How to Write a Shakespearean Sonnet with 3 Examples
For almost a millennium, both writers and readers of poetry have been fascinated and inspired by a particular form: the sonnet. Thought to have been invented by poet Giacomo da Lentini in the early 1200s, the sonnet has been a favored form by some of the most notable poets in literary history. Originally an exclusively Italian form utilized by well-known Renaissance poets such as Dante and Petrarch, the form proved so popular that it spread throughout western and northern Europe by the 1500s.
Form of a Sonnet
A sonnet is a poem that is fourteen lines in length divided into two distinct parts, an eight-line stanza known as an octave and a six-line stanza called a sestet. Until recently, sonnets were expected to follow a rhyming scheme, although the schemes have varied widely over the centuries. The most well-known version of the sonnet’s form and scheme was popularized by William Shakespeare during his career in the late 1500s and early 1600s.
Shakespeare split the octave into two separate four-line stanzas and split the sestet into a single four-line stanza followed by a couplet, a two-line rhyme that usually concludes the point the poet is making with a satisfying climax. Like most poets before Shakespeare, he primarily wrote about love in his sonnets, although he covered topics as disparate as mortality, philosophy, and loneliness. In the modern era, sonnets, like poems of all forms, have strayed from their origins as love poems.
Shakespeare utilized a rhyme scheme of alternating lines in each of the three four-line stanzas, followed by the couplet, which looks like abab cdcd efef gg. William Wordsworth, the poet Laureate of the United Kingdom in the 1840s, favored a scheme of abbaaccb dedeff instead. Modern poets often eschew rhyming entirely in sonnets. It is Shakespeare’s preferred scheme, however, which most people remember when discussing and learning how to write a sonnet.
In the following sonnet, Shakespeare utilizes his preferred rhyming scheme of abab cdcd efef gg and preferred structure of three stanzas of four lines each followed by a couplet which powerfully reveals that the narrator is confronting the man, his friend, with whom he believes his lady love has been unfaithful. This is, in effect, the exact opposite of a love poem, which was a departure from the intent of a sonnet in the original Italian.
Shakespearean Sonnet Examples
Those pretty wrongs that liberty commits
When I am sometime absent from thy heart,
Thy beauty and thy years full well befits,
For still temptation follows where thou art.
Gentle thou art, and therefore to be won,
Beauteous thou art, therefore to be assailed;
And when a woman woos, what woman’s son
Will sourly leave her till she have prevailed?
Ay me, but yet thou mightst my seat forbear,
And chide thy beauty and thy straying youth,
Who lead thee in their riot even there
Where thou art forc’d to break a twofold truth:
Hers by thy beauty tempting her to thee,
Thine by thy beauty being false to me
-Sonnet 41, William Shakespeare
Shakespeare also followed another rule that was popular during his era but far less now. Each line is written in iambic pentameter, meaning that each lines contains exactly ten syllables, every other one accented. Writers in Shakespeare’s era believed that iambic pentameter most closely matched the normal speaking patterns of native English speakers. This allowed the flow of each line of poetry to seem as familiar as possible to both readers and listeners.
Iambic pentameter also de-emphasizes the rhyme at the end of each line, since it falls on one of the regularly accented syllables, therefore giving it no more weight in the line than any of the other accented syllables. In the example below, one of Shakespeare’s most famous sonnets, he collapses several words with apostrophes so they fit within the requisite number of ten syllables per line: the two syllables of owest down one for ow’st, the three syllables of wanderest down to two for wand’rest, and the two syllables of growest down one for grow’st.
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date;
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d,
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d:
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall Death brag thou wand’rest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st.
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
-Sonnet 18, William Shakespeare
Interestingly, in Shakespeare’s time, the words dimmed and untrimmed would have been pronounced with an extra syllable compared to how we pronounce them today. Dimmed, for example, would have been pronounced like “dimm-ed”, so once again, he had to collapse the word down to one syllable with an apostrophe to fit within the iambic pentameter.
How to Write Your Own Sonnet
Should you choose to challenge yourself by writing sonnets, I recommend beginning with yourself. Focus first on what you want to write about and how you want to express it. Start with some free writes to explore the topic of your sonnet, finding metaphors, similes, and other poetic devices to communicate your feelings. Once you have the raw materials of a poem on the topic of your choice, and I recommend free writing more than you think you will need, begin to collect the elements into cohesive lines of poetry. You do not need to follow any particular rhyme scheme or syllabic structure, like iambic pentameter, however, enforcing those limitations on yourself may inspire you to overcome them.
Over the years, sonnets have tended to follow one more structural rule. The octave, or first two four-line stanzas, tend to present the situation in which the narrator finds themselves. The sestet reveals how the narrator feels about the situation, culminating in the emotional climax of the couplet. In your own explorations of the sonnet form, take the time to describe what you are experiencing in the octave before reflecting on how if has affected you in the sestet. While you can fall back on the tradition of sonnets as love poems, feel free to investigate your feelings about a variety of topics. Remember, a sonnet is merely a tool for sharing your feelings and yourself with the world.
Learn more about a different form of poetry, the Haiku, here.