You know the rhythm.
If you’re a native English speaker, the chances are good that you’ve read more sonnets than any other form of poetry. The 14-line, 10-syllable-per-line structure is embedded in your memory, as is the ababcdcd-efefgg rhyme scheme. Because it’s familiar to you, writing a sonnet may come quite naturally.
When thinking about how to approach your first sonnet, don’t worry about developing true rhymes and consistent rhythm for your work. Incorporating slant rhyme (similar, but not identical, sounds) or occasionally repeating the same word will make the task so much easier, as will the use of an irregular rhythm. As you’re getting acquainted with writing a sonnet, try keeping to 9-11 syllables per line, forming half of those syllables into iambic feet (an unstressed syllable, followed by a stressed syllable). And if you’re a perfectionist who wants to get the sonnet as tight as those of the traditional sonneteers, write a draft first and go back and revise your language accordingly.
Now that we’ve loosened the rules on the form of the sonnet, look to an expert sonneteer like Christina Rossetti as a guide to how to work the content of a sonnet. Rossetti was half of one of the 19th century’s great family writing duos (her brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, was a poet and translator). Christina Rossetti and Elizabeth Barrett Browning brought women’s desires and emotions into the sonnet, adding further depth to the form.
Set your intent.
In "Remember," Rossetti anticipates her own death, and clearly conveys a wistful yet romantic tone as she starts writing:
Remember me when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the silent land;
When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go, yet turning stay.
Her syllable count is impeccable – 10 syllables per line as she twists the rhyme scheme into abbaabba-cddc-gg. Yet, it’s easy to lose count as she sweeps us into the poem.
To follow the logic of Rossetti’s sonnet, view the first quatrain as establishing a problem or motive for the poem. Here, Rossetti wants her reader to remember her while also demonstrating the difficulty of letting go. This has the mark of a good sonnet, in that it takes a course dictated by logic and emotion.
Further your motive.
Rossetti plants pauses – catches of breath – in the next quatrain, while increasing the level of romance and allure.
Remember me when no more, day by day,
You tell me of our future that you planned:
Only remember me; you understand
It will be too late to counsel then or pray.
Is she talking about her own demise? Or about a love not allowed to blossom? Another step in writing a sonnet – constant forward movement – ripples through her work.
Turn the core.
Rossetti provides the classic sonnet closing, while keeping the poem deeply personal for all 14 lines – a vital ingredient in the sonneteer’s recipe.
Yet if you should forget me for a while
And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
For if the darkness and corruption leave
A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad.
In the beginning of the sestet, Rossetti twists the core of the poem that of remembrance to forgetting. She turns us toward the finish by again displaying the immediate emotion of the grieving heart, but the more detached, longer vision of a life worth remembering. While the opening octave of the sonnet is dedicated towards encouraging an immediate remembering, the sestet provides a twist to the original intent, and remembering is considered in a fresh, altered light.
As you begin writing your own sonnet, remember to use your octet to express your motive for the poem, with the closing sestet providing a reconsideration and resolution of that intent. Many sonneteers use this initial octave to display a problem, and then they use the closing sestet to resolve this issue. Whether you choose to write about love, religion, politics, or philosophy, the logical form of the sonnet will help fuel your emotional meditation.