April is National Poetry Month! In honor of all things poetic, I’m offering up this post on how to write a sonnet. Perhaps you’ll decide to devote the month of April to giving the form a whirl. If not, penning any manner of poetry will do. The Academy of American Poets started this event in 1996, and National Poetry Month has morphed into the largest literary celebration in the world.
How to Write a Sonnet
How to write a sonnet has been known to strike fear in many souls. Maybe you were forced to pen one back in school, or you tried composing a sonnet later in life with mixed results. Perhaps you like to tinker with free verse, but stricter poetic forms give you a headache.
This post will cover how to write a sonnet known as the English, Elizabethan, or Shakespearian variety. William Shakespeare wrote 154 known sonnets, thus the poetic format became closely linked with his name. Some other varieties include the Italian (or Petrarchan) sonnet, the Spenserian sonnet, and ones termed Indefinables in that they function like sonnets, but don’t follow a recognizable pattern (as in “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley).
In Fair Verona… A Sonnet Prologue
Rather than use one of Shakespeare’s most famous sonnets for an example to discuss the components that comprise the form, I thought it would be fun to use the Prologue to Romeo and Juliet instead since it happens to be written as a sonnet. Later on in the play, the two young lovers also speak to each other in sonnet format in the exchange that starts, “If I profane with my unworthiest hand.”
English Sonnets by the Numbers
How to write a sonnet comes down to heeding a lot of numbers. Let’s start with the big picture. An English sonnet contains fourteen lines. The fourteen lines consist of three quatrains (four-line stanzas) followed by a couplet (two-line stanza). A problem of some sort is introduced in the first quatrain and then elaborated on in the following ones. The problem is then resolved in some fashion in the concluding couplet.
Note how every other line within each quatrain rhymes in addition to the rhyme found in the couplet. This alternating pattern of rhyme is known as a rhyme scheme. The rhyme scheme of a Shakespearean Sonnet is as follows: abab cdcd efef gg. This tends to be the trickiest part for me. Often I will come up with a rhyme scheme and then see what lines I can think of to fashion the poem around.
Yes, Even More Sonnet Math!
But wait, there’s more! On top of the strict rhyme scheme, a sonnet is written in lines of iambic pentameter. Say what? Yes, time for even more math. A small group of syllables is known as a foot, and an iamb is a two-syllable unit. An iamb consists of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. Pentameter comes into play in that each line of a sonnet will contain five of these feet. So that means each line will have ten syllables.
English is Naturally Iambic
I totally understand if sweat is breaking out on your brow at this point and your pulse is quickening a bit. Lucky for us, the speech patterns of English tend to naturally follow an iambic pattern. The easiest way to get a sense of where the stressed syllables fall within a line is to speak the line out loud with your hand placed beneath your chin. Pay attention to when your chin drops to feel the stressed syllables. Dictionaries will also indicate stressed syllables with an accent mark if you need to verify a word’s stress pattern.
Above All, Language is Fun
Despite how strict the sonnet form appears, they can actually be quite fun to write if you don’t let frustration carry you away. Remember, that language is an art form and contains much beauty. Not to mention playing with language can just be plain fun. So now that you know how to write a sonnet, go forth and pen one in honor of National Poetry Month.
Poetry has always been a love of mine, and it’s one I am indulging more as I age. It was also my favorite part of teaching high school English because students could readily be encouraged to let loose a bit and see what silliness would transpire on the page.
You can read more about National Poetry month here.
What other advice would you offer on how to write a sonnet? Have you ever written on? What poetic forms are you drawn to?
This post originally appeared as a guest post on Denise Baer’s blog. If you enjoyed this post, you may also like reading Shakespearean Insults: Fun with Poetic Put-Downs or 10 Tips for Writing Poetic Prose.
Please share responsibly. Jeri Walker, 2019.