Poetry Sunday – Sonnets, A Bit Harder but Well Worth the EffortApril 1, 2012
Sonnets are one of the harder forms of poetry to master. To make matters even more muddled, there are many forms of sonnets. In the United States, when we think of sonnets, it is the English, otherwise known as the Shakespearean, form we think of. Other popular sonnet styles are Italian, Occitan, Spenserian, Modern, and many others.
I like Shakespearean most, but when I write them, I modify the style a bit. A classic Shakespearean sonnet uses three quatrains and a couplet with a rhyme scheme of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG and a meter in the iambic pentameter style. To put that into English, each stanza rhymes every other line and no two stanzas use the same rhyming words as other stanzas. Further, each line is ten syllables long in most cases with a natural strong stress on the even syllables. This is where the word foot comes in.
Iambic means the syllables of a line are grouped in pairs with the stronger stress on the end syllable. One of the best examples comes from one the Bard’s plays:
“To be, or not to be, that is the question:[i]”
It is hard to read lines like this from Hamlet in anything other than its Iambic form. The words are naturally stressed on the even syllables. With the stressed syllables emphasized, it looks like this:
“To be, or not to be, that is the question:”
Remember, the line is from his play and in his plays the lines do not always contain the right number of syllables. Such is the case with the example, but it does illustrate extremely well the proper use of iambic meter.
The syllable group is called a foot. Some groups have two syllables, and some have three or more. In the Shakespearean Sonnet’s case, there are ten syllables making up five iambic pairs or five feet. The word for five feet in a line is pentameter and when the two work together it is called iambic pentameter.
While this is not the technical definition, it works for a general understanding of how Shakespearean Sonnets work. Here is one of William Shakespeare’s famous examples, simply titled Sonnet 18:
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this and this gives life to thee.
You can see Uncle Bill’s (Shakespeare is every poet’s good ol’ Uncle Bill) use of the rhyme scheme and meter. We must give deference to the changes in language since then that makes the rhymes seem forced in some cases.
Another writing device used in most sonnet forms is the “turn,” or volta, as poets like to call it. By the way, volta means time or turn in Italian. This turn is a distinct change in the thought and flow of the poem. While it is not a spelled out rule, many poets place the turn in the third quatrain (stanza) and return from the change in the ending couplet. Shakespeare placed his volta at the couplet and so do I. It really is up to the poet.
While Shakespeare is one of the true masters of the form, I find sticking to a constant meter (iambic pentameter for instance) does not blend well with modern though and speech patterns. I like to break the quatrain into couplets with the first line having four feet and the last having three. It just reads easier to me and gives the work a more song-like quality. Here is one of my sonnets for example:
The Day I Found You
We sat upon a swing that day
and made the world our own
We talked with more than words could say
with seeds our thoughts had sown
For love began upon that swing
our souls became as one
For us the world had joys to bring
through this life that we’ve run
I look back now, that day I see
and know I found my soul
It’s from life’s dark you set me free
and with your love, made whole
I love you for you, but really much more
you taught me to love, you opened love’s door
So, why not take out your pen and give a sonnet a try. It is the first day of National Poetry Month after all! Pick a classic style or modify one and I did. It is up to you. The point is to create something that is uniquely you, something that expresses your feelings and thoughts. I know some of you are thinking “eeew – I can’t write a mushy love poem.” The good news is sonnets can be about anything, it is the style of the poem, no its subject matter, for example:
What Stars Know
The far off lights that paint the sky
as dark does veil the Phoebus stage
and the crescent moon’s winking eye
do know the truth of wars we wage
For land, for God, for things profound
we give as reasons why we fight
but orbs up high retort the sound
of angry words proclaiming right
Tis death and pain that man does sow
upon this home, our home – the earth
the cost exceeds what we can know
are we so vain to set life’s worth?
To learn from stars is what we must do
Live and let live is the path that’s true
Sonnets are harder to write, that is certain. Once you do, you will understand the fun of it. The rules make the game fun, but like with any game you must practice before you become good at it. Write well, write often!
[i] “Hamlet.” - Act 3, Scene 1 by William Shakespeare. Web. 01 Apr. 2012.