Help Us Write a Sonnet: Line One


Originally imported from Italy, the sonnet is the most traditional of English poetic forms. There were strict rules in the past, but in the era of free verse the only requirement is that the poem must consist of 14 lines (and even this stricture has been challenged). In its heyday, the Renaissance, glorious sonnet sequences were written by Shakespeare, Spenser, Sidney, Wyatt, Surrey, and others. Traditional subjects include love, beauty, time, death, the seasons, and how any two of these might combine.

The sonnet has enjoyed other periods of glory. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, and Keats made it a vehicle for the Romantic impulse. Notable modern sonneteers range from Robert Frost to Edna St. Vincent Millay. Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus,” the poem with the stirring injunction that graces the Statue of Liberty, is a sonnet that makes subtle allusions to Shelley’s sonnet “Ozymandias.”

The sonnet’s 14 lines can be distributed in several ways: in two stanzas consisting of four lines each followed by two consisting of three lines, for example, or in an eight-line stanza followed by a six-line stanza, or in the same but without a line space separating the units. Shakespeare favored three quatrains and a closing couplet. A characteristic rhyme scheme is A-B-A-B, though the A-B-B-A pattern, in which one rhyme sandwiches another, has its champions, Tennyson and Auden among them.

The sonnet might begin with a comparison or a question—or sometimes both at once, as in the celebrated instance of Shakespeare’s #18: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” The subject is as much “you” as it is “summer,” the first a metonymy for beauty, the second a metonymy for time. Poetry is the agency by which “thy eternal summer” may come into being, defeating the forces of death. “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, / So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.”

The poet may deploy the sonnet’s lines strategically to advance an argument. It is crucial that the poem turn after the eighth line. This turn makes the structure of the sonnet apt for rhetorical ploys ranging from thesis and antithesis to theme-and-variation, generalization-and-exception, declaration followed by illustration. A qualifying conjunction, a “But” or a “Yet,” may initiate the sharp-toothed contrast.

I have written the first line of a sonnet in the Shakespearean manner. It is 10 syllables and in pentameter (five poetic feet)—choices so out of keeping with current poetic practice that, in the spirit of contrarianism, I’d like to see contestants follow suit. I have left the end of the line unpunctuated in case my collaborators wish to extend the phrase. The trick is to surprise with word choice. If my first line works, it is because the last word in its pedestrianism differs strikingly from the nobility of the opening phrase.

Contestants may want to keep in mind that the paradox of liberty within imprisonment is used by Wordsworth in his sonnet about the sonnet form, “Nuns Fret Not at Their Convent’s Narrow Room.”


How like a prison is my cubicle


Please leave a comment below with your suggestion for the next line of this poem.

David Lehman will pick finalists and a winner, all of which will be published in this space next week. We will invite you then to comment on whether he chose the best line among the finalists.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

David Lehman, a contributing editor of the Scholar, is a poet, critic, and the general editor of The Best American Poetry annual anthology and author of the book One Hundred Autobiographies. He currently writes our Talking Pictures column.


Please enter a valid email address
That address is already in use
The security code entered was incorrect
Thanks for signing up