you directly without problems or pride:
I love you like this because I don’t know any other way to love,
except in this form in which I am not nor are you,  
so close that your hand upon my chest is mine,  
so close that your eyes close with my dreams.

Etc., etc. Basically, sonnets are the best. They can be happy or depressing, about death or nature or both, just like any poem, except you know going in that the whole thing is going to be wrapped up in about 140 syllables. They're long enough to be powerful, but short enough to hold even the most hyper reader's attention.

Now who's ready to write one?

How to Write a Sonnet

Sonnets perfectly combine the strictness of its form and rhyme with the "Whatever, it's only 14 lines" of its size. As far as I'm concerned, brevity is always going to be your friend when it comes to poetry. Unless someone comes up with an interesting way to rhyme haiku, sonnets are going to remain the shortest way to get down a powerful image, message, or scene.

Some people don't like the restrictions, but others love the idea that there's a strict set of rules to follow. There are only so many syllables to work with, so every word has to be perfect. I'm a huge fan. It's what you do with what you got, young poet.

Let's try one. I've always like ababbcbccdcdee, so how about we go with that? Sure, why not? Full disclosure: I'm completely winging this and have no idea what this poem is going to look like.

First, we need a subject. In an attempt to be as cliche as possible, I figure we should make this sonnet about writing poetry. The great thing about abab sonnets is that we can break it up into three quatrains and a rhyming couplet, making it a bit easier to construct. We'll stick with iambic pentameter, and for the most part disregard line breaks and focus on end rhymes. Anyway, here goes. Off the top of my head. How to write a sonnet.

Okay, now I'm just stalling for time.

I'm making this up as I go along
to show you writing sonnets is easy.
Although I love the form, don't get me wrong,
I should have planned this out more thoroughly.

All right, not terrible. We've got the abab thing going, so now we start the next quatrain with b.

There is no formula for poetry,
no short piece of advice that works for all.
Oh, if there were I wouldn't always be
afraid I'm like William McGonagall.

That's 8 lines down. We're sticking to the rhyme scheme, and we've got a nice allusion thrown in. We might not have to be entirely ashamed of this thing after all. It isn't the best sonnet ever, but it's certainly not as bad as the work of William McGonagall, alleged to be the worst poet who ever lived. Moving on.

They say that pride goeth before the fall,
but my pride is long gone at this point, friend.
My saving grace is that sonnets are small,
and we are inching closer to the end.

That's all three quatrains out of the way. Now we just need our rhyming couplet! Shakespeare always loved a playful little two-liner message, something witty or clever that summed up a poem nicely. I'm certainly no Shakespeare, but at this point I have absolutely no more dignity left to lose, so here goes.

That's why I love sonnets so much: they're smart;
they're over almost ere they even start.

I had to cheat a bit and use "ere" in that last line, but Shakespeare and co. did that kind of thing all the time, so no big. Let's see what it looks like all together.

I'm making this up as I go along
to show you writing sonnets is easy.
Although I love the form, don't get me wrong,
I should have planned this out more thoroughly.

There is no formula for poetry,
no short piece of advice that works for all.
Oh, if there were I wouldn't always be
afraid I'm like William McGonagall.

They say that pride goeth before the fall,
but my pride is long gone at this point, friend.
My saving grace is that sonnets are small,
and we are inching closer to the end.

That's why I love sonnets so much: they're smart.
They're over almost ere they even start.

Well, that could have gone much worse. Normally poets do a bit of editing, clean up language, tighten word choice, etc., but this pig is wearing about as much lipstick as it can take. That's the beauty of sonnets, though. Writing a sonnet is a great way to work out your thoughts on a single concept, because they get in, they get out, and they leave you free to move on to the next idea. I write a sonnet every day to help me come up with ideas and work a lot of bad writing out of my system. Someday I might even work some good writing into my system!

Try to write your own sonnet. If you come up with something better than this one (which really shouldn't be too difficult), post it in the comments. And as William Shakespeare used to say...

I couldn't actually find an applicable quote. Just pretend he once said something brilliant about how fun sonnets are.

About the author

Brian McGackin is the author of BROETRY (Quirk Books, 2011). He has a BA from Emerson College in Something Completely Unrelated To His Life Right Now, and a Masters in Poetry from USC. He enjoys Guinness, comic books, and Bruce Willis movies.

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