Exploring Classical Poetry Part 02 – The Sonnet

Sonnets are most often associated with Shakespeare, who popularized the art form, but they were actually first created in Italy over 300 years before the Bard’s birth. There are many forms, from the Italian to the Elizabethan, but most of these differences are in the matter of rhyming patterns.

Before we examine the structure and examples, let’s review some terms.

iamb: a two syllable patterned poetic foot consisting of a soft syllable, followed by a hard one (dee-DUM).  Iambs are used to create iambic meters.

pentameter: a metric line count for poetry that contains five poetic feet. In the case of iambic pentameters, this results in ten syllables.

quatrains: stanzas consisting of four metered lines

triplets: stanzas consisting of three metered lines

couplets: stanzas consisting of two metered lines

patterns: rhyming sequences, looking at the final syllable(s) in each line of poetry, and assigning them a letter value to show matching rhymes.

Sonnet Structure

There are three basic “rules” that make a poem a sonnet, and we will look at these next.

1) METER

The most common meter for writing sonnets is iambic pentameter. Thus, each line consists of five iambs, for a total of ten syllables.

2) LINES

The sonnet is a 14-line poem. There are, again, variations — but for simplicity, we will limit this discussion to a “standard” sonnet of 14 lines.

These are done as either three quatrains and a couplet, or two quatrains and two triplets.

3) PATTERNS

Sonnets are rhyming poems. The final word in each line rhymes with the final word in other(s). There are a great number of rhyming patterns used, but four of them are the most popular.

Lets look at them (with examples):

** Italian Sonnet Scheme (1) **

ABBA, ABBA, CDE, CDE

This is the form used by Milton in his poem On His Blindness (try reading just the last word of each line):

When I consider how my light is spent (a)

Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide, (b)
And that one talent which is death to hide, (b)
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent (a)

To serve therewith my Maker, and present (a)
My true account, lest he returning chide; (b)
“Doth God exact day-labor, light denied?” (b)
I fondly ask; but Patience to prevent (a)

That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need (c)
Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best (d)
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state (e)

Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed (c)
And post o’er land and ocean without rest; (d)
They also serve who only stand and wait.” (e)

** Italian Sonnet Scheme (2) **

ABBA, ABBA, CDC, DCD

This is the form used by  Elizabeth Barret Browning, in her most famous sonnet, How Do I Love Thee (again, try reading just the last words):

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. (a)
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height (b)
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight (b)
For the ends of being and ideal grace. (a)

I love thee to the level of every day’s (a)
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light. (b)
I love thee freely, as men strive for right. (b)
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise. (a)

I love thee with the passion put to use (c)
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith. (d)
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose (c)

With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath, (d)
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose, (c)
I shall but love thee better after death. (d)

** English (Shakespearian) Sonnet Scheme **

ABAB, CDCD, EFEF, GG

This is the most famous style of sonnet, and is exemplified by the Prologue to Shakespeare’s most famous play, Romeo and Juliet:

Two households, both alike in dignity, (a)
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene, (b)
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny, (a)
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean. (b)

From forth the fatal loins of these two foes (c)
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life; (d)
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows (c)
Do with their death bury their parents’ strife. (d)

The fearful passage of their death-mark’d love, (e)
And the continuance of their parents’ rage, (f)
Which, but their children’s end, nought could remove, (e)
Is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage; (f)

The which if you with patient ears attend, (g)
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend. (g)

** Spenserian Sonnet Scheme **

ABAB, BCBC, CDCD, EE

This is a popular, and even more difficult, version of the English sonnet. It requires the creation of tied-in rhymes between quatrains (groups of four lines). Here is an example written by Edmund Spenser himself, Happy Ye Leaves:

Happy ye leaves. When as those lily hands, (a)
Which hold my life in their dead doing might, (b)
Shall handle you, and hold in love’s soft bands, (a)
Like captives trembling at the victor’s sight. (b)

And happy lines on which, with starry light, (b)
Those lamping eyes will deign sometimes to look ,(c)
And read the sorrows of my dying sprite, (b)
Written with tears in heart’s close bleeding book. (c)

And happy rhymes! bathed in the sacred brook (c)
Of Helicon, whence she derived is, (d)
When ye behold that angel’s blessed look, (c)
My soul’s long lacked food, my heaven’s bliss. (d)

Leaves, lines, and rhymes seek her to please alone, (e)
Whom if ye please, I care for other none. (e)

Sonnets are challenging, but they are also beautiful and memorable. If you can discipline yourself to create the metered count, and paint a story in 14 lines of rhymes, you might just become immortal… it worked for the Bard.

Let’s Make One

Writing sonnets is a skill that will require you to concentrate on the flow and rhythm of your writing. The creation of a sonnet is fairly straight forward. The sonnet is usually associated with love poems, or tragedies, but if you are creative, you can make the metered rhymes fit any genre at all. In order to show this, I will show how to build a science fiction tragic sonnet, using the following image as inspiration:

** Note: I will be explaining my own personal process of creating a poem of this type. My methods may or may not work for you, but you are welcome to try them out and use any parts that work for you.


1) Subject and Mood Selection.

I am going to create this poem from a sad robot’s point of view. He has just met some

small aliens, and discovered they are fragile. We will call this sonnet The Robot’s Lament.

2) Pattern Selection.

Because I like to challenge myself, I will use the Spenserian Sonnet framework to build on. This pattern, as shown above, is ABAB-BCBC-CDCD-EE, therefore we will need some rhymes:  two “A”’s, four “B”’s, four “C”’s, two “D”’s, and two “E”’s.

3) Rhyme Selections

Keeping in mind that we are going to be creating this poem in iambic pentameter, each of my rhymes will be an iamb (two syllables, soft-HARD). These may be either one or two words, as long as the final pair of syllables in each one is iambic.

Here are the iambic rhymes I have chosen, based on the images they bring to mind, and the mood and texture they make me feel. These may not do it for you, but that is one of the joys of poetry – you feel it yourself as you create it.  ** (parenthesized syllables will be part of the preceding iamb).

Two “A”’s  –  (cen)tury,  (pa)tiently

Four “B”’s  –  (tak)en flight,  (star)ry night,  (flash)ing lights,  in fright

Four “C”’s  –  alone,  unknown,  atone,  (flesh) and bone

Two “D”’s  –  my hand,  (un)derstand

Two “E”’s  –  was wrong,  too strong

These will give me a base to build on, although some may be changed as the lines form the image I am creating – you shouldn’t be afraid to make substitutions as the work comes together. Just be sure to find substitutions that maintain the iambic rhyming pattern.

4) A Framework

Let’s plug the words into an iambic pentameter frame, at the end of the appropriate lines. We will use the following symbols to separate and represent the iambic feet.

–    soft syllable

#   hard syllable

|    iamb separator

Here is what my resulting framework looks like:

(a)   – # | – # | – # | –  cen | tury

(b)   – # | – # | – # | –  tak | en flight

(a)   – # | – # | – # | –  pa | tiently

(b)   – # | – # | – # | –  star | ry night


(b)   – # | – # | – # | –  flash | ing lights

(c)   – # | – # | – # | –  # | alone

(b)   – # | – # | – # | –  # | in fright

(c)   – # | – # | – # | –  # | unknown


(c)   – # | – # | – # | –  # | atone

(d)   – # | – # | – # | –  un | derstand

(c)   – # | – # | – # | –  flesh | and bone

(d)   – # | – # | – # | –  # | my hand


(e)   – # | – # | – # | –  # | too strong

(e)   – # | – # | – # | –  # | was wrong


Now that we have a framework to build on, it is time for you to release your inner poet.

Using whatever method works best for you, you need to build iambs to complete your lines. I personally tap out the iambic pattern, with a soft finger tap for the first syllable, and a hard one for the second, and thus maintain the cadence of the line.

I filled in my first line (with bold underlines to show the hard syllables) like this:


I’d
waited here more than a century,


The Result


Here’s the way my sonnet came out. It’s not Shakespeare, but it does have the lyrical flow that is part and parcel of iambic pentameter poetry, especially the sonnet.


The Robot’s Lament

I’d waited here more than a century,
after the ancient Lords had taken flight.
While keeping quiet vigil, patiently
I’ve  stood here through bright days and starry nights.

The creature came, its ship awash with lights.
So small it was, and to me, quite unknown;
although it had regarded me with fright,
at last it seemed I would not be alone!

Then I did err, for which I can’t atone –
in my great haste, I failed to understand
this alien was made of flesh and bone.
I picked it up, and held it in my hand,

I found my probing finger was too strong
and now my bloodstained hand proves I was wrong.

© 2016 – dustygrein

grein-dusty
dusty@rhetoricaskew.com

I hope you have enjoyed exploring sonnets with me. Next time we will take a look at one of my favorite poems, The Raven, by Edgar Allan Poe. Until then … Write On!

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