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.
First you’ll need to pick the rhyme scheme. The most common forms are the Petrarchan and Shakespearean 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:
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.”
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.
Want to learn more about some of the famous sonnets ever written? Check out our tutorials of the following poems:
- Sonnet 55 (by William Shakespeare)
- Sonnet 130 (by William Shakespeare)
- Holy Sonnet 14 (by John Donne)