The sonnet is the ultimate expression of love. You could buy roses or chocolate, but that’s like cheating. If you really mean business, you write a sonnet. Given its complex rhythm and rhyme scheme, just getting the form right shows a certain amount of dedication. Surely anyone who is willing to spend that much time on a poem deserves a chance!

So if you are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for love (in this case an hour or two of your time), here’s how you write a proper sonnet.

Rhyme Scheme

First you’ll need to pick the rhyme scheme. The most common forms are the Petrarchan and Shakespearean sonnets:
A Comparison of the Rhyme Schemes of the Shakespearean and Petrarchan Sonnets
As you can see, although every sonnet has 14 lines, the structure varies quite a bit. The Petrarchan sonnet is made up of two sections, with the octave (8 lines) describing some problem or tension, and the sestet (6 lines) providing a resolution. The poetic turn (or volta) refers to the change in direction, where the poet comes up with a creative and often surprising ending. The Shakespearean sonnet often has the poetic turn a little later, usually after all three quatrains (4 line stanzas) are finished.


Most sonnets are written in iambic pentameter. Let’s break that down a little. First, an iamb consists of two syllables, where the first is unstressed and the second stressed:

Just put five iambs together and you’ll have iambic pentameter (penta means five):

They always say that beauty is skin deep …

Of course, a rigid iambic meter can seem monotonous, and once you’ve mastered the technique you can play with the rhythm by introducing minor variations here and there.


The last thing you’ll need is some content. Although most sonnets are love poems, they don’t have to be romantic. Wordsworth wrote about his love for the city of London. Keats expressed his passionate affection for an English translation of Homer! And John Donne wrote Holy Sonnets to God. In other words, you don’t have to wait for Valentine’s Day to write a sonnet.

Now, if you want to be traditional, you can write something like Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18. Note, by the way, how the poetic turn comes earlier than usual, starting with “But” in line 9:

Sonnet 18
By William Shakespeare

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimm’d;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st;
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Of course promising immortality is a bit grandiose, especially since you can’t count on your sonnet being remembered for ever and ever. On a lighter note, then, here is a sonnet from the perspective of a three-toed sloth:

Sonnet from a Sloth

Don’t leave me hanging now, three-fingered sloth,
It’s been a while since you and I, you know,
Have had our leisure in the upper growth,
But we can start all over, nice and slow.

It’s not too late, my dear, to waste our time,
To get all comfy in the canopy,
Up where the restless jaguar does not climb,
Down where the keen-eyed eagle cannot see.

Their insolence won’t touch our somnolence,
We won’t be frazzled by their wings and spots,
We’ll sleep in utter peace and confidence,
Safe in the shadows from their shifty plots

So hang with me, and if you’re so inclined,
Please could you, maybe, scratch me from behind?

As you can see, sonnets don’t have too be serious or melodramatic. Have some fun and write something clever and witty.


Modern sonnet writers are often more relaxed about following all the rules. Some sonnets don’t even rhyme at all. That’s because the goal is to adopt a more conversational tone.

To achieve this effect, one common trick is to use enjambment, a term that describes a sentence that carries on without a pause right past the end of a poetic line. Here is an example:

I have been waiting thirty years to see

You single once again. I could have killed

Him had you said you wanted to be free,

But you said no, and so I never spilled

His worthless blood or made it hard for him. …

Another strategy is to use half rhymes (or slant rhymes):

You said “I don’t believe you have a soul,”
And so I lifted up my calloused foot,
But you gave me a push, I had a fall,
And now I’m dead, remembering our dispute. …

In this case “soul” and “fall” nearly rhyme, as do (to a lesser extent) “foot” and “dispute.” The effect is to make the poem less formal and more colloquial.

All of this is of course optional, and you should feel free to be as formal as you like. Just don’t use “thee” and “thou.”

Getting Started

Having a hard time getting started? Why not try some of our sonnet starters?

I saw your profile on the web last night …

I know you want to have a baby, dear …

My dear, I have just talked with your papa …

There’s nothing that I wouldn’t share with you …

Alright, we’re just kidding. We’re sure you can come up with something better. The main thing is to be clever and sincere, rather than flowery and gushy. That way you won’t have to be embarrassed when years later your kids discover your poetic efforts.

Famous Sonnets

Want to learn more about some of the famous sonnets ever written? Check out our tutorials of the following poems:



The origin of the clerihew immediately reveals its noble pedigree: it was invented by a bored student. The student was the sixteen year old Edmund Clerihew Bentley (1875-1956), and it was in a science class that he wrote the first ever clerihew (humbly named after himself):

Sir Humphry Davy
Abominated gravy.
He lived in the odium
Of having discovered sodium.

Perhaps this is mainly funny to chemists and dieticians, but you get the idea. A clerihew is simply a four-line poem—rhyming AABB—that makes fun of somebody famous. The lines themselves can be of any length, and the main aim is to sum up an entire life through one incident or detail. Often clerihews go beyond the biographical record and make something up, but even then they should capture something of the person’s character or reputation.

A Bit More History

Edmund Clerihew Bentley published three collections of clerihews in his lifetime, starting with Biography for Beginners in 1905. Each clerihew was accompanied by a humorous pen and ink illustration. Since then the genre has always had its fans, some of them accomplished poets. W. H. Auden, for instance, published a collection of clerihews called Academic Graffiti. One of Auden’s best clerihews goes as follows:

Johann Sebastian Bach
Was a master of his Fach:                  [business]
Nothing could be more kluge            [clever]
Than his Kunst der Fuge.                    [art of the fugue]

This example demonstrates precisely why the clerihew has remained a fairly obscure genre, a sort of pastime for the erudite. Many great clerihews show their wit in having unusual rhymes, including foreign words and phrases. In this case, without a bit of German we’d be lost.

One of the challenges of writing a clerihew, then, is to make sure that the poem can be understood through its own logic, even when it has added layers of complexity. Take, for instance, this gem by Auden:

When the young Kant
Was told to kiss his aunt,
He obeyed the Categorical Must,
But only just.

You don’t have to know much about Immanuel Kant’s philosophy to get at least something of the joke. Alternatively, some clerihews are entirely nonsensical, as in Bentley’s absurd portrait of Brahms:

It only irritated Brahms
To tickle him under the arms.
What really helped him to compose
Was to be stroked on the nose.

The problem, though, is that this is pretty weak stuff. There are no clever rhymes and there is no sense in which this description is especially suited to Brahms, unless he had some strange fetish we don’t know about. The truth is that it is rather difficult to write a good clerihew, and both Bentley and Auden wrote many a dud.

In recent years, the clerihew has been taken up as a side project by a few authors. Of note is Henry Taylor’s collection Brief Candles: 101 Clerihews (published in 2000). Taylor groups his clerihew by profession, and he has series on poet laureates, Jesus’ disciples, literary theorists, supreme-court judges, and so forth. Some are surprisingly satirical:

Andrew Motion
Could make moisturizing lotion.
Much of what he now creates
Is slick and fragrant, and evaporates.

On the whole, Taylor’s clerihews are well-crafted, but often treat lesser known subjects.

Some Tips

If you’re thinking of taking up the clerihew, let me give you some further pointers.  Obviously you will want to write about people who are fairly well known. Next, the trick is to find names that allow for clever rhymes, as ideally you should conclude line 1 with the name. You can cheat a little, but if you do it should be for dramatic effect. In the following clerihew about Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, it makes thematic sense that the first line needs a little extending:

Franz Schubert – he
Was well beyond puberty
When he wrote a symphony
A movement short and in a minor key.

Alternatively, you can break the rules by including two subjects in the first line, as in this Auden clerihew:

Luther & Zwingli
Should be treated singly:
L hated the Peasants,
Z the Real Presence.

If you’re very brave, you could even introduce the real subject further into the poem, as in the following example, which nevertheless still manages to end line one with a name:

After courting Florence Nightingale
For nine years and to no avail,
Richard Monckton Milnes realized he was mad
To have lent her his collection of de Sade.

In other words, there is some room for bending the rules about ending line 1 with the subject’s name.

Another piece of advice is to think about the length of the line. The last clerihew experiments with fairly long lines, in part because the name is so long. However, often concision is key, as is understatement. One of Bentley’s best is this hilarious description of Homer travelling past the burning ruins of Troy:

“Dear me!” exclaimed Homer,
“What a delicious aroma!
It smells as if a town
Was being burnt down.”

Here’s one more example of a quick punch line:

Henry the Eighth
Had a chauvinistic faith:
To leave his wife in the lurch
He started a church.

Incidentally, we might expect “Calvinistic” rather than “chauvinistic,” which is a another feature of the clerihew: upsetting expectations.

Something that Bentley was particularly good at was including dialogue in the clerihews. One of his best is the portrait of Sir Christopher Wren, the architect of St. Paul’s cathedral:

Sir Christopher Wren
Said, “I am going to dine with some men.
If anyone calls
Say I am designing St. Paul’s.”

The casual nature of the lines is hard to achieve, and adds to the comedy. Here’s an attempt at a similar effect:

Said Dante Alighieri
To Virgil on the ferry,
“What is that stink, what is that smell?”
“That is the Styx, and we’re in hell.”

Again, it’s important to think about the structure of the lines, as the last two have a parallel rhythm, especially with the near-rhyme of “stink”/”Styx.” The whole aim is to create a sense of bathos, the literary term for reducing epic or sublime moments to the level of triviality. How you achieve this—through slang, anachronism, or some other method—is up to you.

My last advice is to include some puns and plays on words. See if you can spot the puns in these examples:

The Dalai Lama
Wore a silk pyjama
Manufactured in the West
And longed to return Tibet to rest.

Zinedine Zidane
Played with such élan,
That when he got upset,
He settled for a tête-à-tête.

As you can see from the last example, anyone famous can be the subject of a clerihew, including soccer players. Indeed, there’s no need to be a history buff to enjoy this genre. You can even make up clerihews about fictional characters.


So, if you enjoy writing poetry, or if you are a teacher who wants to add some variety to the curriculum, then why not explore the clerihew form? There are few things as satisfying as crafting a witty clerihew. Well, perhaps that’s an overstatement, but it’s still a great poem to add to your repertoire.

One final thing: if you’re truly serious, think about adding a humorous illustration to complete the effect:

Works Cited

Auden, W. H. Academic Graffiti. Illustrated by Filippo Sanjust, Random House, 1972.

Bentley, Edmund Clerihew. Biography for Beginners. Illustrated by G.K. Chesterton, T.W. Laurie, 1905.

Taylor, Henry. Brief Candles: 101 Clerihews. Louisiana State UP, 2000.



Most people enjoy a clever limerick. These five-line poems have always been popular, and here we’ll teach you a bit about the limerick’s history, as well as the rules for writing one yourself.


While the limerick originates in the 18th century, it was in the 19th century that Edward Lear popularized the form. In 1846, Lear published A Book of Nonsense, which consisted of 72 limericks in two volumes. This collection was republished in 1855 and expanded in 1861 (to include 112 limericks). In 1872, Lear published More Nonsense, which contained (in addition to other nonsense poems) another 100 limericks.

Lear’s limericks have a number of distinct features. The final line of a Lear limerick usually repeats a previous line. In addition, many of his limericks are truly nonsensical, and lack an obvious punch line. Lear also did not go in for dirty jokes, and there is often a tragic tone to his poems. The main characters of the limericks are eccentric people who are not appreciated by the rest of society. These oddballs and outcasts are frequently beaten and mocked, and we may well wonder whether there is something autobiographical about these poems. For one thing, quite a few of the characters have large noses, and we know that Lear was rather embarrassed by the size of his own proboscis. While Lear thus popularized the limerick, his own contributions remain quite unique.


To write a great limerick you should pay attention to three things: rhyme, rhythm, and content. Let’s look at each of these in turn.


The basic rhyme scheme is AABBA. In the early limericks, the last line often simply repeated one of the earlier rhymes.

There was an Old Person of Chester,
Whom several small children did pester;
They threw some large stones,
Which broke most of his bones,
And displeased that Old Person of Chester.

— Edward Lear.

These days you’re encouraged to avoid repetition.


The rhythm of a limerick can be tricky to master. The easiest way to think about rhythm is to realize that lines 1, 2, and 5 have three stressed syllables, and lines 3 and 4 have two stressed syllables.

There once was a man from Gas,
Who loved his deodorant spray.
He needed to scratch
So he took out a match,
And went up in a fragrant flam.

However, you can use different feet (patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables) to create this rhythm. One common foot is the amphibrach (three syllables where only the middle syllable is stressed).  The first two lines both start with two amphibrachs in a row.

Another common foot is the anapest (three syllables where only the last is stressed). For example the fourth line consists of two anapests, and the last line has three.

Finally, when you’re not using amphibrachs or anapests, you may ocassionally use an iambic meter (an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable). The first and third lines both end with an iamb.

All three of these rhythms are rising rhythms, in that they start with one or more unstressed syllables before leading to a stress. As you combine them in your limerick, try to capture that traditional lilt of a limerick that makes it so catchy.


What should go into a limerick? Here’s a quick checklist that covers the essentials:

  • Limericks start with “There was” or “There once was”
  • The first line introduces a person and (often) a city or place of origin.
  • The person is characterized by one or more eccentric traits that make them stand out.
  • Something humorous happens to the main character, and the poem ends with a joke or a surprising twist.
  • The limerick is often accompanied by a humorous illustration.

Beyond these basic rules, you have plenty of leeway to make up an original limerick of your own.


Finally, here’s a checklist for writing limericks. Print a copy and use it in the classroom or at home.

Limerick Checklist

Works Cited

Lear, Edward. Complete Nonsense. Wordsworth Edition, 1994.