All About Poetry

How to Compose an English Sonnet?

If you’ve been a fan of William Shakespeare or a student of English literature, you will have probably read the sonnets composed by the greatest writer to have ever trod this planet. But do you know that sonnets came into existence much before the Shakespearean era? Well, it is weened that Giacomo da Lentini, who wrote poetry in the literary Sicilian dialect way back in the thirteenth century, invented sonnets.

Notwithstanding, an Italian poet who went by the name Petrarch is said to have perfected the form, and his sonnets eventually came to be called Petrarchan sonnets. But it was Sir Thomas Wyatt, a famous lyric poet and English politician, who brought the Italian sonnet form to the English culture. William Shakespeare only mastered the form and tweaked it, making it highly refined. Consequently, historians of the time named the entire subgenre after the celebrated writer.

Hence, to put it point blank, Shakespearean sonnets are English sonnets; and in this post, you will be learning how to indite them. By the way, since these sonnets germinated during the reign of Queen Elizabeth, they are also referred to as Elizabethan sonnets.

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But What Is a Sonnet?

The word ‘sonnet’ comes from the Italian term ‘sonnetto’ meaning ‘little song’. The Oxford Dictionary, however, defines the term as ‘a poem of fourteen lines using any of a number of formal rhyme schemes, in English typically having ten syllables per line.’ Thus, it can be said that each of the verses in a sonnet comprises ten syllables.

While all kinds of sonnets comprise fourteen lines, the rhyme scheme employed by them are quite different from one another. And although traditional sonnets focussed on love and romance, modern sonnets can be written about a topic of your choice provided they do justice to the definition given. This weblog itself has featured several sonnets composed by indie poet B Sudharsan. You can give them a read by clicking here.

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Now, What Distinguishes English Sonnets From Other Ones?

English sonnets generally possess an element of love or romance, but as has already been stated, modern sonnets can deal with social issues, politics, nature, and even death of a loved one. Be that as it may, English sonnets are phrased in iambic pentameter, which is a line of verse with five metrical feet, each consisting of one short (or unstressed) syllable followed by one long (or stressed) syllable. The sing-song effect generated by English sonnets is by reason of this very meter.

What makes an English sonnet supremely intriguing though is the rhyme scheme it employs – ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. This thus implies that an English sonnet contains three quatrains followed by a couplet as opposed to Petrarchan sonnets that comprise an octave and a sestet.

However, keep in mind that if you ended up employing a different rhyme scheme but followed the other rules, you might still call your poem a sonnet, but it would not qualify as an English one. You can also find Petrarchan sonnets on this weblog, but we shall discuss the form of a Petrarchan sonnet later.

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And Finally, There’s the Volta

English sonnets more often than not contain what’s called volta, which is a rhetorical change or a dramatic shift in thought or emotion. Although the volta generally appears at the end of an English sonnet, modern sonnets may have the shift in the second or the third quatrain. Howbeit, it is not necessary for an English sonnet to have a volta.

The Summary

An English or Shakespearean sonnet, therefore, is a poem of fourteen lines that

  • comprises three quatrains and one couplet
  • follows the rhyme scheme ABAB CDCD EFEF GG
  • is phrased in iambic pentameter
  • may or may not have a volta

Some Must-Read Sonnets

We strongly suggest you read the below-mentioned sonnets to develop a better understanding of English sonnets:

  1. Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
  2. My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun
  3. The procrastinator

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