Love is in the sonnet

Love poetry

My turn to run the writing group this week and, being the day before Valentine’s, what else could I do but sonnets?  The group rose brilliantly to the challenge and created some very beautiful sonnets in honour of those they love.  Distracted by being the ‘leader’, mine is very much a work in progress.  Although, if you do want to see one I wrote, Salsa was written some time ago.

I have included the information and the activities that we looked at during the group as you may find them useful.

I look forward to reading your sonnets! 

One of the most famous poems of love


How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

I love thee to the depth and breadth and height

My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight

For the ends of being and ideal grace.

I love thee to the level of every day’s

Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.

I love thee freely, as men strive for right.

I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.

I love thee with the passion put to use

In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.

I love thee with a love I seemed to lose

With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,

Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,

I shall but love thee better after death.


Elizabeth Barrett Browning 1806-1861


A most famous love poem using the poetic form known as Petrarchan sonnet, a 14 line poem divided into two part, an octet (8 lines) and a sestet (6 lines).  Petrarchan sonnets were discovered by Thomas Wyatt in the 1500s but were written probably in the 1300s.

Petrarch had already experimented with the Italian canzone stanza – a form in which there was an obvious change between the octet and sestet.  There have been many developments on the Petrarchan sonnet and many rhyme schemes.



Activity 1

What is the rhyme scheme for Barratt-Browning’s poem?  (answer at the end!)


What is a sonnet?

A brief overview…

 Shakepeare, of course, wrote many sonnetsIn general terms:


  • Sonnets are a kind of lyric (from the word lyre and therefore to be accompanied by the lyre).
  • They were love poems
  • Typically the loved one rejects the poet
  • There is a conceit (extended or central metaphor – using besieged armies for example to express the desire)
  • The lover’s beauty is itemized:  known as the ‘blazon’
  • Written with a prescribed rhyme scheme
  • Written in iambic pentameter


A Shakespearian sonnet


Let me not to the marriage of true minds

Admit impediments. Love is not love

Which alters when it alteration finds,

Or bends with the remover to remove:

O no! it is an ever-fixed mark

That looks on tempests and is never shaken;

It is the star to every wandering bark,

Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.

Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks

Within his bending sickle’s compass come:

Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,

But bears it out even to the edge of doom.

If this be error and upon me proved,

I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

 Sonnet 116


A subversion of the form

Probably from the moment sonnets were created, so poets began to experiment with the form.  Here, Shakespeare’s parody of the traditional way of speaking of a lover:


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.

Shakespeare, sonnet 130


Activity 2 

  1.  All poems need to have a ‘back story’ – all those details that you would not include but you need in order to know the subject of the poem.  Before you start, think about the story behind your poem.  Who/what is the love interest?  What bought you together or spilt you apart? 
  2. The smallest details are often the most moving parts of poems:  the loop of hair in the hairbrush of a deceased lover (read the poem Gone by Simon Armitage). Before writing a poem, write down everything you can think about the love interest – all the small and big things – Eg:  the chocolate mole on the back of their neck,  sonorous snoring that wakes you in the middle of the night.  Anything you can think of that will help you to write about love in a poem.
  3. Can you say it without adjectives/adverbs?  For example, I love you very much indeed….is more powerfully said, I love you! 

Every word is important and intensifiers often take up words where a simple image word say it more powerfully!


Iambic pentameter

Sonnet’s were at least approximately iambic pentameter.  Ahhhh!  I know, not something easy to get your head around!

Each line has 10 syllables.  An iamb (a metrical unit) consists of 2 syllables, one stressed and one unstressed.  Each line has 5 and hence is known as iambic pentameter.

For example:

Shall I / com PARE/ thee TO / a SUM / mer’s DAY? Thou ART / more LOVE / ly AND / more TEM / per ATE

(Sonnet 18)

Internalise the meter and rhythm; try making up meaningless sentences and wordless rhythms to do so –


Ready to write?



Use the rhyme scheme abab bcbc cdcd ee  (probably the easiest one)
















Write your love sonnet in:

14 lines

10 syllables per line

If you are brave try iambic pentameter (10 syllables in unstressed/stressed syllables)

Read your poem aloud to yourself so that you can hear how it sounds.

Remember, everyone throughout the history of the sonnet has experimented with the form so don’t be afraid to let your words speak rather than being a total slave to the form!

(Rhyme scheme for How do I love thee?  abba abba cd cd cd)



My song for you


3rd or maybe 4th draft is finished and as you can see, I have a title for my new poem.  Not ready to be published here quite yet but I thought I would share the creative process that has gone into this poem.

A letter

My most recent work, My Song for You (working title), came from an exercise at my writing group that I didn’t find very easy.  We were asked to write a letter to a friend we hadn’t seen for a long time.

I don’t know about you, but I just don’t write letters anymore!  I write emails and I write texts but they are, by nature, brief and functional.  When are we going to dinner?  What time are you home?  – that kind of thing….people I haven’t seen for a while, I have been facebooking, and usually as a response to their post so it has a context….

I always hated writing letters when I was a child, although I did try but they always sounded so…..trite.  And I remain  in awe of people who write beautiful letters.

But I like poetry so I turned my letter into a poem…

The poem

The first draft was a 15 minute exercise and since then, I have been wrestling with the imagery.

The back story for the poem proved to be the most important issue initially – why were these two people divided, what divided them, why can’t they get back together?  The questions that I asked myself took almost as long as writing the poem.  They were important though and provided a framework for the words.

And then the imagery.  When I produced my 2nd draft and offered it for reading, the poem was interpreted as a relationship of violence, of abuse and that so wasn’t what I wanted to convey.

Shame has spun me round, chained my wrists

Blinkered my eyes, slammed me against the wall….

This workshopping effect is really important as I didn’t want that interpretation – it was supposed to be altogether much more loving than that.

So back to the drafting.

A poem that focused on the lives of two people that have been separated by time, I realised that there was too much of just one person in it and it was important that both lives were evident.

Most importantly though, I also had my favourite lines in it that I didn’t want to lose…..and yet they are now gone.  Why?  Dr Johnson advised writers to ‘read over [your] composition and wherever you meet a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.’ (Sansom, p50)  If you read poems aloud (and I think, that this is really important), those ‘fine’ passages stick in your throat…and if they do that, get them gone!

Yes, doing so left a big hole but in its place is room for the subtle effect, which leaves the reader back in charge of the interpretation.

Time to get back to it, for a final or maybe 5th revision!

Happy writing!


Dr Johnson’s quote comes from Peter Sansom’s book, Writing Poems published by Bloodaxe Books (1997)