Lesson Plan

How to Write an English (Shakespearean or Elizabethan) Sonnet

What is a sonnet?
Andres T.
Johnson County Community College
Overland Park, United States
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William Shakespeare

What is a sonnet?

The English sonnet (also known as the Shakespearean or Elizabethan sonnet) is one of the most well known forms in the history of poetry in the English language. The word "sonnet" comes from the Italian word meaning "little song", and sonnets were indeed first written in Italy. Shakespeare is the most famous sonnet writer in English, not because he was the first to write sonnets in English (that was the poet Thomas Wyatt at the start of the 16th century), but because he was the most prolific and influential English-speaking sonneteer of all time. He wrote more than 150 sonnets, and many poets followed his form, which is a poem of 14 lines (including three quatrains or verses of four lines) with a volta, an ending couplet and a specific rhyme scheme.

To write an English sonnet, you first need to know how to write in iambic pentameter (click on link to learn how!) Iambic rhythm is essential for a sonnet. If you don't use it, you may come up with a nice poem, but it's not a sonnet. Once you've mastered iambic pentameter, you can start your English sonnet.

You want to come up with a topic that will lend itself well to incorporating a volta. A volta usually occurs at line 9 of an English sonnet, or the first line of the third quatrian or verse. It is defined as a point in the poem where the focus of you poem makes a shift or turn, which is what "volta" means. Nature, for example, is a good topic, because for your volta you could change from writing about nature to writing about human nature and how it relates to nature.

Most presentations about how to write a sonnet give you examples from Shakespeare or John Milton or another classic sonnet writer, and of course, they are the best examples! However, many people have a hard time understanding Shakespeare or the antiquated English used by some of the great sonnet writers, so here we will use some modern sonnets as examples.

English Language Arts
Grades 9
All Notes
Teacher Notes
Student Notes

1 Example of an English Sonnet


Sitting in a Garden

A garden bench, adorned with climbing vine
of honeysuckle blossoms, scenting air-
the sheen of dew and slant of sun combine
to lend enchantment to my resting there.

My eyes take in the gentle hues of spring,
where lilacs bloom and green of leaf and stem
dress marigolds and tulips, flowering-
I sit alone, with thoughts surrounding them.

My musings wish to stay amidst the bloom
of springtime, washed in water colored light,
and not to tarry far where seeds of gloom
return the chill of winter's bleakest night.

I savor morning's fragrance, splashed with dew,
and hear the garden's hush make all things new.

© Katharine L. Sparrow

Notice that the first four lines (the first quatrain) are a description of the garden bench and the nature surrounding it. The second quatrain continues on a nature theme, describing the colors of spring that the subject sees. Then, at line 9 (start of the third quatrain), the theme changes by starting out saying "my musings wish to stay amidst the bloom". So the focus has switched from nature to human thoughts

You'll see more about the volta later.

Once you've chosen a topic, you can start your poem. Your rhyme scheme is going to be abab, cdcd, efef, gg. (the first and third lines of each 4 line quatrain rhyme and the second and fourth lines of each quatrain rhyme - then the last two lines, called a couplet, rhyme with each other). If you're not good at coming up with rhyming words, I'd recommend pulling up rhymzone and referring to that as you work. It can be helpful in suggesting possible rhyming words you can use. For example, if you wrote your first two lines in the poem above, you could then put "vine" and "air" into the rhymezone search box to get a list of words and groups of words that rhyme with each. Sometimes you will spot a rhyme that fits nicely into where you want your poem to go. If not, try rephrasing your line to end on a different rhyme and then search again for matching rhymes.

Remember, your first two quatrains of 4 lines each will be on the same or similar theme, then you'll want to add a turn at the third verse. Typically this happens at line 9, but as you see in the example above, line 8 "I sit alone with thoughts surrounding them" foreshadows the change that is to come in the next verse, and that's fine. Other times it may happen that your volta falls on line 10, but it should be right around lines 8,9 or 10.

Mozart by Joseph Lange 1780

Another Example

Here is another example of an English sonnet with a volta that is a bit more subtle:

The Genius of Mozart

From where did Mozart draw his melodies?
What chortling fountain splashed for him a tune?
Were soft notes borne aloft on summer's breeze,
while loving Stanzi, of an afternoon?

For surely something jangled through his world-
a constant stream of sound that he could hear.
And all about him, peals of wind chimes swirled,
arranging sweet refrains in Mozart's ear.

One wonders if the world still holds his gift
on outstretched palm for each of us to take-
if near around us, strains of music drift,
for each a different melody to make.

Perhaps the genius lay in Mozart's will
to hear the song, when all for us is still.

© Katharine L. Sparrow

As you see, the first two quatrains of 4 lines pose the question as to how Mozart came up with his beautiful melodies. The third quatrain begins on line 9 with "One wonders if the world still holds his gift" - no longer talking about where he came up with the music, but shifting to another concept; Mozart's talent as an example of a gift that we each have. Notice too that the final couplet (the two rhyming lines) makes a final statement that ties the poem together. It is the "point" of the whole poem in two rhyming lines. You want to make your final couplet has an impact - gives the reader the meaning of your poem. Sometimes the final couplet can illuminate the meaning of the poem in a new and unexpected way, like a "twist" ending.

Now, you can certainly write an English sonnet without a volta, and I have written many. But if you want to be true to the form, there should be a volta. Your ending couplet should always make the point of your poem. Look back to the first example. You see that the final couplet

I savor morning's fragrance, splashed with dew,
and hear the garden's hush make all things new.

encapsulates the whole of the experience of sitting in the garden that was described in the three previous verses.

One More Example

Words of Love

The day of Valentines awaits ahead,
when lovers will profess their love complete
and speak words of devotion, like a thread
of roses strung together, true and sweet.

But words are like a castle that we build-
a fortress, topped with turrets in the sky,
its vast and empty rooms, with promise filled,
resounding with the echos of a lie.

Far more than pretty words must gild the heart
of lovers whose devotion rings as true.
My hand in yours, and we shall never part-
a kiss, a tender touch binds me to you.

Make love to me, as softly as a rose,
whose velvet blooms a sonnet shall compose..

© Katharine L. Sparrow

Here there are actually two voltas! The first quatrain describes the words of lovers on Valentine's Day. Then the second quatrain "turns" and talks about words being empty. The third quartain then talks about the actions that truly signify devotion, and the final couplet talks about making love, the ulitmate expression between lovers, and the summation of the meaning of the poem. It is fine to vary your sonnet, such as having two voltas or the volta in a different place than line 9. Shakespeare often used his ending couplet as the volta as well as illuminating the poem's meaning. But most composers of English sonnets used the ending couplet to portray the meaning of the poem as a whole. 

You could also vary the meter somewhat. Some poets wrote sonnets in iambic hexameter (12 syllables per line, instead of 10) and there are even a few written in imbic tetrameter (8 syllables per line). However, the classic English sonnet was written in iambic pentameter, so you should first familiarize yourself with that meter before trying a variation.

I have separated the three verses of each sonnet and the final couplet here for purposes of illustration, but you do not have to space them like that. Many sonnets are written with all verses together, and just the final couplet spaced apart. Others have a space before the volta and the ending couplet not separated. It is up to you, and may depend on the meaning you wish to emphasise in your sonnet.

Finally, don't forget to use imagery and metaphor in your sonnet. You should try to create vivid images in the mind of your reader with descriptive words (imagery) and use metaphor (describing one thing as something else) to make your sonnet engaging and interesting. For example, see the imagery in the first poem - "the sheen of dew and slanting sun" brings a strong image to the readers mind. In the second poem "what chortling fountain splashed for him a tune" makes the reader see and hear the splashing fountain. And in the third poem, the metaphor describing words as a castle "topped with turrets" and with "vast and empty rooms" draws out the meaning of the emptiness of words far better than just saying that words are empty.

It will take some practice to learn to write an English sonnet, but refer back to these tips as you go along, and you'll soon be composing a sonnet that would make Shakespeare proud!!