5 Tips for Writing a Sonnet

Writing a sonnet can be a challenging task, many times, even for established poets. This Buzzle article will provide valuable tips on how to write sonnet.
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Description of a sonnet
Did You Know?
The credit for inventing a sonnet goes to the 13th century Sicilian poet Giacomo Da Lentini, who served as a notary at the court of Frederick II.
The sonnet, a traditional form of poetry, originated in Italy, some time during the 13th century CE. The word "sonnet" is derived from the Italian word sonetto, which literally means "a little poem". It is a very lyrical kind of poetry with a fixed rhyme scheme, and a subtle, rhythmic meter. As the popularity of the sonnet grew across the world with the passage of time, this form of poetry was adopted in many other countries with numerous famous poets working on it. Consequently, the sonnet evolved, and as we can see from many of the later creations of English, American, and even Urdu poets, we can say that it matured as well.

While writing poetry, special emphasis is almost always laid on its rhyme and rhythm so that it becomes more appealing for the reader. Learning to sonnet would be a good way to make the 'traditional' and the 'modern' meet―you can stick to the traditional rules of writing a sonnet, while making use of the modern words, thus, ending up creating an evolved and sophisticated poetry. Also, you can say more things in lesser words and that too, in a very romantic way. Buzzle brings you a few practical tips to help you write a soulful sonnet.

How to Write a Sonnet

Sonnet, as mentioned above, evolved over the ages, and so, the format that the first Italian sonnets used also underwent a significant change. In fact, Shakespeare came up with his own, distinct style of sonnet writing, which has thenceforth been known as the Shakespearean Sonnet. Nevertheless, there are a few elements that, even to this day, continue to remain common for all the sonnets. These are as under:

Each and every sonnet has to have 14 lines; no more, no less.

Every sonnet has to be written in the iambic pentameter, which means that five ('penta' means 'five') syllables in each line are specially stressed upon, when the sonnet is read aloud.

Every sonnet has a fixed, set rhyme scheme. Rhyme schemes may differ from one sonnet to the other; however, within a single sonnet, the poet has to compulsorily follow one, single rhyme scheme; diversion from it may destroy the entire rhythm of the poem.

Each sonnet, irrespective of whether it is Italian, Shakespearean, Elizabethan, Occitan, or Spenserian, always has a volta. In poetry, volta or turn indicates either a rhetorical variation, or a subtle shift from one emotion and/or thought to another.

Apart from the points mentioned above, every sonnet is written in its own peculiar way. Let us consider two different sonnets and try to analyze what goes into writing them:

Prologue to Romeo and Juliet

"Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life;
Whole misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents' strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark'd love,
And the continuance of their parents' rage,
Which, but their children's end, naught could remove,
Is now the two hours' traffic of our stage;
The which, if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend."

― William Shakespeare
On His Blindness

"When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodg'd with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide,
"Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?"
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies: "God doth not need
Either man's work or his own gifts: who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly; thousands at his bidding speed
And post o'er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.""

― John Milton

Tip #1: The Number of Syllables

In a sonnet, each of the 14 lines comprise ten syllables, which means that there are total 140 syllables in the entire sonnet. While writing a sonnet, this is the very first thing to keep in mind; none of your lines can contain more (or less) than 10 syllables.

Consider the first lines of the above sonnets:

"Two households, both alike in dignity"
Now let us split the words into individual syllables:
Two1-house2\ holds3-both4\ a5-like6\ in7-dig8\ ni9-ty10

"When I consider how my light is spent"
When we split these words into individual syllables, we have,
When1-I2\ con3-si4-der5\ how6-my7\ light8-is9\spent10

Tip #2: The Iambic Pentameter

The iambic pentameter has to be used uniformly throughout the sonnet. This means that you will need to see to it that five syllables out of ten in each line are stressed more than the others, while you read your poem aloud. The use of this poetic meter imparts a natural rhythm to the sonnet.

Let's look at the five stressed syllables in the first lines of both the sonnets.

"Two households, both alike in dignity"
Two1-house2\ holds-both3\ a-like4\ in-dig5\ ni-ty

"When I consider how my light is spent"
When1-I\ con2-si-der\ how-my3\ light4-is\spent5

Tip #3: Understanding the Structure

Before you start working on a sonnet, it is vital to understand the various divisions within it. Take a look at the following terms:

Quatrain refers to four consecutive lines of any poem or a stanza.
Sestet refers to six consecutive lines of any poem or a stanza.
Octave refers to eight consecutive lines of any poem or a stanza.
Couplet refers to any two lines of the poem or stanza, which rhyme with one another.

Shakespearean sonnets invariably have three consecutive quatrains (the first 12 lines divided into three parts of four lines each), and one couplet (the last two lines that rhyme). On the other hand, Petrarchan sonnets comprise one octave (the first eight lines) and one sestet (the last six lines).

Tip #4: The Rhyme Scheme

Rhyme scheme is essentially the pattern in which the lines of a given poem rhyme with each other. The common practice is to use alphabets to indicate two lines that rhyme, with rhyming lines marked with the same alphabet.

Consider the first quatrain of our Shakespearean sonnet:

"Two households, both alike in dignity, (A)
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene, (B)
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny, (B)
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean." (A)


So, the rhyme scheme of the first quatrain is ABBA.

Now, consider the second quatrain of the same sonnet:

"From forth the fatal loins of these two foes (C)
A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life; (D)
Whole misadventured piteous overthrows (D)
Do with their death bury their parents' strife." (C)


So, the rhyme scheme of the second quatrain is CDDC.

Similarly, consider the third quatrain of the sonnet:

"The fearful passage of their death-mark'd love, (E)
And the continuance of their parents' rage, (F)
Which, but their children's end, naught could remove, (F)
Is now the two hours' traffic of our stage;" (E)


So, the rhyme scheme of the third quatrain is EFFE.

Lastly, look at the remaining couplet:

"The which if you with patient ears attend, (G)
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend." (G)


So, the rhyme scheme of the couplet is GG.

The rhyme scheme of our Shakespearean sonnet is ABBA CDDC EFFE GG.

Now, let us take a look at the rhyme scheme of our Petrarchan sonnet. Consider the octave:

"When I consider how my light is spent (A)
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide, (B)
And that one talent which is death to hide (B)
Lodg'd with me useless, though my soul more bent (A)
To serve therewith my Maker, and present (A)
My true account, lest he returning chide, (B)
"Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?" (B)
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent" (A)


The rhyme scheme of the octave is ABBAABBA.

Now, for the remaining sestet:

"That murmur, soon replies: "God doth not need (C)
Either man's work or his own gifts: who best (D)
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state (E)
Is kingly; thousands at his bidding speed (C)
And post o'er land and ocean without rest: (D)
They also serve who only stand and wait."" (E)


The rhyme scheme of the sestet is CDECDE.

So, the rhyme scheme of our Petrarchan sonnet is ABBAABBA CDECDE.

** It should be noted that while the rhyme scheme may differ from sonnet to sonnet (of the same type), the structure mostly remains the same. It should also be noted that the Petrarchan sonnets of Dante differ in structure, in that, they have two sestets and two quatrains.

Tip #5: The Plot

After understanding all the prerequisites of a valid sonnet, the next and final step is to develop a plot. Generally, every sonnet begins with an idea, the poet builds on it in the first six to eight lines, and then takes a turn―volta. In the remaining six or seven lines, the tone of the sonnet tends to suddenly change, while the poet either comments on the idea he has attempted to develop and/or tries to solve the problem, if the plot involves one.

In our Shakespearean sonnet, the first two quatrains describe the plot and the backdrop of Romeo and Juliet in a nutshell. The volta can be noticed at the third quatrain, which tells the audience about the next two hours of the show. In the last couplet Shakespeare promises the audience to be patient and quiet and watch the play, as everything that the prologue (that our sonnet is) leaves out, can be seen on stage.

Similarly, in our Petrarchan sonnet, Milton begins his first octave by telling us that he is blind. He further says that he believes in his talent, and how he wants to continue serving God by being patient and indulging in the thing he can do the best (writing poems). The volta is visible in the next sestet, wherein Milton speaks about God's reaction, who tends to remind the poet that He is sovereign, and man should always keep faith in Him, no matter what.

Examples of Sonnets

Here are a few examples of other sonnets, just to give you an idea about their structure and the rhyme scheme that they may follow.

Nuns Fret Not at Their Convent's Narrow Room

Nuns fret not at their convent's narrow room (A)
And hermits are contented with their cells; (B)
And students with their pensive citadels; (B)
Maids at the wheel, the weaver at his loom, (A)
Sit blithe and happy; bees that soar for bloom, (A)
High as the highest Peak of Furness-fells, (B)
Will murmur by the hour in foxglove bells: (B)
In truth the prison, into which we doom (A)
Ourselves, no prison is: and hence for me, (C)
In sundry moods, 'twas pastime to be bound (D)
Within the Sonnet's scanty plot of ground; (D)
Pleased if some Souls (for such there needs must be) (C)
Who have felt the weight of too much liberty, (C)
Should find brief solace there, as I have found. (D)

― William Wordsworth

The above sonnet has an octave and a sestet, and its rhyme scheme is ABBAABBA CDDCCD.
The Cross of Snow

In the long sleepless watches of the night (A)
A gentle face-the face of one long dead- (B)
Looks at me from the wall, where round its head (B)
The night-lamp casts a halo of pale light. (A)
Here in this room she died; and soul more white (A)
Never through martyrdom of fire was led (B)
To its repose; nor can in books be read (B)
The legend of a soul more benedight. (A)
There is a mountain in the distant West (C)
That, sun-defying, in its deep ravines (D)
Displays a cross of snow upon its side. (E)
Such is the cross I wear upon my breast (C)
These eighteen years, through all the changing scenes (D)
And seasons, changeless since the day she died. (E)

― H.W. Longfellow

The above sonnet has an octave and a sestet, and its rhyme scheme is ABBAABBA CDECDE.

Happy ye Leaves! Whenas Those Lilly Hands

Happy ye leaves! whenas those lilly hands, (A)
Which hold my life in their dead doing might, (B)
Shall handle you, and hold in love's soft bands, (A)
Like captives trembling at the victor's sight. (B)
And happy lines on which, with starry light, (B)
Those lamping eyes will deign sometimes to look,(C)
And read the sorrows of my dying sprite, (B)
Written with tears in heart's close bleeding book. (C)
And happy rhymes! bathed in the sacred brook (C)
Of Helicon, whence she derived is, (D)
When ye behold that angel's blessed look, (C)
My soul's long lacked food, my heaven's bliss. (D)
Leaves, lines, and rhymes seek her to please alone, (E)
Whom if ye please, I care for other none. (E)

― Edmund Spenser

The above sonnet has three quatrains and a couplet, and its rhyme scheme is ABAB BCBC CDCD EE.

One thing is for sure, writing a sonnet is not an easy task. One has to practice it over and over again to achieve perfection. It is needless to say that a poet has to make utmost use of his/her feelings and emotions while writing a sonnet, so as to add a soul to it. It is also essential that you read other sonnets aloud so that you understand all the technicalities, including the use of iambic pentameter. The louder you read, the easier it is to identify the "stressed" syllables. So, what are you waiting for? Go on and write down your own sonnet; you will surely bring a smile on your loved one's face.
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Published: April 7, 2014
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