Explanation of How to Write a Sonnet

What is a sonnet?

A sonnet is a poem that usually expresses an idea or thought and is made of 14 lines. The lines are all ten syllables long. Depending on the type of the sonnet, the lines are arranged differently. For the English sonnet, we have three quatrains that must be followed by a rhyming couplet. On the other hand, the Italian sonnet is made up of eight lines known as an octave that is made up of two quatrains who function is to start the poem in the form of a question then followed by six lines referred to as the sestet whose function is to answer the octave.

How sonnet definition looks like?

A sonnet is a poem made up of 24 lines with each line having 10 syllables and the poem is developed such that it has a fixed pattern of rhymes.

What is typical sonnet structure?

  • English Sonnet

The Shakespearean sonnet also known as the English sonnet is one of the easiest types of sonnet. This is because it has three to four line stanzas knows as the quatrains that are being followed by a couplet. Each of the quatrains is subjected to a simple rhyme scheme in which the first line is supposed to rhyme with the third while the second line must rhyme with the last then other new rhymes are brought in each stanza.

The general rhyme scheme for the entire poem can be summarized as:

abab cdcd efef gg

This is to say that only two words are needed for each rhyme.

Every line conforms to iambic pentameter that is they are made up of ten syllables and five stressed syllables (beats).

  • Italian Sonnet

Also known as the Petrarchan sonnet is somehow difficult compared to the English sonnet. This is attributed to the fact that there are many rhyming words in the Italian language compared to those in English.

In essence, the Italian sonnet is only a challenge when it is being done in English, otherwise, when it is written in Italian, it is quite easier.

The Italian sonnet is made up of two stanzas:

The first 8 lines known as the octave with the following rhyming scheme:

abbaabba

Then, the last 6 lines known as the sestet with the following rhyming scheme:

cdecde

cdcdcd

Other variations are also allowed such as ccddcc, cdeced, cdcedc and cddcdc

What this means is that there can be a minimum of four rhymes in the whole poem. This, therefore, requires a lot of consideration in choosing the words ending the lines, particularly in the octave. The chosen words should have many rhymes.

Between the octave and the sestet, there should be a turn of sorts which is usually referred to as volta. This is due to the fact that the sestet is mean to provide answers to the octave.

What is a couplet?

A couplet can be defined as a pair of successive verse lines that are rhyming and have the same length.

Example of couplets

Good night! Good night! Parting is such sweet sorrow

That I shall say good night till it be morrow.”

This is an extract from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

In this play, Shakespeare adopted the use of rhyming couplets mostly at the end of the scenes to signify the ending. Poetry builds so much on couplets, and in most cases, poems in this case sonnets are wholly written following the concept of couplets.

Which Sonnet Forms Exist?

Having gone through the basic of sonnets, let’s now get a rough idea of the steps we can follow to come up with sonnets of our own.

  • English sonnet

As mentioned earlier, this is the easiest type of sonnet because of its regular rhyme scheme; therefore, it provides the best starting point.

Step 1: Follow the Shakespearean Rhyme scheme

abab cdcd efef gg

From this pattern, you need to find words that rhyme.

The first and third line should rhyme, the second and fourth… until you end with a rhyming couplet.

Step 2: Write your lines following the iambic pentameter

This is basically the means of determining the rhythm of a line in a poem.

It has been derived from pente which means five (poetic feet) and Lambic meaning each foot is referred to as an iamb. The lambs are made up of an unstressed syllable succeeded by a stressed syllable leading to a ta-TUM rhythm.

In general, the iambic pentameter is given in the form:

Ta-TUM ta-TUM ta-TUM ta-TUM ta-TUM

Step 3: Meter Variation

In as much as you need to follow the iambic pentameter while writing your English sonnet lines, you slightly vary the stress pattern at some key moments to break the predictability of the rhythm and enhance the quality of the sonnet. You can also use the variation to highlight some key phrases in the poem.

Step 4: Structure your sonnet according to the English sonnet structure

These should follow

Three quatrains

abab cdcd, efef

Closing couplet

gg

Step 5: Stanza development

This is basically what the poem is about. Since you already have a message that you want to convey using a sonnet, you need to think about each stanza of your sonnet as a building block towards painting the picture of your poem right.

The following are tips on the roles of different stanzas

1st quatrain- this should introduce the situation

2nd Quatrain- this should begin with a transition word showing that it is related to the 1st quatrain but it aims at going further in developing it

3rd quatrain – should also begin with a transition word as it is still a development of the idea

Closing couplet- this signifies the Volta and therefore should begin with “BUT” showing that it is not a continuation of the idea rather it is a new thought.

Step 6: Consider your subject matter

Traditionally, sonnets are known to be love poems but can still take any other theme. If your aim is to write a traditional sonnet, then think about love.

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If your aim is to write a sonnet about a weighty matter, then Shakespearean sonnet may not fully cater for your needs because it has a stanza structure that is heavy on top and the conclusion comes just in the final two lines.

Step 7: Write your sonnet

After going through all the six steps, now you are ready to put down your English sonnet.

Make sure you follow the rhyme pattern, subject your lines to iambic pentameter and don’t forget to make some variations. You should also ensure that your subject matter is well thought off and can be easily developed by each of the three quatrains before getting to the Volta and providing a relevant resolution in the closing couplet.

In case you experience trouble in getting rhyming words you can consider using a rhyming dictionary.

  • Italian sonnet

Having gone through the English sonnet, you are now in a better position to handle the Italian sonnet.

Step 1: Understand the Italian sonnet rhyme scheme

The Italian sonnet has a different rhyme scheme compared to that of the English sonnet. We have learnt from the English sonnet that it maintains a particular rhyme pattern throughout the poem. The Italian has a different form that is the first eight lines (octave) maintains the same rhyme scheme but from the sestet, the scheme varies

For octave

abbaabba

Common forms of sestet

  • cdcdcd
  • cddcdc
  • cdecde
  • cdeced
  • cdcedc

Step 2: Iambic Pentameter

Just like in the English sonnet, the Italian sonnet lines should also be subjected to the iambic pentameter. Metrical variations should also be used to break predictability and draw attention to important phrases.

ta-TUM ta-TUM ta-TUM ta-TUM ta-TUM

Step 3: Stanza development

Compared to the English sonnet, the Italian sonnet has stanzas that are relatively balanced. This is based on the fact that the octave has 8 lines while the sestet has 6 lines. This makes it best suited to handle issues that are kind of complex in nature as opposed to the simple ones that can be fully handled by the Shakespearean sonnet.

The purpose of the octave is to introduce and present the problem then the Volta which starts at the first line of the sestet is meant to bring in a different point of view from that stated in the octave.

Step 4: Write your Italian sonnet

The same way you did to your English sonnet, ensure that you stick to the Italian sonnet rhyme scheme and its stanza structure, make sure you subject your lines to iambic pentameter and providing some metrical variations. You sestet should always provide a different insight from what your octave has stated.

Some Classical Sonnet examples

Example of Italian/ Petrarchan sonnets

As mentioned earlier, the Italian sonnet is based on the original work of Da Lentini. This sonnet is basically made up of two parts, the octave which is made up of eight lines and the sestet made up of six lines. The purpose of the octave is octave is to introduce the conflict or the problem that the sonnet wants to highlight then the sestet provides a solution to the problem.

The ideal rhyme pattern for an Italian sonnet is:

ab ba ab ba for the octave and,

The sestet can follow:

c d d c d d, c d d e c e, or c d d c c d

The following is an Italian sonnet done by William Wordsworth entitled “London 1802”

To make it easy for you to follow and understand, we have highlighted the rhyme scheme at the end of every line.  

“London 1802”

Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour: (a)

England hath need of thee: she is a fen (b)

Of stagnant waters: altar, sword, and pen, (b)

Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower, (a)

Have forfeited their ancient English dower (a)

Of inward happiness. We are selfish men; (b)

Oh! raise us up, return to us again; (b)

And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power. (a)

Thy soul was like a Star, and dwelt apart; (c)

Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea: (d)

Pure as the naked heavens, majestic, free, (d)

So didst thou travel on life’s common way, (e)

In cheerful godliness; and yet thy heart (c)

The lowliest duties on herself did lay. (e)

The rhyme scheme of this sonnet is common for an Italian sonnet. The rhyme scheme for the octave is:

ab ba ab ba

While that of the sestet is:

cd de ce

The octave highlights the problem which the death of Milton that has resulted in moral decline in England

The sestet then responds to the octave by providing a solution. It states that Milton was quite different compared to England, he had a soul that valued mortality and he was filled with mortality. England is therefore called to emulate this wonderful man.

Using a poem generator

In this guide we have provided insights on how to write a sonnet, we have also provided an example of a sonnet. Now you are wondering, do I need a sonnet? Historically sonnets were used for a number of tasks such as examining political ideas, commenting on history, for religious devotion, as love poems and describing nature and the world. Today, many people look at sonnets as a form of romantic poetry mainly used to celebrate or to flatter loved ones. However, being a form of poetry, sonnets are not limited to only the subject of love, it can be used to examine any idea or subject.

After going through this guide, we believe that you have grasped a number of insights that will help in crafting your own sonnets. However, if you still have trouble writing your own sonnets or poem, you can use our free poem generator, the poem maker is a good resource that you need to utilize.