Sonnets have wooed dames from the 13th century up until today. Its name comes from the Italian word sonetto which means “little song.” It is one of the oldest poetic forms and it follows very strict rules. Despite this, there are many variations of the sonnet, but the most popular one today is the English or Shakespearean Sonnet. The best way to learn how to write a Sonnet is to first know its nooks and crannies. For this purpose, let’s focus on Shakespeare’s most loved Sonnet 18.
- The Shakespearean Sonnet has 14 lines.
- The Shakespearean Sonnet comprises four parts: three quatrains and a couplet.
- It follows the iambic pentameter. In the iambic pentameter, each line consists of ten syllables. Each line in turn is divided into five iambs each of which consists of one unstressed syllable and one unstressed syllable (where your voice goes up). A word consisted of two or more syllables may be considered one whole iamb (compare) or may be divided between two iambs (summer’s). It usually depends on the combination of stressed and unstressed syllables. For example:
Shall I / com pare/ thee to / a sum / mer's day?
- The Shakespearean rhyme scheme is ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. This is concerned with the last syllables of each line. The first four lines of Sonnet 18 end with these words:
The most important aspect of learning how to write a sonnet is to master its underlying structure. Aside from the quatrains and the couplet, the Shakespearean Sonnet is divided into two parts. The first part, or the three quatrains, is where the situation or the problem is set up. This is then resolved in the second part or the couplet.
The three quatrains each focus on different subjects or ideas. These ideas build up on each other. Often, the first two quatrains deal with the same idea, while the last quatrain contradicts it.
You don’t know how to write a sonnet unless you have mastered the volta. The transition between the sonnet’s two parts is signaled by the volta. Volta is an Italian word that means “turn.” The volta, then, is the turn of thought of the sonnet. This is where a new idea is developed, often one that contradicts the first ideas presented.
For example in Sonnet 18, the first eight lines compares the beloved to nature, which is described as ever-changing, unpredictable, and temporary. The ninth line signals the turn, where the persona begins to contradict the earlier statements by saying that the beloved’s beauty is eternal:
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
NOTE: the volta can be found either in the ninth line or in the first line of the couplet.
The lines succeeding the ninth line build on the idea of the beloved’s eternal beauty, but this is still not the resolution because neither the person nor their beauty is eternal. So, it is resolved by the couplet which states that her beauty is eternal because it is kept alive by the people who remember it.
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
One can say that the first 12 lines of the Shakespearean Sonnet prepares the reader for the couplet, which is somewhat like the punch line of a joke.
Try it out!
These are the main characteristics you need to remember in how to write a sonnet. At first the Shakespearean Sonnet may seem like a tight cage, but this cage is here to help you, the poet, transcend it. It would help to remember that the Shakespearean Sonnet is a deviation from the much older Petrarchan Sonnet. So, don’t be afraid to experiment with this poetic form.
P.S. Before you experiment, you must first know the rules on how to write a sonnet.