Poetry: How To Write A Sonnet – Part 2

This is part 2 of our poetry series, in which we compose a sonnet together. For part 1, click here.

Now that you have a grasp of the iambic pentameter, the line which makes up the sonnet, it’s time to look at the sonnet form in more detail. I said last time that we would write a Shakespearean sonnet. We will spend the next few posts considering the structure of a Shakespearean sonnet. In this post, we are going to take a look at the end rhymes.

Basic Structure

Pull out your copy of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 (or read along online) and let’s look at the last words of each line. Here are the first four lines:

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:

The final words of each line are “day,” “temperate,” “May,” and “date.” It’s pretty easy to see what we mean, then, when we say the lines rhyme alternately. Lines 1 and 3 rhyme (A), and lines 2 and 4 rhyme (B). So the rhyming pattern could be expressed ABAB.

Let’s look at the next 4 lines, though:
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;

“Shines” doesn’t rhyme with the final word of any of the previous lines, and neither does “dimm’d.” But our alternating pattern picks up again with “declines” and “untrimm’d.” So lines 5 and 7 rhyme, and lines 6 and 8 rhyme; or, keeping up our poetic notation, CDCD.

The shift happens again in lines 9-12:
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;

These lines don’t rhyme with previous lines, but they do follow our pattern. They go EFEF.

The final couplet also has its own rhyme:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

This finishes our poem with that rhyming couplet we mentioned: GG.

Thus,the overall rhyming structure of a Shakespearean sonnet is ABABCDCDEFEFGG. Combined with the syllabic restraints of the iambic pentameter, the sonnet functions as a little grid within which the poet may play. 

Types of Rhyme in Poetry

Some words obviously rhyme: “see” and “thee” from the final lines of our example above, or “day” and “May,” from the first and third lines are examples of these full or hard rhymes. But sometimes the rhyme isn’t so obvious. For instance, “temperate” and “date,” in lines 2 and 4. “Temper-et” doesn’t rhyme with “d-ay-te.” So did the Immortal Bard biff it? Well, not exactly. Those words were probably pronounced a little differently during Shakespeare’s day, due to a little event called the Great Vowel Shift. But even if they weren’t, Shakespeare could be relying on slant rhyme.

Slant rhyme is when a word almost rhymes with another word. The consonants can rhyme with mismatched vowels, or, as here, the same vowel pronounced differently — temperate and date, men and moon, or cat and kite. The vowels can rhyme with different consonants — men and them, flowerbeds and bends, or thumb and gun. All of these are examples from Seamus Heaney’s excellent poem Digging, which I recommend you read (available here).

Rhyme Well

It’s important to note that most poetry classes will forbid any hard rhymes at all, and with good reason. Rhyming poetry is often pat, sappy, trite, overused, and bad. People become so committed to rhyming that they wrench a word’s meaning or pronunciation to fit their rhyme scheme. Or they might neglect the form in favor of a rhyme, which results in poetry that feels forced and falls flat. Or, perhaps, they use a rhyme that has become cliche (love and dove, boy and joy, et alii). But it’s not wise to discard rhyming poetry simply because many people are bad at it. Instead, we should refine our rhymes and work hard on finding the right word, rather than lazily flopping down whatever rhyme comes to mind.

Not all poetry must rhyme, and indeed, some of the best poems do not. You can look at Milton’s Paradise Lost, for example, or Shakespeare’s use of blank (or unrhymed) verse. But when we write a sonnet or some other form of poetry wherein the rhyme scheme is part of the structure, we should rhyme well. Be sure that your rhymes are serving your poem, not just getting you on to the next line.

To Wrap Up

There are many more things that could be said about rhyme. You could rhyme the same word but mean two different things by it (kit, as in a collection of supplies and kit, as in a baby fox). You could rhyme two words that sound the same, or very similar, but mean different things (full and fool, pull and pool, to and too or two). But this brief introduction to rhyme will put us well on our way toward a sonnet. You can put this week’s lesson into practice with the exercises below.


Exercise 1:

Write two couplets (that’s four lines total) in iambic pentameter using full rhyme. Your two topics are:

  1. Your favorite dessert
  2. The item nearest you that isn’t electronic.

My lines. Remember, this isn’t about writing poetry yet. It’s about internalizing the meter and techniques. These lines are literally my first attempt. I did no editing and it took me about five minutes to do them all. It’s all about practicing:

  1. I love bread pudding, filled with chocolate chips.
    Too bad it seems to go straight to my hips.
  2. A water glass which some would call half full.
    I’ll empty it with just a single pull.

Exercise 2:

Write two couplets in iambic pentameter using slant rhyme. Try one rhyming the vowels and one rhyming the consonants if you dare. Your two topics are:

  1. Your last vacation
  2. The last book you read.

My lines:

  1. My last vacation? Oh that was a trip!
    In Scotland I was offered bits of tripe.
  2. I read a Gaiman novel, which was great.
    He wrote about an ocean in a lake.

Have these posts been helpful? Let us know in the comments below, or connect with us on Twitter and Facebook. Be sure to subscribe to the blog so you can be the first to know when new posts come out. Next time, we will be taking a look at enjambment.