Shakespeare may be the most famous writer of sonnets but the form originated in Italy in the 1300s with Petrarch. Sonnets first started to be written in English from the 1500s onwards. Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets that we know of.
Traditional sonnets have this in common:
- They have 14 lines
- They have a set rhyming scheme
- They are written in iambic pentameters
An iambic ‘foot’ is an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable, such as:
‘Penta’ means ‘five’ in Greek while ‘meter’ is ‘measure’ so an iambic pentameter is five iambic feet in a row.
Here’s one example from Shakespeare himself:
If music be the food of love, play on
‘da DUM’ is the rhythm of the human heartbeat which is helpful to think about when you are reading or writing a sonnet.
If you would like a go at writing a sonnet yourself then think about the following:
- What would you like your sonnet to be about? You might choose to dedicate your sonnet to a loved one or write about something completely unexpected, like the British weather or a bus timetable!
- Read some sonnets to get a feel for them. Sonnet 18 is the most famous of Shakespeare’s sonnets (Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?) but there are lots more besides this and many contemporary poets have used the form too
- Decide which rhyming pattern you would like to follow. The Shakespearean rhyming pattern, for example, is abab cdcd efef gg while the Petrarchan sonnet is abba abba cdecde or abba abba cdcdcd
- Sound the rhyme out in your head or, even better, read the sonnet aloud to make sure that you’re keeping to the rhythm
If you’re struggling or don’t feel ready to write a sonnet of your own then how about trying to a learn sonnet by heart? During lockdown, Dame Judi Dench revealed that she was memorising Shakespeare’s sonnets. Studies have shown that this can boost our memories and wellbeing as well as being a great way to impress friends and family!