While writing a love sonnet may seem a little complicated at first, once you understand the basic structure and rules for sonnets, you will be ready to write your first sonnet. Here is a quick overview of love sonnets, Love Sonnets 101, if you will, that will help you get on the right track to writing a great sonnet for your loved one.
The love sonnet, first written in Italy, has been around since the early thirteenth century. However, it wasn’t until it made its way to England in the sixteenth century, where William Shakespeare made the form especially popular. For centuries, poets have used the sonnet to convey a variety of ideas, philosophies and feelings; however, without a doubt, one of the most popular subjects of sonnets was love. Today, the love sonnet is regarded as possibly the most romantic form of poetry written.
Like anything new, in order to best understand a sonnet, it is a good idea to look at one as a point of reference. This is Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18, one of his most famous:
“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 owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest;
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.”
Using this sonnet as a reference in our crash course in sonnet writing, Love Sonnets 101, let’s dissect each line in order to get a better understanding of the basics of the sonnet: form, rhyme and rhythm.
The English, or Shakespearean, sonnet is made up of two sections. The first section is made up of three quatrains, or four-line stanzas, or groups of lines in poetry. The second section is a rhyming couplet, or two-line stanza.
Usually, the first section presents the theme of the sonnet while the second section concludes the theme. In Sonnet 18, above, the woman’s beauty, how that beauty won’t fade and Shakespeare’s various comparisons encompass the general thought that is the first section. The second section sums up the idea that her beauty will last forever.
Rhyme is the next basic in the sonnet form. The English sonnet follows a particular rhyme scheme with the first section following an a-b-a-b-c-d-c-d-e-f-e-f pattern. The letters represent the last word of a line that rhymes with another. For example, the first line of Sonnet 18 ends with “day” and the third line ends with “may”; the first and third lines of the sonnet are “a” lines. The second section follows a g-g rhyme scheme, in Sonnet 18, the lines end with “see” and “thee”. The rhyme scheme is part of what sets the sonnet apart from every other form of poetry. Some poets today don’t follow the rhyme scheme; this is known as free verse. That said, if rhyming is difficult or forced for you, skip it and write in free verse instead.
Rhythm, or meter, is the last basic of the sonnet. This part can be somewhat difficult at first, but, with a little practice, you can do it. The English sonnet is usually written in iambic pentameter. In a sonnet, there are ten syllables, or five feet. A foot in poetry is two iambs, or two syllables: one stressed, one unstressed.
Using a line from Sonnet 18, the meter of the poem can be illustrated by capitalizing and underlining the stressed part of each syllable, noting that every other syllable should be stressed: “Shall I comPARE thee TO a SUMmer’s DAY?” When you say the lines aloud, you’ll get a better feel for which syllables are stressed and which are not. Again, writing in iambic pentameter is a little tricky and may take some time to get used to doing, but writing with such a rhythm gives your sonnet a musical quality that is enjoyable to read.
The love sonnet is a fantastic gift for your loved one for Valentine’s Day, a birthday or anniversary. With a little work and some creativity, you will be able to write a sonnet your sweetheart will truly treasure.