How to Write a Sonnet (+5 Examples)

Posted on Sep 25, 2022

Poets have invented and experimented with formats and structure for thousands of years, giving us many rules to follow or break as we please. Limericks, free-verse, narrative, haikus, epics, rhymes, blanks–there are many types of poem, and each have their own standards. The fun comes after a poet learns the basics, and they have enough practice following the rules that they get to break them intentionally.

One type of structured poem is the sonnet. In this article, we’ll cover the rules of the sonnet, the standard formats, and learn how to write a sonnet. Then, we’ll look at poets who broke those rules. Ready? Go!

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What is a sonnet?

A sonnet is a poem that uses these elements: one stanza, fourteen lines, iambic pentameter, a set rhyme scheme. We’ll get into more details about this structure later on.

“Sonnet” comes from the Italian word “sonetto,” which translates to “a little sound or song.”

There are many variations from the original Italian sonnet, and each has its own rules. You can typically tell them apart by their rhyme scheme, but poets take fresh spins on the sonnet format all the time, bringing it further away from its original format.

Types of sonnets

The sonnet format that people are most familiar with is the Shakespearean sonnet, also known as the English or Elizabethan sonnet. But there are a few others as well. This is a list of some of the most famous formats, but it is nowhere near a complete list of every version of the sonnet.

Shakespearean (English, Elizabethan) Sonnet

The Shakespearean sonnet came into popularity in the mid-1500s, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Shakespeare didn’t invent the sonnet, but he was one of the most famous writers who used them, which is why it is sometimes called the Shakespearean sonnet.

The main differentiation between the Shakespearean and the Italian sonnet is the rhyme scheme. Shakespearean uses ABAB CDCD EFEF GG, where the Italian sonnet uses ABBA ABBA, then either CDC CDC or CDE CDE.

Italian (or Petrarchan) Sonnet

Though the Shakespearean sonnet is the most popular in the English language, the Italian sonnet was actually created first. It uses a combination of eight lines broken into two quatrains, rather than fourteen lines broken into four quatrains. 

Spenserian Sonnet

Named for the English poet, Edmund Spenser, the Spenserian sonnet differentiates itself, again, by its rhyme scheme of ABAB BCBC CDCD EE. This scheme drags the rhyme through the sonnet, giving a tighter feel throughout the piece, rather than the rhymes standing on their own like they seem to do with the Shakespearean and Italian sonnets.

Miltonic Sonnet

The Miltonic sonnet was created by John Milton, who took a new twist on the Italian sonnet. His form varies, and the content of his poems was more centered on introspection and his own interior thoughts.

Modern Sonnet

There are many versions of sonnets that exist today, and poets often take their own turns on the classic versions, mixing up the rhyme schemes, lines, and stanzas.

How to write a sonnet poem

Sonnets can often be an easy form for new poets to learn, because it has such a strict format. Some writers find it harder to stay within rhyme schemes and structures, but it can often be helpful to have a template to practice with.

What is the basic structure of a sonnet?

There are several elements of a sonnet to keep in mind when you’re planning and drafting. Here are some concepts and terms that might be helpful to know.

Lines: Sonnets will have fourteen lines, broken into four sections referred to as quatrains.

Rhymes: The rhyme scheme for a Shakespearean sonnet is: ABAB, CDCD, EFEF, GG. The four distinct sections of the rhyme scheme are where we know that the poem is broken into quatrains.

Meter: Sonnets are also written in iambic pentameter, which is a poetic meter of 10 beats per line, alternating stressed and unstressed syllables.

Volta: A volta refers to the turn in a sonnet. It’s the line or moment where the poet shifts their topic. This is often where the poet will answer the question they posed earlier in the piece.

Sestet: The last six lines of a sonnet.

How many lines are in a sonnet?

A standard sonnet will have fourteen lines. But some poets may experiment by tweaking the usual format to create something new, and that rocks.  

How do you start a sonnet?

There are no right or wrong ways to start (or finish) a poem, but here are a few ways you might begin writing a sonnet.

Ask a question.

A popular Shakespeare line is “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” This question presents a thesis of sorts, which is explored in the rest of the sonnet. Opening with a question can give you a clear focus and make the writing of the rest of the sonnet much easier.

Make a comparison.

As you’ll see in the example sonnets below, many of them employ the use of metaphors. Metaphors are a great way to establish a theme that’s easy to write with.

Worry about the rhymes later.

Some poets can give themselves a writing block by trying to draft a sonnet fully formatted with a proper rhyme scheme. That’s so hard to do! It’s often easier and quicker to draft your ideas, then edit the poem to fit your desired format with the proper lines and rhymes.

Examples of sonnets

Here are examples for each of the sonnet types mentioned above. You’ll notice most of the traditional sonnets read like letters of admiration. In the same way that haikus traditionally reflect upon nature, sonnets were typically used for expressing love and appreciation for someone else. And just like haikus, it’s also typical to deviate from that intent.

This is a well-known Shakespearean sonnet called “My Mistress’ Eyes Are Nothing Like The Sun”:

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;

Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;

If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;

If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.

I have seen roses damasked, red and white,

But no such roses see I in her cheeks;

And in some perfumes is there more delight

Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.

I love to hear her speak, yet well I know

That music hath a far more pleasing sound;

I grant I never saw a goddess go;

My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground.

And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare

As any she belied with false compare.

William Shakespeare

Shakespeare’s volta in this piece happens in the ending couplet. He spends the sonnet speaking about all of the ways in which his love isn’t beautiful by the standard romanticization in literature at the time, then at the end, he wraps it up with the sentiment “she’s hot in the neat and important ways,” which is “the point” of the sonnet.

Here’s an example of an Italian sonnet by Elizabeth Barrett called How Do I Love Thee?

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

I love thee to the depth and breadth and height

My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight

For the ends of being and ideal grace.

I love thee to the level of every day’s

Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.

I love thee freely, as men strive for right.

I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.

I love thee with the passion put to use

In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.

I love thee with a love I seemed to lose

With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,

Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,

I shall but love thee better after death.

Elizabeth Barrett

You can see the difference in the rhyme scheme between a Shakespearean and Italian sonnet, but the volta appears in the sestet, as the poet reaches back into the past to give even grander comparisons about how much she loves the subject of the sonnet.

Spencerian Sonnet by Edmund Spenser from Amoretti “Sonnet 75”

One day I wrote her name upon the strand,

But came the waves and washed it away:

Again I write it with a second hand,

But came the tide, and made my pains his prey.

Vain man, said she, that doest in vain assay,

A mortal thing so to immortalize,

For I myself shall like to this decay,

And eek my name be wiped out likewise.

Not so, (quod I) let baser things devise

To die in dust, but you shall live by fame:

My verse, your virtues rare shall eternize,

And in the heavens write your glorious name.

Where whenas death shall all the world subdue,

Our love shall live, and later life renew.

Edmund Spenser

As we discussed earlier, the Spencerian sonnet rhyme scheme drags the rhymes through the sonnet, creating a flowing effect and a feeling of connection through the piece. Does this rhyme scheme make you read it differently?

As an example of a Miltonic sonnet, let’s look at John Milton’s “When I Consider How My Light Is Spent”:

Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,

And that one talent which is death to hide

Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent

To serve therewith my Maker, and present

My true account, lest He returning chide;

“Doth God exact day-labor, light denied?”

I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent

That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need

Either man’s work or His own gifts. Who best

Bear His mild yoke, they serve Him best. His state

Is kingly: thousands at His bidding speed,

And post o’er land and ocean without rest;

They also serve who only stand and wait.

John Milton

With the previous examples, the subject of the poems was someone other than the poet themself. It is pretty standard for sonnets to take the form of love letters or pieces of admiration. One of the things that makes John Milton’s sonnets different is that they often reflect his own thoughts, observations, and convictions.

Here is a parody sonnet from Billy Collins, “Sonnet” (modern):

All we need is fourteen lines, well, thirteen now,

and after this next one just a dozen

to launch a little ship on love’s storm-tossed seas,

then only ten more left like rows of beans.

How easily it goes unless you get Elizabethan

and insist the iambic bongos must be played

and rhymes positioned at the ends of lines,

one for every station of the cross.

But hang on here while we make the turn

into the final six where all will be resolved,

where longing and heartache will find an end,

where Laura will tell Petrarch to put down his pen,

take off those crazy medieval tights,

blow out the lights, and come at last to bed.

Billy Collins

This sonnet is a meta piece about sonnets! Collins describes the rules and forms of sonnets, in sonnet form. It’s fun, and reading it might help you understand sonnets a little better.

That’s a Wrap

Sonnets have basic rules, but poets have been playing around with the format and standards since the sonnet’s invention. Now that you’ve seen some popular examples, what special spin will you take on yours?

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Hannah Lee Kidder

Hannah Lee Kidder is a contemporary and fantasy author, writing coach, and YouTuber. She has published two bestselling short story collections, Little Birds and Starlight. Hannah is currently minding her own business, streaming a variety of writing and life content on Twitch, somewhere in the Colorado mountains with her roommate, Saya, who is a dog.

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