"Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" is the first line of Shakespeare's Sonnet 18. In the thirteen lines that follow, the Bard answers the question, describing how his true love is more eternal than a season that eventually fades away. The sonnet is a poetic form often associated with Shakespeare, whose version had a fourteen lines written with a specific rhyme scheme and poetic meter. However, poets both before and after Shakespeare wrote sonnets, adapting the form to their own voices.
That remarkable human emotion, love is perhaps the most popular topic for authors, song writers, advice columnists and poets. The permutations of love as a sonnet topic are endless -- romantic love, unrequited love, discovery of new love, loss of old love, familial love, love and death, love and God, love and ice cream. To write a love sonnet, think about what inspires the most joy or pain, and you'll discover a wealth of things to say.
Coming of Age
The sense of wonder and exploration as humans grow and mature is a theme almost tailor-made for a sonnet. For young adults, consider a poem describing a first date, a first kiss or a first achievement. For a new parent, it may be a description of a child's first steps, first words or first haircut. Older adults can draw upon a lifetime of experience, both uplifting and sorrowful, including the death of a loved one, an empty nest, or fulfilling a promise to another.
You don't need to travel to the ends of the Earth, just take a walk in your backyard, along a creek or through a botanical garden to generate inspiration for a sonnet. Choose simple things, such as a bird building a nest, a caterpillar emerging from its chrysalis, a stray cat chasing a squirrel. Or, write about how humanity impacts the environment -- describe a construction site, a tumble-down barn, or a billboard.
Writing the Sonnet
All sonnets are 14 lines. The meter, rhyme scheme and tone vary from poet to poet. For example, Shakespeare's sonnets consist of three stanzas that are four lines each, ending with a couplet. Prior to Shakespeare, the Italian poet Petrarch used one octave (eight-line stanza) and one sestet (six-line stanza) to get 14 lines. Modern and contemporary poets have either worked within these boundaries or pushed beyond them. If you are writing a sonnet, see the form as a box that you can fill with ideas, but only if they fit.