Who even writes sonnets anymore?
The sonnet as a poetic form dates back to the Renaissance period and is thought to have begun in Italy by Giacomo da Lentini. However, the humorist Petrarch is credited for popularizing the sonnet, and his lyrical style and use of literary devices like similes and conceits spurred a movement of emulatory poetics, called Petrarchism. Other sonneteers (poets that write sonnets) like John Donne and William Shakespeare not only popularized forms of sonnets still used today but influenced centuries of literature, all due to their beautifully constructed, fourteen-lines of verse.
A sonnet in its most basic form consists of 14 lines that follow a specific rhyme scheme and meter. They usually feature a “volta,” or a shift, twist, or turn that occurs. Depending on the form, each of these components may be changed or adapted to fit the poet’s sensibilities.
As an example, here is one of Shakespeare’s sonnets, Sonnet 50:
How heavy do I journey on the way, When what I seek, my weary travel’s end, Doth teach that ease and that repose to say, ‘Thus far the miles are measured from thy friend!’ The beast that bears me, tired with my woe, Plods dully on, to bear that weight in me, As if by some instinct the wretch did know His rider lov’d not speed being made from thee. The bloody spur cannot provoke him on, That sometimes anger thrusts into his hide, Which heavily he answers with a groan, More sharp to me than spurring to his side; For that same groan doth put this in my mind, My grief lies onward, and my joy behind.
The two main variations are the English sonnet (sometimes called a Shakespearean sonnet) and the Italian sonnet (often called a Petrarchan sonnet). While both are usually bound to iambic pentameter, the most important difference is their rhyme scheme and structure. I’ll include more about these variations later in case you choose to write your own, or you can read more about sonnets here.
Rather than choose a typical English or Italian rhyme scheme, this week I decided to write a Spenserian sonnet, named after poet Edmund Spenser. The 14 lines are broken into three quatrains and one couplet, with the rhyme scheme: ABAB BCBC CDCD EE. Each letter in the rhyme scheme corresponds with the last word of each line; in this form, rhymes established in the beginning flow into the next quatrain and so forth.
Here is this week’s hive poem:
Dusk to Dawn to Day
A bridge alone but shaded in the light from draped dusk along the quiet waves. A flock of geese above in hurried flight, the edges ripple orange as it laves. The tide and flood rises to begrave the shore and buries well beneath; each starving branch a home it gave, knowing in the night it bares their teeth. Morning creatures wake when, underneath water recedes as dawn upon the break brings clouded shine. Reflecting as it breathes, Willamette flows like some unbothered snake. When day is green and moss across the slough, the river knows that it has done enough.
As a poet that doesn’t organically end lines with rhymes, sonnets can feel restrictive. But I enjoyed how this particular form allowed for more flow and connection between each stanza, weaving the poem together with threads that call back to one another. Because I tend to despise the restrictions of set meter, I did not hold myself to iambic pentameter, although I did try to keep a certain rhythm throughout. Since this poem was inspired by the changing tides of my local river, I felt Spenser’s form fit my needs here best.
What part of my poem do you think is my “volta”?
About hive poems
Hive poems are poems I write weekly with the help of my friends on Instagram. Sometimes I restrict myself to word banks using nouns and verbs people submit to me, or I run a poll so that you can choose my poetic form of the week. Want to be a part of this madness? I’ll be posting call-outs for suggestions every Sunday in my Instagram stories.
Want to make your own?
This week, write your own sonnet! It can be a little intimidating, so I’ll walk you through it. Make sure to include the following four components:
14 lines total
A set rhyme scheme
A set meter (like iambic pentameter)
a “volta” or tonal shift
First, start with your general idea or your jumping off point. Do you want to write a love poem, or begin the poem with an existential question that you hope to answer by the end? Picking your topic or your general structure before you start can help you choose rhymes that might fit your poem best, as well as get you started on what your final “volta” or “shift” might be.
If you want inspiration for rhyming, create your own word bank. Start with words that fit your topic: if you’re writing a poem about a river, maybe you write down the words flow, wave, water, ripple, and shore. Then, choose a couple words from your bank and write down rhyming words. If you get stuck, you can always search the internet for rhymes!
Then, choose your rhyme scheme. Each letter of the following rhyme scheme represents the last word of each line, so ABAB would look like:
A bridge alone but shaded in the
from draped dusk along the quiet
A flock of geese above in hurried
the edges ripple orange as it
Your rhyme scheme is also dependent on your sonnet’s structure. Each form below includes its rhyme scheme, as well as how you might form your 14 lines into stanzas. There are plenty of other variations you can find online, or you can make up your own!
English/Shakespearean: ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. This means that you should have three stanzas of four lines each with one ending couplet. You can choose to include lines of space, like I did in my poem, or remove the spaces so it flows like one stanza. Your “volta” or shift should happen within your last two lines.
Spenserian variant: With the same structure as an English sonnet, replace the rhyme scheme with: ABAB BCBC CDCD EE. This means that you carry some of your same rhymes from the previous stanza. You can use my poem as an example!
Italian/Petrarchan: Your first eight lines form an octave with the rhyme scheme ABBA ABBA. Then, for your last six lines form a sestet that can be one of two ending rhyme schemes: CDE CDE or CDC CDC. Usually, this octave poses a “question” or “problem” that the last six lines will “answer” or “solve”. Specifically, your ninth line will be your “volta”, which shifts the tone of your poem and signals to the reader this shift or resolution is beginning.
Then, start writing in either iambic pentameter or whatever rhythm fits your words best. Don’t forget your “volta”!
It has been a cold and dreary week in Portland, OR, including one afternoon that featured a soft snow flurry that swiftly melted with overnight rain. I hope wherever you find yourself, that you are staying warm and healthy this winter.
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I frequently post stanzas on Instagram, as well as my thoughts on social justice, capitalism, and the literary world on Twitter. Let’s bee friends virtually and talk books, art, and why writers should stop posting “harsh writing advice” on Twitter…