What is a sonnet? A sonnet is a poem with a very specific form: every sonnet has fourteen lines, and each line is iambic pentameter. “Iambic” means that the line is comprised of iambs: each iamb is an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. Here are some words that of themselves are iambs: again, outside, until, redeem, insist. “Pentameter” means that each line has five iambs, making for ten syllables that follow this pattern: bum BUM bum BUM bum BUM bum BUM bum BUM; with PRACtice THIS comes VEry NAT’ralLY.
Fourteen lines of iambic pentameter means that the sonnet form gives the poet precisely 140 syllables, or 70 iambs (usually also following a rhyme scheme) in which to make a point. One might think this would be limiting. Quite the opposite. William Wordsworth puts it well in a sonnet of his (which is about the sonnet form):
Nuns fret not at their convent’s narrow room;
And hermits are contented with their cells;
And students with their pensive citadels;
Maids at the wheel, the weaver at his loom,
Sit blithe and happy; bees that soar for bloom,
High as the highest Peak of Furness-fells,
Will murmur by the hour in foxglove bells:
In truth the prison, into which we doom
Ourselves, no prison is: and hence for me,
In sundry moods, ’twas pastime to be bound
Within the Sonnet’s scanty plot of ground;
Pleased if some Souls (for such there needs must be)
Who have felt the weight of too much liberty,
Should find brief solace there, as I have found.
Our students at Mount Hope are currently working on memorizing sonnets. The K-2nd students are memorizing Baptisme (I) by George Herbert. Our 3rd-5th students are memorizing Holy Sonnet X by John Donne. And the junior high and high school students are memorizing Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley. If you read through these poems, you’ll see that they all have fourteen lines of iambic pentameter.
(A quick note: the best advice I ever heard about reading poetry is, “Poems are not read, but wooed.” Don’t expect to understand a poem at first reading, but read it, then read it again, then revisit some specific lines, then read it again, and so forth. This is part of the joy of reading poetry, and the only way poems will make any sense).
I’ve been teaching poetry to our upper level students, and we covered sonnets just before Christmastime. Here’s a sonnet that the class wrote together:
The world seeks peace and joy at Christmastide
By buying stuff at Gimcracks, Ltd.
They rush about the streets, preoccupied
With getting gifts to stuff beneath the tree.
And, dashing through the snow, their tempers flare.
They burn their cash to satisfy their greed,
Acquiring gifts (more than they plan to share),
Without a thought for what they really need.
But do they find their peace and joy in this?
They don’t, but where to go they have no clue.
They seek, but all they find is bitterness.
You’ll find it not in stores but in Luke 2.
For Christ has come and made the trouble cease;
In Him there is eternal joy and peace.
Sonnets are a joy, both to read and to write. I hope you enjoy the poems I’ve included here. I encourage you to try writing a line of iambic pentameter (or two, or fourteen). You won’t regret it.