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Passions in Poetry

Digital Passions
Poetry Magazine

Digital Passions #5
published September 10, 2000


Editor's Column by Poet deVine
Rambles from Ron
Power of a Poet by Poet deVine
How to Copyright by Denise Snyder
Interview with Balladeer by Marge Tindal
Abraham, Martin, and John by Balladeer
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The Final Word by Poet deVine

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I Know You by Ron Carnell
How to Write Sonnets by Nancy Ness
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How to Write Sonnets
by Nancy Ness

When is a poem a sonnet? When is a "sonnet" just a lyrical poem? Its derivation is "Little Song," so why can't we just sing a love song that rhymes correctly and call it a sonnet? Why can't we simply write fourteen lines of romantic verse with a conforming rhyme scheme and do the same?

Today's literary world is full of poets who are dubbing their poetry as sonnets, without really understanding the true classic format. Their work may qualify as beautiful poetry, but still fall short of the actual specifications of a sonnet.

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Well then - what's to learn? Let's begin with an overview, and then touch on the semantics of form.

The sonnet originated with the "Italian" or "Petrarchan" form, and later progressed to a well-loved poetic form through the unsurpassed influence of the "English" - more specifically that of "Shakespeare."

William Shakespeare's undeniable knack for writing in perfect iambic pentameter and his propensity for the sonnet form surely are responsible for its interminable popularity. Another acceptable framework is also an English variation called "Spenserian," named after its originator.

You can't rightly break the rules unless you know what they are

Although the mode of the twentieth century has been to deviate from these standard formats, I admit that I remain pretty old-fashioned and continue to write them according to plan. I adamantly believe that you can't rightly break the rules unless you know what they are... I follow them myself, simply because I don't yet consider myself proficient enough to break them. (perhaps some day). Furthermore, breaking the rules - and doing it effectively - necessitates a thorough understanding of them.

Ergo - Let's cover the basics. It's easy - you'll see!

Theme is of ULTIMATE importance in a sonnet. You must present a conflict of sorts in your opening stanzas and a resolution in your closing ones. Think carefully of what you want to write and how you want to develop your work before you begin writing.

The use of imagery is another important consideration. A sonnet is a very compact piece, and as such is a great format for extended metaphors. Try to incorporate some simile, metaphor, or other types of imagery into your work.

Let's move to the structure, starting with meter - This is the easy part.... A sonnet, properly written, is done in "iambic pentameter." That means that every line will consist of five "iambic" feet. Each line of your poem will follow this pattern....


"How do I love thee - Let me count the ways"

Elizabeth Barrett Browning's lines would read as


Ms. Barrett Browning loved her sonnets. Read this wonderful one in its entirety - It's just superb, isn't it? It's certainly understandable that it's so famous.

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,
But I shall love thee better after death


Rhyme schemes may give a poem its character, but the meter is the basis for its lyrical flow

Another great poet who adhered to iambic pentameter was Keats. Read his "Oh Solitude, If I Must Dwell With Thee" - You'll be amazed at how smoothly his verses flow. Rhyme schemes may give a poem its character, but the meter is the basis for its lyrical flow. A poem that deviates in its meter simply doesn't sound like a "Little Song."

So then - Let's get on to the rhyme scheme. Guess what? You've got a choice here, and you'll still be adhering to the "rules." You can opt for any one of the following:

First, let's look at the original "Italian/Petrarchan" style - which consists of an octet (eight lines) followed by a sestet (six lines).

The conflict is presented in the octet and resolved in the sestet. This option allows you less conflict, but more "resolution" time, if you should need it. The rhyme scheme is "a-b-b-a-a-b-b-a/c-d-e-c-d-e."

Occasional poets, such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning in the above sonnet, will incorporate some variations in the scheme of the final sestet.

Second is the most popular "English/Shakespearean" sonnet. In this style the conflict is presented within three quatrains (four lines) of verse, and resolved in a final couplet. The Shakespearean format is "a-b-a-b/c-d-c-d/e-f-e-f/g-g."

Here's Shakespeare's Sonnet #12, a perfect example of his timeless brilliance.

When I do count the clock that tells the time,
And see the brave day sunk in hideous night;
When I behold the violet past prime,
And sable curls all silvered o'er with white;
When lofty trees I see barren of leaves,
Which erst from heat did canopy the herd,
And summer's green all girded up in sheaves
Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard;
Then of thy beauty do I question make
That thou among the wastes of time must go,
Since sweets and beauties do themselves forsake,
And die as fast as they see others grow;
And nothing 'gainst Time's scythe can make defence
Save breed to brave him, when he takes thee hence.

The final, and less known format is Spenserian. This format is most similar to Shakespearean, as it incorporates three quatrains and a closing couplet. In either format, you'll need to develop your conflict in the quatrains and resolve it in the couplet.

The Spenserian format is "a-b-a-b/b-c-b-c/c-d-c-d/e-e." Like the others, it still maintains a meter of iambic pentameter.

...the reader is the ultimate interpreter

So - Is a poem with fourteen lines and a fitting rhyme scheme really a sonnet? Who's to decide? As in every piece of prose or poetry, the reader is the ultimate interpreter. I personally don't expect too much. As a reader, I need to feel the rhythm of the iambic pentameter - I need to see a great story unfold in those short fourteen lines - I need to see a rhyme scheme that flows - I love to see a writer incorporate some great imagery… Then I'll admit that it just might be a sonnet. I'm not too difficult to please, am I? Nah!!!

Nancy Ness is the resident English teacher at Passions and runs our very popular Poetry Workshop in the forums. You can find her poetry at her web site. And here's a list of her poetry at Passions.