How to Write a Sonnet: Tips and Examples from Famous Sonneteers


When it comes to traditional poetic forms, few are as well-known and beloved as the sonnet. Originating in 13th century Italy and popularized by renowned writers such as William Shakespeare, John Milton, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the sonnet has stood the test of time as a versatile and timeless form of expression. If you’ve ever wanted to try your hand at writing a sonnet but find the task daunting, fear not! Here are some tips and examples from famous sonneteers to guide you on your poetic journey.

First and foremost, let’s define what exactly a sonnet is. A sonnet is a fourteen-line poem with a strict rhyme scheme and meter. The traditional form of a sonnet is called the “English” or “Shakespearean” sonnet, which consists of three quatrains (four-line stanzas) and a final couplet (two-line stanza) with a rhyme scheme of abab cdcd efef gg. While this may seem intimidating at first, the structure of a sonnet can actually provide a helpful framework for your thoughts and ideas.

Now, onto the tips. The first thing to keep in mind when writing a sonnet is to choose a theme or subject that you are passionate about. The sonnet form is best suited for expressing intense emotions, whether they be love, loss, or longing. As Shakespeare himself said, “The sonnet’s power comes from being small, yet all-consuming.”

Next, focus on the form. The traditional meter for a sonnet is iambic pentameter, which means each line has ten syllables, with the emphasis falling on every second syllable. This gives the sonnet a rhythmic and musical quality, making it a pleasure to read aloud. Practice writing in this meter to get a feel for its flow and how it can enhance your sonnet’s message.

Another helpful tip is to use vivid and specific imagery in your sonnet. The sonnet is a compact form, so every word counts. Make every line count by using strong and evocative language. This will not only make your sonnet more impactful but also showcase your poetic prowess.

Now, let’s look at some examples from famous sonneteers. One of the most iconic sonnets is Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 18” which begins with the famous line, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” This poem uses extended metaphors to compare a beautiful woman to the timeless beauty of summer.

Another well-known sonnet is John Milton’s “When I Consider How My Light is Spent.” In this sonnet, Milton grapples with his own blindness and the fear of not being able to fulfill his purpose in life. It is a poignant and introspective piece that showcases the sonnet’s ability to convey deep and complex emotions in a concise form.

For a contemporary take on the sonnet, look no further than Elizabeth Alexander’s “Ars Poetica #100: I Believe.” This sonnet breaks away from the traditional rhyme scheme but still follows the fourteen-line format. It tackles the complex themes of identity and personal belief, showing that the sonnet form is not limited to one era or style.

In conclusion, writing a sonnet may seem like a daunting task, but with a clear understanding of the form and some guidance from famous sonneteers, you too can master this classic poetic form. Remember to choose a theme you are passionate about, focus on the form and meter, and use vibrant imagery to make your sonnet stand out. And most importantly, don’t be afraid to let your emotions shine through in your writing. Happy sonneteering!