If you’re looking for a classic way to express your love to a romantic prospect, look no further than the sonnet. From Shakespeare to Browning and from Milton to Frost, this rhythmic, singsong poetry form has been helping poets express their innermost feelings and emotions for centuries.
The History of the Sonnet
Derived from the Italian word “sonnetto” or “little song,” a sonnet is a 14-line poem written in iambic pentameter. It expresses a single sentiment or subject matter. While commonly associated with William Shakespeare, the Italian scholar and poet Petrarch actually introduced the sonnet in the 13th century. The reason was to express a common poetic theme: romantic love. Petrarch had a major influence on poet Sir Thomas Wyatt, who brought the Petrarchan sonnet to England in the 16th century. Wyatt gets the credit for translating Petrarch's sonnets into English and later crafted his own.
How to Write a Sonnet About Love
During the Renaissance, Shakespeare adapted the sonnet into his own style, and widened the traditional theme of love to include both romantic and familial love, as well as self-love and infatuation. Throughout the ages, the themes have varied, but the sonnet has remained one of the most enduring forms of English poetry.
If you want to write a sonnet about love, all you have to do is focus on the theme of love. Talk about love and your feelings. In addition, describe the person or object you love by sharing details.
What is the Structure of a Sonnet?
There are two standard types of sonnets: The Petrarchan or Italian sonnet and the Shakespearean or English sonnet. Both have tight, distinct rhyme schemes, which means they each follow a predictable yet distinct syllabic pattern. Sonnets are always 14 lines, so if you read a poem that has 14 lines, the chances are pretty good that it's a sonnet.
The Petrarchan sonnet divides those 14 lines into an eight-line stanza or octave that follows an a-b-b-a a-b-b-a rhyme scheme, plus a six-line stanza than can follow a multitude of rhyme patterns, such as c-d-c-d-c-d or c-d-e-c-d-e. Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s famous Sonnet 43 “How Do I Love Thee?” is a perfect example of a Petrarchan sonnet.
The Shakespearean sonnet, on the other hand, divides the 14 lines into a single stanza of three quatrains and a concluding couplet (2 lines). A Shakespearean sonnet follows a specific rhyme scheme of a-b-a-b c-d-c-d e-f-e-f g-g. Consider, for example, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18, which features the famous, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” opening line.
How to Write a Sonnet
Once you have a grasp on the basic structure of a sonnet, attempting to craft your own isn’t so intimidating.
First, decide which sonnet form you’d prefer to use: Petrarchan or Shakespearean. For this exercise, focus on the Shakespearean sonnet.
Next, decide upon a theme. Again, the traditional topic of a sonnet is romantic love, but you could write about any subject you choose. Whatever topic you select, remember you must focus on a single idea.
Remember that your sonnet must rhyme and include 14 lines. For a Shakespearean sonnet, you’ll need to write three sets of four rhyming lines (quatrains), and one set of two rhyming lines (a couplet). Each quatrain will include end rhyme (a-b-a-b, such as the ending words may-you-day-true) as above), the second quatrain will rhyme (c-d-c-d, as above), and the third quatrain will rhyme (e-f-e-f). Finally, you’ll write a two-line couplet that rhymes (g-g).
Now, you’ll need to focus on your meter. Shakespeare wrote his sonnets in iambic pentameter, which requires 10 syllables per line. The rhythm follows a “heartbeat” pattern: baBOOM/baBOOM/baBOOM/baBOOM/baBOOM. The emphasis is on the second syllable.
After you’ve written your draft, check over it again to make sure that all of your lines fit the pattern. Tweak any words or phrases that throw off the meter or rhyme scheme. Finally, if you’re feeling confident, you can share your finished work with the object of your affection.
Jennifer Brozak earned her state teaching certificate in Secondary English and Communications from St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa., and her bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Pittsburgh. A former high school English teacher, Jennifer enjoys writing articles about parenting and education and has contributed to Reader's Digest, Mamapedia, Shmoop and more.