It’s cheap, it’s shockingly easy, and it’s disproportionately impressive.
English-speaking culture has canonized the sonnet as the greatest expression of love, because English-speaking culture has a crush on William Shakespeare like you would not believe. Shakespeare’s legendary series of sonnets, as well as the coded use of sonnet form in Romeo and Juliet, has cemented the sonnet’s reputation as the top-shelf way of expressing love. If you write your lover an original sonnet for Valentine’s Day, an anniversary, a birthday, or any other occasion, you have proven that you are a class act, a brilliant and true lover who’s willing to go above and beyond to express their affection in the rarest of terms.
Which actually works out great, because sonnets are incredibly easy to write.
I used to write them while-you-wait for thirty bucks a go. I’ve done it drunk just to prove a point. I’ve improvised sonnets on the fly. They’re that easy. You can bang one out in no time to impress your sweetie, and win brownie points totally out of proportion to the actual effort you put in. Some may call that unromantic: I call it efficient.
A classic Elizabethan sonnet is fourteen lines of iambic pentameter, three quatrains and a couplet, with a rhyme scheme of ABABCDCDEFEFGG. That may sound confusing, but it’s not. Let’s break down what each of those means.
Iambic pentameter is the only remotely tricky part, and at heart it’s very simple: an iamb is an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable, and five of them in a row make a line of iambic pentameter. “Alas” is an iamb, the soft A giving way to the accent falling hard on LAS. “Ninja” is not an iamb, being pronounced NINja rather than ninJA. (If you know anyone who pronounces it ninJA, have them assassinated.) You can still cheat and get it into your meter, though, by sticking in an unstressed syllable ahead of it, like this: “O ninja, shadow-borne and light of foot!” See the rhythm of the syllables there? “o NINja SHADow-BORNE and LIGHT of FOOT”, ba-DUM ba-DUM ba-DUM ba-DUM ba-DUM. It actually is that easy.
Now, quatrains and rhyme scheme. A quatrain is four lines, and ABAB is the pattern of rhymes within them: the first line rhymes with the third, and the second line rhymes with the fourth. “O ninja, shadow-borne and light of foot/Your peerless blade cuts keenly through the air/Into a vital organ swiftly put/Now gone as though you never had been there.” Foot/put, air/there, that’s a quatrain. Do that two more times, and you’re twelve-fourteenths of the way done with this.
The best part is the final couplet, two more lines of iambic pentameter that rhyme with each other. The important part, the bit that makes your poem especially clever and impressive, is that traditionally these two lines are the “turn”, the part that casts the rest of the poem in a new light, or changes its perceived meaning in a subtle way. “No matter where the ninja’s path may stray/This sonnet’s awfully silly anyway.” Bam, two lines that rhyme and make you regard the previous twelve differently, as merely an absurd demonstration.
Let’s look at one in the wild:
No longer mourn for me when I am dead
Than you shall hear the surly sullen bell
Give warning to the world that I am fled
From this vile world with vilest worms to dwell:
Nay, if you read this line, remember not
The hand that writ it, for I love you so,
That I in your sweet thoughts would be forgot,
If thinking on me then should make you woe.
O! if, I say, you look upon this verse,
When I perhaps compounded am with clay,
Do not so much as my poor name rehearse;
But let your love even with my life decay;
Lest the wise world should look into your moan,
And mock you with me after I am gone.
That’s Shakespeare’s Sonnet 71, a classic of the Bard’s well-known “teenage goth” phase. It’s got all the elements we’ve discussed, and while we need not get into the literary analysis too much, it’s important to note the key element, the “turn” in the last two lines. He spends twelve lines saying that his love shouldn’t mourn him when he’s gone, and then in the last two, he suddenly explains why: because he’s unworthy of her and people would make fun of her for missing him. (Also, she was married to someone else, so, awkward.)
Got it? Let’s try a couple! Let’s say that your love is a man named Steven and he’s a movie buff and aspiring actor.
The shadowed ghosts upon the silver screen
Unaging and immortal, made of light
Were once as we are now, fresh-faced and green,
They loved as mortals do, like us tonight.
Their loves and heartbreaks, tales known to us all,
Were to them private pains, their hearts unknown.
Without her Bogart, who recalls Bacall?
Without her Tracy, Hepburn died alone.
Your face is destined to be cast on high
Caught flickering forever at its best.
But all I want to do before I die
Is cradle that dear face against my breast.
My selfish heart would hold you close to me
Lest even you escape mortality.
Give Steve that poem, and you, madam (or sir; “breast” has two meanings) are getting seriously laid tonight. Heck, you even imply that in line four.
Now let’s say your sweetie is a lady named Megan, and you’ve had a bad fight recently and you’re both working to patch things up.
My fate was to be born with two left feet
Eternally I stumble through the dance
Gouge scars into the floor in my defeat
And yet arise again for one more chance.
No different my stumblings in love
I, clumsy, tread unthinking on your toes
Leave heelmarks on your heart, and think thereof:
“Oh god, what clumsy fool left marks like those?”
Vain impulse makes me cover my mistake
“Each step I took was fine, the fault is yours!
You shouldn’t leave your heart so bare to break!”
Oh, vanity thinks everything is scores.
Unthinking, blind, unskilled, and even cruel
All foolish, and yet loved, for love’s a fool.
A better apology than most, perhaps; might go well paired with a bottle of decent wine. Not one for the ages, sure, but then, I only spent fifteen minutes writing it. That’s less time than a lot of people spend in line at the flower shop on Valentine’s Day.
You may be wondering why I specified the names of the recipients; there’s another tradition with love sonnets, and that’s encoding the name of your beloved in them in some clever way. Steven’s name is spread across “lest even” in the last line of his poem, and Megan gets an entire sentence in the first letters of each line. If your love is named Jenny, there’s nothing stopping you from putting the line “Joy, even now, needs you to make it real” in there someplace. It’s iambic pentameter, her name’s encoded into the first letters of five words, and “real” is easy to rhyme. Cryptography nerds can take this to horrible extremes, no doubt: please do. This step is optional, of course, but it’s solid gold in terms of romantic-gesture points. It tells your love that you didn’t just grab some obscure poem online and hand it to them, you made it for them and them alone; their identity is part of its DNA.
That, really, is why this is such a good thing to do for your beloved. Because something you made will always mean more than something you bought. Their name may be in it somewhere, but your identity will always be in there too, your words, your style, your imagery, your imagination bent to the task of telling them that you love them, in a form they can keep forever. You’ve taken the moment of your love, the exact set of thoughts and feelings you had in the time you wrote it, captured it forever, and given it as a gift. Those roses will be garbage next week, those chocolates will be sewage tomorrow, but a poem… well, as usual, Shakespeare said it best:
Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme;
But you shall shine more bright in these contents
Than unswept stone, besmear’d with sluttish time.
When wasteful war shall statues overturn,
And broils root out the work of masonry,
Nor Mars his sword, nor war’s quick fire shall burn
The living record of your memory.
‘Gainst death, and all oblivious enmity
Shall you pace forth; your praise shall still find room
Even in the eyes of all posterity
That wear this world out to the ending doom.
So, till the judgment that yourself arise,
You live in this, and dwell in lovers’ eyes.