Tuesday, February 10, 2009

How To Write a Sonnet

Ah, is there anything more romantic than a sonnet? (awww, *swoon*). Be still my heart :D

Okay, sonnets are fairly easy, structure-wise that is. Don’t worry; we’ll keep it simple. Trying to convey the emotion and message that you want to get across is a lot harder than it looks when you have to stick to a structured set of rules. But it is such a joy when you finally get it right!

First of all, there are two types of sonnets; Petrarchan (or Italian) and Shakespearean (or English). So, how are they different?



1. Fourteen lines – usually iambic pentameter (meaning the 10 syllables that follow an unstressed/stressed pattern – see last week’s post for more detailed info).

2. This type of sonnet has an octave (eight lines) and a sestet (six lines).

3. The rhyme scheme of the octave is abbaabba. The sestet has several variations, including: cddcdd or cdecde or cdcdcd or cdcdee or cdccdc.

4. The content of the octave is usually a kind of set-up, the opening statement or argument, the part that presents the problem, the desire, the question, the conflict, the reflection, etc. Typically, the first four lines (or quatrain) present the theme, and the second quatrain further develops this.

5. The sestet is the wrap-up, the resolution, the solution, the comment about what was said in the octave. This is heralded by the volta (the turn, change in tone, imagery or theme), usually occurring at the ninth line of the sonnet.


From the Dark Tower (To Charles S. Johnson)
by: Countee Cullen

We shall not always plant while others reap (a)
The golden increment of bursting fruit, (b)
Not always countenance, abject and mute, (b)
That lesser men should hold their brothers cheap; (a) (the “problem”)
Not everlastingly while others sleep (a)
Shall we beguile their limbs with mellow flute, (b)
Not always bend to some more subtle brute; (b)
We were not made to eternally weep. (a) (further development)
The night whose sable breast relieves the stark, (c) (the volta)
White stars is no less lovely being dark, (c)
And there are buds that cannot bloom at all (d)
In light, but crumple, piteous, and fall; (d)
So in the dark we hide the heart that bleeds, (e)
And wait, and tend our agonizing seeds. (e) (resolution)

If you know a little about Countee Cullen, specifically that he was a black man that lived from 1903-1946, the meaning of the poem is easy to determine. The octave (the first eight lines) show the problem, the opening statement. The sestet (the last six lines) show the resolution, the solution to the emotional statements of the first half of the poem.



1. The form is fourteen lines, usually iambic pentameter.

2. There is no octave/sestet structure, but is structured as three quatrains and one couplet.

3. The rhyme scheme is abab cdcd efef gg.

4. The volta usually occurs at the third quatrain.

5. The final couplet (the gg) is the resolution.


Shakespeare's Sonnet 18

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

Now, as with most things in life, nothing is set in stone. There are variations on variations, modern tweaks and twiddles…but for the most part, if you follow the elements above, you should be able to write a sonnet of your own.

My own attempt, a sonnet I wrote for a poetry class in my grad school days, about my preemie daughter….

For my Daughter

My gentle fingers on soft tendrils lie.
I feel at fault, though no one is to blame.
I could not keep you safe and so you came.
I live for just a flutter of your eye.
I rock you, baby, watch the hour speed by,
I whisper softly in your ear your name.
Ordeals and pain your spirit cannot tame.
But when it’s time to go I softly cry.

Two months have passed and now you’re safe at home.
My tiny angel cradled to my breast.
All guilt has flown, no time on sorrow spend,
For joy we feel, our hearts on wings do roam.
Your newborn eyes gaze into mine – we’re blest.
My precious girl, my heart you swiftly mend.

Come back next week to learn how to write haiku.

For step-by-step instructions on how to write sonnets and several other forms of poetry, check out my book So You Have to Write a Poem: A Guide for the Non-Poetic!


Anonymous said...

I love the poem to your daughter...as she grows, I am sure she will also.
CAn;t wait for Haikus...

Kate Karyus Quinn said...

I love these little poetry lessons so much that I linked to your last one in my own blog! And the example of your own poem to your daughter makes the whole post not just informative, but touching as well!