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How to Write an English Sonnet Like Shakespeare

Katharine writes both modern and traditional poetry, and has two books of poetry in print.

William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare

What Is a sonnet?

The English sonnet (also known as the Shakespearean or Elizabethan sonnet) is one of the most well-known forms in the history of English language poetry. The word "sonnet" comes from the Italian word meaning "little song," and sonnets were indeed first written in Italy.

Shakespeare is the most famous sonnet writer in English, not because he was the first to write sonnets in English (that was the poet Thomas Wyatt at the start of the 16th century), but because he was the most prolific and influential English-speaking sonneteer of all time. He wrote more than 150 sonnets, and many poets followed his form, which is a poem of 14 lines (including three quatrains or verses of four lines) with a volta, an ending (final) couplet and a specific rhyme scheme and meter.


Before You Write Your Sonnet

To write an English sonnet, you first need to know how to write in iambic pentameter. Iambic rhythm is essential for a sonnet. If you don't use it, you may come up with a nice poem, but it's not a sonnet. Once you've mastered iambic pentameter, you can start your English sonnet.

You want to come up with a topic that will lend itself well to incorporating a volta. A volta usually occurs at line 9 of an English sonnet, or the first line of the third quatrain or verse. It is defined as a point in the poem where the focus of your poem makes a shift or turn, which is what "volta" means. Nature, for example, is a good topic, because for your volta you could change from writing about nature to writing about human nature and how it relates to nature.

Before you begin to write, this video will review the elements of a sonnet that we have introduced.

Let's Discover the Elements of a Sonnet

Classic vs. Modern Sonnets

Most presentations about how to write a sonnet give you examples from Shakespeare or John Milton or other classic sonnet writers, and of course, they are the best examples! However, many people have a hard time understanding Shakespeare or the antiquated English used by some of the great sonnet writers, so here we will use some modern sonnets as examples. A modern sonnet can be just as breathtaking as the classic style and without all the "thees" and "thous"!

The following examples include a break-down that explains how the elements of the sonnet fit together.

how-to-write-english-shakespearean-elizabethan-sonnet

Example of an English Sonnet

Sitting in a Garden
by Katharine L Sparrow

A garden bench, adorned with climbing vine
of honeysuckle blossoms, scenting air-
the sheen of dew and slant of sun combine
to lend enchantment to my resting there.

My eyes take in the gentle hues of spring,
where lilacs bloom and green of leaf and stem
dress marigolds and tulips, flowering-
I sit alone, with thoughts surrounding them.

My musings wish to stay amidst the bloom
of springtime, washed in water colored light,
and not to tarry far where seeds of gloom
return the chill of winter's bleakest night.

I savor morning's fragrance, splashed with dew,
and hear the garden's hush make all things new.

Notice that the first four lines (the first quatrain) are a description of the garden bench and the nature surrounding it. The second quatrain continues on a nature theme, describing the colors of spring that the subject sees. Then, at line 9 (start of the third quatrain), the theme changes by starting out saying "my musings wish to stay amidst the bloom." So the focus has switched from nature to human thoughts

You'll see more about the volta later.

Let's Begin to Write a Sonnet

Once you've chosen a topic, you can start your poem. Your rhyme scheme is going to be abab, cdcd, efef, gg. The first and third lines of each 4 line quatrain rhyme and the second and fourth lines of each quatrain rhyme—then the last two lines, called a couplet, rhyme with each other. If you're not good at coming up with rhyming words, I'd recommend pulling up rhymzone.com and referring to that as you work. It can be helpful in suggesting possible rhyming words you can use. For example, if you wrote your first two lines in the poem above, you could then put "vine" and "air" into the rhymezone search box to get a list of words and groups of words that rhyme with each. Sometimes you will spot a rhyme that fits nicely into where you want your poem to go. If not, try rephrasing your line to end on a different rhyme and then search again for matching rhymes.

Remember, your first two quatrains of 4 lines each will be on the same or similar theme, then you'll want to add a turn at the third verse. Typically this happens at line 9, but as you see in the example above, line 8 "I sit alone with thoughts surrounding them" foreshadows the change that is to come in the next verse, and that's fine. Other times it may happen that your volta falls on line 10, but it should be right around lines 8, 9, or 10.

Another Example of an English Sonnet

Here is another example of an English sonnet with a volta that is a bit more subtle:

The Genius of Mozart
by Katharine L Sparrow

From where did Mozart draw his melodies?
What chortling fountain splashed for him a tune?
Were soft notes borne aloft on summer's breeze,
while loving Stanzi, of an afternoon?

For surely something jangled through his world-
a constant stream of sound that he could hear.
And all about him, peals of wind chimes swirled,
arranging sweet refrains in Mozart's ear.

One wonders if the world still holds his gift
on outstretched palm for each of us to take-
if near around us, strains of music drift,
for each a different melody to make.

Perhaps the genius lay in Mozart's will
to hear the song, when all for us is still.

As you see, the first two quatrains of 4 lines pose the question as to how Mozart came up with his beautiful melodies. The third quatrain begins on line 9 with "One wonders if the world still holds his gift"—no longer talking about where he came up with the music, but shifting to another concept; Mozart's talent as an example of a gift that we each have. Notice too that the final couplet (the two rhyming lines) makes a final statement that ties the poem together. It is the "point" of the whole poem in two rhyming lines. You want to make your final couplet has an impact - gives the reader the meaning of your poem. Sometimes the final couplet can illuminate the meaning of the poem in a new and unexpected way, like a "twist" ending.

Now, you can certainly write an English sonnet without a volta, and I have written many. But if you want to be true to the form, there should be a volta. Your ending couplet should always make the point of your poem. Look back to the first example. You see that the final couplet encapsulates the whole of the experience of sitting in the garden that was described in the three previous verses:

I savor morning's fragrance, splashed with dew,
and hear the garden's hush make all things new.

More Tips for Writing a Sonnet

You could also vary the meter somewhat. Some poets wrote sonnets in iambic hexameter (12 syllables per line, instead of 10) and there are even a few written in iambic tetrameter (8 syllables per line). However, the classic English sonnet was written in iambic pentameter, so you should first familiarize yourself with that meter before trying a variation.

I have separated the three verses of each sonnet and the final couplet here for purposes of illustration, but you do not have to space them like that. Many sonnets are written with all verses together, and just the final couplet spaced apart. Others have a space before the volta and the ending couplet not separated. It is up to you and may depend on the meaning you wish to emphasise in your sonnet.

Finally, don't forget to use imagery and metaphor in your sonnet. You should try to create vivid images in the mind of your reader with descriptive words, especially using the five senses (imagery) and use metaphor (describing one thing as something else) to make your sonnet engaging and interesting. For example, see the imagery in the first poem, "the sheen of dew and slanting sun" brings a strong image to the reader's mind. In the second poem, "what chortling fountain splashed for him a tune" makes the reader see and hear the splashing fountain.

It will take some practice to learn to write an English sonnet but refer back to these tips as you go along, and you'll soon be composing a sonnet that would make Shakespeare proud!!

Now, take the quiz and see if you are ready to write your first sonnet!

Are You Ready to Write Your Own English Sonnet?

For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.

  1. How many lines are there in an English sonnet?
    • 12 - four quatrains
    • 14 - four quatrains and a final couplet
    • 20 - three quatrains, a sestet, and a final couplet
  2. What is the rhyme scheme of lines one through four of an English sonnet?
    • AABB
    • ABAB
    • ABCD
  3. What is the meter or rhythm of the English sonnet called?
    • pentamic iameter
    • trochaic hexameter
    • iambic pentameter
  4. What is the volta in an English sonnet?
    • a turning point in direction or thought
    • a quatrain in iambic pentameter
    • two rhymed lines at the end of the sonnet
  5. What are the three four-line verses or stanzas of a sonnet called?
    • quatrian
    • quartet
    • quadrant
  6. What are the final two lines of the sonnet called?
    • a twist ending
    • a rhyming pair
    • a final couplet
  7. Where does the volta most often occur in an English sonnet?
    • at line fourteen
    • at line five
    • at line nine
  8. Which additional poetic devices should you include when writing your sonnet?
    • flowery vocabulary
    • the words "thee" and "thou"
    • imagery and metaphor

Answer Key

  1. 14 - four quatrains and a final couplet
  2. ABAB
  3. iambic pentameter
  4. a turning point in direction or thought
  5. quatrian
  6. a final couplet
  7. at line fourteen
  8. imagery and metaphor

Interpreting Your Score

If you got between 0 and 2 correct answers: Poor. Oh dear, did the article really make you fall asleep?

If you got between 3 and 4 correct answers: Fair. Start from the beginning of the article and pay attention this time!

If you got between 5 and 6 correct answers: Good. You're on the right track, review the article and take notes!

If you got 7 correct answers: Very good. just review the article once more before you begin.

If you got 8 correct answers: Excellent. Write on, Shakespeare! You're ready to create a masterpiece!

A Gorgeous Collection of Sonnets to Read

© 2012 Katharine L Sparrow

Comments Appreciated!

Katharine L Sparrow (author) from Massachusetts, USA on August 12, 2018:

Jean, what a beautiful sign of appreciation and love that he kept your poems! Sonnets do have the capacity for deeply meaningful messages. Thanks for reading and commenting!

Jean Bakula from New Jersey on July 27, 2018:

Thanks for reminding me of the first sonnet I ever wrote. I was working on a poem for my then BF for a Valentine's Day gift. I got stuck and my friend's husband was an English teacher. He told me what I was attempting to write was a sonnet.

We were married for 39 years and he passed on a few years ago. As I went through this personal belongings, I was stunned to find he saved all the poems and sonnets I wrote him over the years--it became a tradition for me. He was so sweet and romantic, and I still like to write personal notes in my cards to people I am close with, although his were very special.

Evan Smiley on January 08, 2014:

Awesome hub! I just wrote one the other day on the same topic! Great information!

kathryn1000 from London on December 05, 2012:

That is a very good explanation.Thank you

Brian Scott from United States on November 12, 2012:

Learned something new today from your Hub--and which I never learned in English class. I never know the English sonnet is also referred to as the Shakespearean or Elizabethan sonnet. Interesting, and thanks!

IntegrityYes on September 08, 2012:

I definitely voted up.

Katharine L Sparrow (author) from Massachusetts, USA on May 20, 2012:

Interesting, MHatter99, is there a name for that? Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

Martin Kloess from San Francisco on May 20, 2012:

i write a variety of sonnet forms including: ABBA BAAB CD CD CD.

Katharine L Sparrow (author) from Massachusetts, USA on May 19, 2012:

True, aviannovice, Shakespeare's work is timeless! Thanks so much for reading and commenting!

Deb Hirt from Stillwater, OK on May 19, 2012:

Shakespeare is my favorite writer, for his words are even true today. Now, many many can we say are that good and timeless?

Katharine L Sparrow (author) from Massachusetts, USA on May 19, 2012:

Yes, let me know how you do! Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

Tim Mitchell from Escondido, CA on May 19, 2012:

thank you for this sparrow. I may give this try tonight after getting home later. I experienced something yesterday that chimes in with the dandelion article of Movie Master. I hope your tutilidge (sp), that experience, and Leslie photos will help an ill friend perk up a bit. We'll see. I'll let you know.

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