William Shakespeare’s works continue to leave an impact on the literary world after four centuries. Looking at Hollywood alone, you’ll see his plays being retold in film after film — “The Lion King” was inspired by Hamlet, and “10 Things I Hate About You” retells The Taming of the Shrew. When discussing poetry, it would be criminal to not mention Shakespeare’s influence, especially when it comes to the sonnet.
There are three main kinds of sonnet, each with 14 rhyming lines, and usually with an iambic meter. An iamb is a two-syllable foot consisting of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one. The Petrarchan Sonnet features an octave and a sestet, with a rhyme scheme of ABBA ABBA CDE CDE (or CDC CDC). The Shakespearean Sonnet, (also referred to the Elizabethan Sonnet) might be the most famous of the three, with four quatrains and a couplet following a rhyme scheme of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. The Spenserian Sonnet keeps the basic structure of the Shakespearean, modifying only the rhyme scheme: ABAB BCBC CDCD EE.
We’ll be focusing on the Shakespearean format for it’s recognizability and easier rhyme scheme. In his time, Shakespeare cranked out 154 sonnets — no simple task when you’re also writing 37 full length plays by hand and candlelight. Many of the sonnets carry romantic themes, and may have been written for a young bachelor, leading to speculation that the Bard was gay or bisexual.
Sonnet 18, or “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”, is one such poem. Breaking down this poem, we can find what makes a good sonnet.
First and foremost, there’s the structure. Sonnet 18 a classic sonnet, following the ABAB CDCD EFEF GG rhyme scheme. The primary rhythmic structure is iambic pentameter — five feet of iambs, totalling 10 syllables per line.
Using iambic pentameter creates a rhythm reminiscent of a heart beat or a gallop. In fact, people have a tendency to speak iambically. Falling into this rhythm guides your reader along. As always, you can break this pattern for emphasis or to draw attention to an idea. In Sonnet 18, the third line starts with two stressed syllables in a row, punctuating the imagery of “rough winds”.
The first line of the poem contains a hook. Shakespeare poses a question — “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day” — which lets the reader know exactly what the poem is about. The following imagery ties back directly to this first line. It seems like a simple trick, but it’s an effective one: use your first line to immediately draw your reader in and tell them what you plan to discuss in your poem.
The ending couplet reiterates the main idea, but you can also use these lines to create a “turn”. A turn is like a plot twist; it’s a final idea that alters the previous meaning of the poem. Whatever your final idea is, it’s sure to be what leaves a lasting impression on your reader.
Once you’re comfortable and familiar with the format of a sonnet, you can experiment with lines and syllabic structure. A sudden fracture of the rhyme scheme manifests discordant emotional states, an added or removed syllable disrupts any sense of security, and so on. But you need to know the rules before you can break the rules.
The sonnet is a form as ubiquitous as the haiku and the limerick. Practicing sonnet writing will improve your poetry and ability to maintain meters and feet. The more you work on them, the better you’ll become.
is a writer based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Graduating in May 2020 with a degree in English Literature with a Writing Emphasis, Ian writes comics, poetry, and scripts. He is currently an intern for The Brain Health Magazine and aims to work in the comic publishing industry. In his spare time, Ian plays Dungeons & Dragons, board games, and bass guitar.