How to Write Poems – Chapter 11: The Sonnet

Contents | Chapter 12: The Limerick

The word “sonnet” comes from the Italian word sonnetto, which means “little song.” The Italian sonnet was likely taken from Italy to England by Sir Thomas Wyatt in the 1530s. The form of the sonnet that Wyatt brought to England was the Italian or Petrarchan sonnet, so called because it was used by the Italian poet Francesco Petrarca (1304-1374).

The Italian sonnet has fourteen lines and is divided into two parts: a beginning octave (eight lines) and a concluding sestet (six lines). The octave consists of two Italian quatrains: abbaabba. The sestet can be either Italian (cdecde) or Sicilian (cdcdcd). The octave states an idea, and then, at the beginning of the sestet, there is a “volta” or a change in the direction of the train of thought of the sonnet. The sestet resolves the issues opened by the octave and concludes the poem.

The Italian sonnet was adapted in England by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, to form the English or Shakespearean sonnet. The English sonnet is generally written in iambic pentameter and with the following rhyme scheme: abab, cdcd, efef, gg. Thus, the English sonnet has three quatrains and one concluding couplet. This rhyme scheme better fits the English language, which has a relative lack of rhymes, as compared with the Italian language. William Shakespeare (1564-1616), the most famous writer of English sonnets, popularized their use in the 1590s.

The Spenserian sonnet, named after Edmund Spenser (1552?-1599), has three chained quatrains, followed by a couplet. The quatrains are called chained or linked because the rhyming sounds in one quatrain are used in the next quatrain. The Spenserian sonnet has this rhyme scheme: abab, bcbc, cdcd, ee.

The following sonnet has a typical Italian rhyme scheme (abbaabba, cdecde), but it is written in English and in loose iambic pentameter. The sonnet was written by John Milton (1608-1674) and is called “On His Blindness.”

When I consider how my light is spent

Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,

And that one talent which is death to hide

Lodg’d with me useless, though my soul more bent

To serve therewith my Maker, and present

My true account, lest he returning chide,

“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”

I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent

That murmur, soon replies: “God doth not need

Either man’s work or his own gifts: who best

Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state

Is kingly; thousands at his bidding speed

And post o’er land and ocean without rest:

They also serve who only stand and wait.”

The next example sonnet was written by Shakespeare. It is his Sonnet 30, and it has the English sonnet rhyme scheme. In the three quatrains, the sonnet discusses the loss of things from the past, and the concluding couplet brings to mind a friendship that erases the sorrow of loss.

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought

I summon up remembrance of things past,

I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,

And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:

Then can I drown an eye, unus’d to flow,

For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,

And weep afresh love’s long since cancell’d woe,

And moan the expense of many a vanish’d sight:

Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,

And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er

The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,

Which I new pay as if not paid before.

But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,

All losses are restor’d and sorrows end.

Now we will write our own English sonnet. The sonnet will be written in iambic pentameter (wSwSwSwSwS) and have this rhyme scheme: abab, cdcd, efef, gg. Thus, we will have three quatrains and a concluding couplet.

We will write about what happened to Scrooge and how he became a changed man. We will write the sonnet in the first person, that is, from Scrooge’s perspective, and thus we will use the pronoun “I.” In our sonnet, the “volta” (or turn) will be placed after we describe the former character of Scrooge. We can describe the old Scrooge in the first quatrain, and then shift gears and tell how he became a different man in the second and third quatrains. In the final couplet, we can conclude and summarize the sonnet.

Our sonnet will look something like this:

Quatrain 1: The old character of Scrooge.

Quatrain 2: The revelations of the three spirits.

Quatrain 3: The new character of Scrooge.

Couplet: A summary of what Scrooge learned.

First, we can talk about how Scrooge began his life as a lonely, hard-working child:

A lonely child, I learned about hard work (10)

But I became so cruel, uncaring, hard, (10)

That I mistreated nephew, partner, clerk (10)

We can make some changes, so that we don’t have the two lists (“cruel, uncaring, hard,” and “nephew, partner, clerk”) in the same form. We should change things to add some variety.

Exercise: How would you change lines two and three above to make them more varied and interesting? Make sure the last words (i.e., “hard” and “clerk”) stay at the end of the lines.

~

We can change it this way:

A lonely child, I learned about hard work (10)

But I became so cruel and callous—hard (10)

That I misused my nephew, mate, and clerk (10)

What words rhyme with hard?

bard, barred, card, chard, charred, guard, jarred, lard, marred, nard, scarred, shard, sparred, starred, tarred, yard, bombard, canard, disbarred, discard, regard, retard

We need to find a word that will work in the quatrain.

Exercise: What word(s) above might be helpful in completing the quatrain?

~

“Guard,” “marred,” “scarred,” or “regard” might be useful. We can say something like this:

A lonely child, I learned about hard work (10)

But I became so cruel and callous—hard, (10)

That I misused my nephew, mate, and clerk (10)

And only wanted money to count and guard (11)

Or,

A lonely child, I learned about hard work (10)

But I became so cruel and callous—hard, (10)

That I misused my nephew, mate, and clerk (10)

My one concern it was: my stash to guard (10)

Next, we need to write the second quatrain. The second quatrain will start with a “volta,” so we need to use a word like “but”:

But fortune smiled on my sad state (8)

We need to add two syllables.

Exercise: How would you change the line above to make it conform to iambic pentameter?

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We can write it this way:

But fortune smiled on me and my sad state (10)

Or we can write it this way:

But fortune smiled on me, revealed my state (10)

Now we can write the second line this way:

But fortune smiled on me, revealed my state (10)

Three spirits showed my life of waste to me (10)

Or,

But fortune smiled on me, revealed my state (10)

Three spirits showed to me my life of waste (10)

Some words that rhyme with “state”:

ate, bait, bate, crate, date, eight, fait, fate, fete, freight, gait, gate, grate, great, hate, late, mate, pate, plait, plate, rate, sate, skate, slate, spate, straight, strait, trait, wait, weight, abate, await, berate, collate, conflate, create, debate, deflate, dictate, elate, equate, estate, inflate, irate, misstate, negate, oblate, ornate, predate, reflate, relate, sedate, translate, update

Some words that rhyme with “waste”:

aced, based, baste, braced, chased, chaste, faced, graced, haste, laced, paced, paste, placed, raced, spaced, taste, traced, waist, debased, defaced, disgraced, displaced, distaste, embraced, encased, erased, fast-paced, foretaste, lambaste, misplaced, outpaced, replaced, retraced, showcased, toothpaste, unplaced

We can use the words “fate” and “erased”:

But fortune smiled on me, revealed my state (10)

Three spirits showed to me my life of waste (10)

My past, my present, then my future fate (10)

Could go as planned or be erased (8)

But we need to connect “my future fate” with the next line. We can write something like this:

But fortune smiled on me, revealed my state (10)

Three spirits showed to me my life of waste (10)

My past was shown, so that my future fate (10)

Could go as planned or be erased (8)

We need to add two syllables to the last line.

Exercise: How would you edit the last line so that it conforms to iambic pentameter and ends with “erased”?

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We can add “along,” like this:

But fortune smiled on me, revealed my state (10)

Three spirits showed to me my life of waste (10)

My past was shown, so that my future fate (10)

Could go along as planned, or be erased (10)

Here is what we have so far:

A lonely child, I learned about hard work,

But I became so cruel and callous—hard

That I misused my nephew, mate, and clerk

My one concern it was: my stash to guard

But fortune smiled on me, revealed my state

Three spirits showed to me my life of waste

My past was shown, so that my future fate

Could go along as planned, or be erased

In the next quatrain, we need to tell how Scrooge has changed. We can start like this:

And grateful I will ever be to find (10)

Or,

And grateful I will ever be to learn (10)

Here are some words that rhyme with “find” and “learn”:

bind, blind, dined, fined, grind, hind, kind, lined, mind, mined, pined, rind, shined, signed, twined, wind, wined, aligned, assigned, behind, combined, confined, consigned, declined, defined, designed, enshrined, entwined, headlined, inclined, maligned, mankind, opined, outlined, reclined, refined, remind, resigned, rewind, sidelined, streamlined, unkind, unlined, unsigned, unwind

burn, churn, earn, erne, fern, kern, spurn, stern, turn, urn, yearn, adjourn, auburn, cavern, cistern, concern, discern, downturn, eastern, govern, heartburn, intern, iron, lantern, lectern, modern, northern, pattern, return, sauterne, sojourn, southern, stubborn, sunburn, tavern, upturn, western

Let’s stick with “learn” for now.

And grateful I will ever be to learn (10)

I’m free to change my life and share my wealth

There are not many words that rhyme with “wealth,” so we can change the last word:

And grateful I will ever be to learn (10)

I’m free to change my life and share my stock (10)

Or,

And grateful I will ever be to learn (10)

I’m free to change my life and share my goods (10)

“Neighborhoods” rhymes with “share my goods.” “Return” rhymes with “to learn.” We can write this:

And grateful I will ever be to learn (10)

I’m free to change my life and share my goods (10)

My bounty I can return (7)

To others, throughout the neighborhoods (9)

We need to add some syllables.

Exercise: How would you change the last two lines so that they conform to iambic pentameter?

~

We can write it this way:

And grateful I will ever be to learn (10)

I’m free to change my life and share my goods (10)

And so my wealth, with joy, I shall return (10)

To those in all surrounding neighborhoods (10)

Now we need a concluding couplet. Perhaps we could write something general about Christmas.

And Christmas is a spirit dear (8)

I’ll spread so others hear it clear (8)

Or,

The Christmas spirit spreads each day its cheer (10)

I want to join the chorus so others can hear (10)

Or,

The Christmas spirit spreads its cheer each day (10)

And now I know that I gain what I give away (12)

The last line doesn’t sound quite right. We can try again:

The Christmas spirit spreads its cheer each day (10)

And now I know I keep all I give away (11)

Or,

The Christmas spirit spreads its cheer each day (10)

And now I keep all that I give away (10)

The word “gain” seems to be appropriate here. Scrooge was always concerned with gain, but now he realizes that he can gain by sharing.

The Christmas spirit spreads its cheer each day (10)

And now I gain by what I give away (10)

Here is our finished sonnet, with punctuation added:

A lonely child, I learned about hard work,

But I became so cruel and callous—hard—

That I misused my nephew, mate, and clerk;

My one concern it was: my stash to guard.

But fortune smiled on me, revealed my state;

Three spirits showed to me my life of waste;

My past was shown, so that my future fate

Could go along as planned, or be erased.

And grateful I will ever be to learn

I’m free to change my life and share my goods;

And so my wealth, with joy, I shall return

To those in all surrounding neighborhoods.

  The Christmas spirit spreads its cheer each day,

  And now I gain by what I give away.

Contents | Chapter 12: The Limerick