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Elizabethan Sonnets

For people writing in the English language, Elizabethan Sonnets are by far the easiest form of sonnet to write. The English language does not have as many rhyming words as some other languages such as Spanish and Italian. Thus, the fact that Elizabethan Sonnets allow you to change your rhyming sounds with every quatrain helps to keep the writer from struggling with finding more rhymes.

The Elizabethan Sonnet is made up of 3 quatrains of iambic pentameter, followed by a heroic couplet.

The quatrains are four lines each, and the rhyming scheme is ABAB. Thus, ever other line rhymes. Since it is iambic pentameter, each line consists of five stressed syllables and five unstressed syllables.

The following is an example of an ABAB quatrain:

The sunset clouds, like fiery lava flows,
Pour silently across the the rosy sky,
Ignite the granite peaks as darkness grows,
And sear their scorching beauty on my eye.

(Copyright 2010, Douglas Twitchell)

In traditional sonnets, it was expected that each quatrain should have a completely contained thought. In modern usage, the breaking of thought is a little more flexible; some poets choose to have a quatrain which ends the thought early, or carries over a thought into the next quatrain.

The rhyming pairs are allowed to change with each quatrain, so the format is as follows:


Finally, the sonnet concludes with a heroic couplet - a pair of rhyming iambic pentameter lines.

The goal of the couplet is that it should do one of two things:

1. Summarize succinctly everything that has come before.
2. Take everything that has come before and turn it around in a brand new light.

Here is an example of an Elizabethan Sonnet:

I met a boy with half a brain today,
A strange and cruel trick of Providence
To form a child in such a dreadful way
And thrust him on the world without defense.
His careful speech was slow and slurred,
His blond-haired head was often pitched askew,
His questing eyes were wide and inward turned,
And every sight and sound was strange and new.
'Twas he alone who greeted me with grace,
And held the door for me with great delight,
Then said goodbye with sad but fierce embrace,
With fondness waved 'till I was out of sight.
Thus I discovered this important fact:
Fate's trick was played on us, with brains intact.

(Copyright 2009, by Douglas Twitchell)

In this poem the first quatrain is about meeting Nick. The second quatrain is about Nick's characteristics, and the third quatrain is about how he interacted with me.

The concluding couplet turns everything upside down by challenging our notion that Nick is the unfortunate one.

Elizabethan Sonnets are a fun challenge to write, and there is a great sense of satisfaction when you're all done. Have fun writing!

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