Poetry: How To Write A Sonnet – Part 3

This is part 3 in our poetry series on how to write a sonnet. If you didn’t start with part 1, you can find that here.

So far in the series, we’ve considered meter and rhyme. Before we compose a full sonnet, we still have a final step: we need to consider how Shakespeare uses imagery.

Summertime And The Simile Is Easy

The first line of the poem lays down the theme for Sonnet 18.
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimm’d;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st;
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Shakespeare asks whether the simile, or comparison, between his love and a summer’s day is appropriate. We know it’s a simile because we could restate the question, “Is Shakespeare’s love like a summer’s day?”

It’s worth noting that he starts with a question. In the right context, this can be a very effective way of getting your reader engaged because the human mind automatically starts looking for answers. In fact, that’s exactly what happened for me the first time I read this poem. Notice also that he spends the rest of the poem answering this one question. One of the strengths of closed forms like the sonnet is that the limited face forces you to focus on a single theme, question, or image.

At first glance, it seems that a summer’s day is a pretty flattering comparison. My memories of summer days are mostly wonderful — days on the beach, in the woods, away from school; family vacations and camping trips. I’m sure that for most of you the idea of a “summer’s day” also conjures up some good memories. So when he leads with the rhetorical question, many of us will have an answer ready: Yes!

A Sonnet Is Better When You Think Differently

Shakespeare, however, does not give his reader the easy answer. Instead he subverts what would be an easy — dare I say it, even a lazy — simile by focusing on all the ways that his love. He lists several reasons over the next lines, focusing on everything that can be wrong with a summer’s day.

It’s still summer here in South Carolina, and we just got threatened by Hurricane Irma. That’s not a good summertime memory. Come to think of it, I have quite a few memories of being uncomfortable, sticky, thirsty, and generally pretty gross in the August heat. These would be some rather unflattering comparisons, I think.

Shakespeare is very good at subverting expectations. In Sonnet 130 he spends the first 12 lines explaining how his mistress doesn’t live up to some of the absurd comparisons which other poets at the time were making:
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask’d, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.

The poem doesn’t slip into any sentimentality, does it? Some of these statements could be downright insulting. Again, it’s important to pay attention to how Shakespeare spends his time focused on one important idea.

Turn That Sonnet Around

You’ll notice that Shakespeare uses the final couplet differently in each of these sonnets. In Sonnet 18, he uses it to summarize and restate his theme: His love, enshrined in the poem, will not fade like summer. In Sonnet 130, he uses it to reverse what seemed unflattering: He doesn’t need false comparisons to appreciate his mistress’s true beauty.

This thematic flip at the end of Sonnet 130 is called a turn. It synthesizes and restates the theme of the poem, often turning it around in a surprising and unexpected way as it does here.

In Sonnet 18, I think an argument could be made that the turn takes place a little earlier. The first two quatrains are spent explaining why a summer’s day isn’t such a great comparison. Then, at the beginning of the third quatrain (line 9), Shakespeare explains that his love is better than a summer’s day. Finally, he uses the couplet not to flip the quatrains on their head, but to summarize and cap off his poem’s theme.

The two different uses of the turn have very different effects. I think you’ll agree that Sonnet 18 is much more subtle in its effect. In contrast, Sonnet 130 is almost comical due to the swiftness of the turn at the end, which hits the reader as a one-two punch of a clever epigram.

Some Final Words In The Sonnet Series

That’s it! You’ve got all the major tools you need to write a sonnet. (Don’t worry: Your exercise is still listed below.) I just wanted to take a moment to say thank you for riding along for the sonnet series here at Adversus Press. I tried to cover a huge topic in just a few posts, so don’t think this is some definitive guide to the sonnet form; it’s just some creative fodder to get you going. If you found this series useful, please share it with your friends. We’re on Facebook and Twitter, and we hope you’ll follow us there. If you have any sonnets or other formal poetry of which you’re particularly proud, submit it to us! We’re always looking for good poetry to publish.

Let us know what poetic form you want our next poetry blog series to cover! Use the comments below, or our Twitter poll.

Exercises

Try to come up with three similes (something is like something else) or metaphors (something is something else) for the following three items. Start with the form “An x is/is like a y in that z.” Try to avoid cliche and make your similes surprising. Alternatively, follow in Shakespeare’s path and tell us why a common simile or metaphor for the items below is a bad one.

  1. Whatever item is nearest you
  2. Your job

Feel free to substitute your own topics for mine if you want. These are just a few ideas.

My attempts, as usual. These took a while, because this is a little harder than the previous exercises. Work hard on yours: it’s worth it.

  1. My watch is like my father, in that both their faces tell of time’s passage.
  2. Waiting tables is nothing like being an actor, because people care about actors.

Thanks again! Now go write a sonnet!