To Be a Sonneteer

by Tanner Tait

Was it the proud full sail of his great verse,
Bound for the prize of all too precious you,
That did my ripe thoughts in my brain inhearse,
Making their tomb the womb wherein they grew?
Was it his spirit, by spirits taught to write
Above a mortal pitch, that struck me dead?
No, neither he, nor his compeers by night
Giving him aid, my verse astonished.
He, nor that affable familiar ghost
Which nightly gulls him with intelligence,
As victors of my silence cannot boast;
I was not sick of any fear from thence:
But when your countenance filled up his line,
Then lacked I matter; that enfeebled mine.
– William Shakespeare

Almost everyone has heard of Shakespeare in one way or another, whether it is a result of having read Romeo & Juliet in high school, through the etymology of Shakespearean words such as “bloodstained” and “swagger”, or from watching a blonde Mel Gibson prance around in Hamlet. One particularly important component of Shakespeare’s renown comes from his sonnets.
Ah, sonnets – I knew them well. They are a common form of poetry that typically relate to love, and they are much easier to write than they are given credit. Listed above is an example of a Shakespearean sonnet, a simple template that may be used by all future poets. Before diving into the art of writing a sonnet, a few guidelines must first be established:

1. Sonnets are written in iambic pentameter
2. Sonnets are fourteen lines long.
3. Sonnets have a volta that establishes a turn in ideas.
4. Sonnets have a set rhyme scheme.

Now, it is important to note that there are, of course, deviations in the realm of poetry. Some poets play around with the syntax and form of sonnets – adding in extra syllables, spanning additional lines, inventing new rhyme schemes or even lacking rhyme in general. These are merely guidelines that most sonnets follow, but it is important to keep in mind that irregularities are common – and encouraged!

Iambic pentameter is in direct reference to the rhythm. Specifically, an “iamb” means two syllables, and the first syllable is un-stressed while the second syllable is emphasized. One can hear this when saying words such as within, among, explain, and beseech. By analyzing the poem listed above, one can see the usage of iambic pentameter in Shakespeare’s sonnet.

was IT the PROUD full SAIL of HIS great VERSE

It is also important to note the Shakespeare uses 10 syllables per line, though this is not true to every sonnet (remember the deviations). The opposite of an iamb is a trochee, which is a word where the stressed symbol precedes the unstressed syllable, such as in words like comet or iamb (Sonnet Writers, “How To Write A Sonnet.”).


    Sonnets are typically fourteen lines long, yielding three quatrains (four lined groups) and one couplet (a two lined group) (Mabillard, “Shakespearean Sonnet Basics: Iambic Pentameter and the English Sonnet Style.” ). Another common format is to have an octet (an eight lined group), a quatrain, and a couplet. These octets, quatrains, and couplets usually have set ideas that shift and then turn. The turn in these sonnets is referred to as a “volta”. It represents a shift in ideas, typically signaled by the word “but” – though this is not always the case. It can also come about after a series of questions are asked; when an answer is provided, this is usually the volta. In line 7 of the listed poem, the volta begins, as it provides the answer to the previous questions: no. In most sonnets, the volta is found in line 9, but it is not unorthodox for the volta to change places.
    Finally, a sonnet must have a specific rhyme scheme. A possible way of identifying the quatrains and octets, aside from their unifying ideas, is by the rhyme scheme at hand. For a typical sonnet, the rhyme scheme would go as follows:
     The letters here represent the rhyming words at the end of each line. Using our example, one can see the pattern:
verse/you/inhearse/grew                      ABAB
write/dead/night/astonished              CDCD
ghost/intelligence/boast/thence        EFEF
line/mine                                                    GG
     Poets can experiment with other schemes as well. Other potential schemes could be AABB-CCDD-EEFF-GG or even ABBA-CDDC-EFFE-GG. A simple form would be AAAAAAAAAAAAAA, where every line rhymes.
You may have noticed that two particular words in the above poem did not really rhyme, dead and astonished. This is a form of slant rhyme, as they can rhyme somewhat with a specific usage of emphasis and inflection, though they are not exact. With the same token, there are sonnets that do not rhyme at all, called blank verse (which is still a set rhyme scheme). This is just another example of the potential deviations from traditional sonnets, showing how flexible a sonnet really can be!

With practice and heart, a sonnet can be written with ease. They are typically used in love poetry, with appeals to greater inspirations such as Petrarch or Ovid, though they do not always have to be about a specific person. The unifying theme of sonnets everywhere is that they are poetry – and poetry comes from the heart. Take it from Astrophil & Stella:

Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite–
“Fool,” said my Muse to me, “look in thy heart and write.”
Works Cited
“How To Write A Sonnet.” Sonnet Writers. N.p., 31 Mar. 2008. Web. 23 Sept. 2015.
Mabillard, Amanda. “Shakespearean Sonnet Basics: Iambic Pentameter and the English
Sonnet Style.” Shakespearean Sonnet Basics: Iambic Pentameter and the English Sonnet Style. N.p., 1999. Web. 23 Sept. 2015.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s