Friday, September 9, 2016

How to Write a Sonnet: A Student Guide

Are you writing a sonnet -- maybe for a class, or just for fun? Here's a guide for you.

My name is Gideon Burton and I have written thousands of sonnets -- and helped untold numbers of students compose their own. I've taught the history of the sonnet form, and frankly, I just love this form of poetry. Some do not. Some people HATE sonnets. I get it. They are hard. They have rules. Bad ones are painful to read. Good ones can be tough to compose. Hopefully this will take the sting out if it just a bit and maybe get you on the road to something of which you can be proud.

I've divided this guide into four parts:
  1. Know the Form
  2. Read Model Sonnets
  3. Imitate and Experiment
  4. Select a Subject

1. Know the Form

Most people know that sonnets have strict rules. They do. You can write any sort of poem you want, but if you want it to be understood and appreciated as a sonnet, you must abide by its rules. You will feel very restricted by these formal requirements; however, as with all art, restrictions lay the groundwork for great creativity.

The strict rules for form include number of lines, rhyme scheme, and meter. Other aspects of form are customary but optional. Knowing them can much improve your composition.

The Strict Rules of Sonnet Form

  • Number of linesA sonnet must be 14 lines long. 
  • Rhyme Scheme
    A sonnet must follow a set pattern of rhymes. It's useful to think of the 14 lines that make up a sonnet in groups, each of which is held together by words that rhyme in a certain pattern at the end of each line, as detailed below. There are three rhyme schemes: the Shakespearean, the Spenserian, and the Petrarchan:
    • Shakespearean Rhyme Scheme
      This rhyme scheme divides up the sonnet into three sets of four lines (or "quatrains"), followed by a final couplet (a pair of rhyming lines.) The rhymes appear in this order: A B A B / C D C D / E F E F. To see this in an example, look at the last word of each line in Shakespeare's sonnet 130 ("My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun.")
    • Spenserian Rhyme Scheme
      Very similar to the Shakespearean rhyme scheme, the Spenserian sonnet is also divided into three quatrains and a couplet, but with this rhyming pattern: A B A B / B C B C / C D C D / EE.  Do you see how the rhyme of the last line of the first quatrain is the same rhyme as the first line of the second quatrain? The same is true between the second and third quatrains. So, this rhyme scheme simply reduces and interweaves the rhyming across the quatrains, thereby binding the set of quatrains together in the same way that internal rhymes keep the four lines of each quatrain coherent. To see an example of this rhyme scheme, look at Spenser's "One day I wrote her name upon the sand."
    • Petrarchan Rhyme Scheme
      This is the oldest and original rhyme scheme for the sonnet, but it more suited for Italian than for English, a language in which more of its words rhyme. But it still has been used very effectively in English. To understand this rhyme scheme, think of the 14 lines of the sonnet divided into two parts: a set of eight lines (called the "octave") and a set of six lines (called the "sestet"). This division relates to content, as explained more below, and is sometimes signaled by a "volta" or "turn" in the ideas at line nine. The rhymes go as follows: A B B A // A B B A /// C D E // C D E. It should be noted that the final six lines, the sestet, can actually be any combination of three rhymes -- though it is uncommon for the sestet to be a set of three couplets. For a good example of this rhyme scheme used in English, see John Milton's "When I consider how my light is spent."
  • Meter
    English sonnets are typically written in a poetical meter known as "iambic pentameter." That’s five feet (or units) of iambs (an unstressed-stressed pattern): “Paralysis among the colored stones” (Can you hear the alternating rhythm of unstressed followed by stressed syllables?: “ParALySIS aMONG the COlored STONES”). Some people can hear this rhythm readily; others cannot. It helps to say it aloud. I've written a separate document focused entirely on this, which I recommend: "Rhythm and Meter Guide for Poetry and Blank Verse."

Optional Form Elements

  • Volta
    This Italian word means “turn” and has to do with the fact that in many Petrarchan sonnets there was a change in direction or tone after the first eight lines (the “octave”). The last six lines (“sestet”) have often been structured as an answer to the problem put forth in the octave, or some other kind of redirection. In the English sonnet, that turn is often delayed until the final two lines, the couplet, though it can also appear elsewhere. For example, in Shakespeare’s sonnet #130 (“My mistress eyes are nothing like the sun”) the volta comes in the final couplet, which takes a new direction from the apparent mocking the narrator has been doing of his lover’s looks: “And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare / As any she belied with false compare.” Shakespeare also follows a more conventional placement for the volta in his sonnet #29. The narrator bemoans his stake for eight lines, and then in line 9 the mood shifts: "Yet in these thoughts my self almost despising, / Haply I think on thee..."
  • Enjambment
    Enjambment is when a sentence does not end with the end of a line of poetry but carries on to the next line of the poem. There is no rule for how much enjambment needs to be in a sonnet, but it’s a fair bet that poems in which the end of every line corresponds to the end of every sentence will sound jilted or artificial. Enjambment will help a sonnet flow, and usually helps the tone sound more natural. Shakespeare's sonnet #29 has enjambment in its first two lines:
       When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes
       I all alone beweep my outcast state,

2. Read Model Sonnets

The best way to prepare to write a sonnet is to read good ones. It helps to read these aloud, especially in order to get a feel for the iambic rhythm, and to hear the flow of enjambment across lines. Sonnets are sometimes dense (and some are written in another era) and so it can help to re-read sonnets, teasing out their figurative language and hearing how sound and sense go together.

Here are two sources of model sonnets:
  • "Famous Sonnets Analyzed" - A set of nine famous sonnets preceded by brief analysis to help appreciate the form.
  • Open Source Sonnets - My sonnet site, with hundreds of examples of many different types of sonnets.

3. Imitate and Experiment

Shakespeare learned to write by imitating great authors from his past, and we can do the same with him (and other great authors). It is sometimes easier to vary or "translate" an existing sonnet than to come up with one all on one's own. So you might consider cutting your teeth on the sonnet by choosing one of those famous ones (linked above).

How does one imitate? You can either keep the form and change the content, or keep the content and change the form. For examples of a range of imitations, see my various sonnet imitations (each of which is paired with its original). You will note that many of these imitations are not imitations of sonnets, but recastings of non-sonnet poems, speeches from plays, passages from scripture, song lyrics, and prose passages. Try your hand at translating a famous saying or literary passage into a sonnet.

4. Select a Subject

  • Love
    Sonnets have typically been on the topic of love -- especially unrequited love. Writing a sonnet might be your time to try your hand at an eloquent love poem, and reading and imitating some of the great poets' love sonnets is a great way to prepare for such composing. Take a look at Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "How do I love thee, let me count the ways," as a model, or Shakespeare's famous "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" One can also take a humorous approach to love, as Shakespeare did in sonnet #130 ("My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun"). Not all love poems have to be about the pain of unrequired love. I've written a serious of sonnets based on married love, or dedicated to my wife. She seems to like them. Why wouldn't you?
  • Nature
    Much lyric poetry is devoted to an appreciation of nature. You can see some of my many examples of nature-themed sonnets or even season-themed sonnets. Vivid description is always a welcome variety.
  • Religion
    So many poets have expressed their religious ideals, doubts, praise, and inner feelings through sonnets. John Donne is a great model of this in his Holy Sonnets. I have written a broad variety of religion-themed sonnets. Since the sonnet is a type of lyric poetry, it often carries a very personal voice, and this lends itself to religious devotion, or even to religious frustration (as Donne illustrates so nicely with his "Batter my heart, three-personed God" sonnet). Writing a poem can be an act of devotion, repentance, or even religious rebellion.
  • Food
    I have found myself composing many food-themed sonnets (often humorous). I include this category so sonnet writers can feel free to be funny, or simply feel it's okay to write about something everyday and common, like food.
  • Space
    I love the cosmic -- in science fiction and in epic literature like Milton's Paradise Lost. So I have written a variety of "cosmos sonnets" that are out of this world!
  • Abstract or Philosophical
    Sonnets can revel in language, with its sounds and figurative possibilities, and not have to make a lot of rational sense in order to be satisfying. I offer some samples of abstract sonnets and philosophical sonnets as thought-provoking alternatives to traditional subjects for this genre of poetry.
  • Language
    Language isn't just a tool; it's a topic. Some sonnets are about language or even more specifically about the joys and frustrations of writing itself.
  • Impersonation
    In Shakespeare's day, budding writers would stretch their literary talents by trying to speak in the voice of someone or something else: a famous person from history, an inanimate object. It can be a lot of fun to be someone else. Here are a few examples of impersonation sonnets.

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