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Let's Look at Sonnets
Copyright©2007 by Dick Hayes

What is a Sonnet?

The Sonnet (or small song) is an adaptation of the Italian mode of writing short, striking and sensuous pieces, which was popular in Italy between the 13th and 15th centuries. The best known, and arguably the greatest, of the Italian sonneteers was Petrarch, whose first English translators—Wyatt and Surrey—introduced the verse form into Elizabethan England.

How is it laid out?

A traditional sonnet follows a number of rules:

• It has fourteen lines.
• It uses iambic pentameter as its scansion form.
• It has a regular rhyme scheme.
• It has clearly defined stanzas.

Here is a sample by Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806–1861) from her series Sonnets from the Portuguese. This one is justly celebrated.

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of everyday's
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love thee with a passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood's faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints,—I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life!—and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

Some History

The sonnet was soon established in 16th century England and became a popular short piece, usually with a love theme. Although practised by many as a single exercise, the first real success of this form of composition, was a series of 108 sonnets by Sir Phillip Sidney (1554–1586) called "Astrophel and Stella." William Shakespeare (1564–1616) soon added to the fame of the form by his famous series, in which he established the particular pattern of verse structure and rhyme scheme called the Shakespearean Sonnet.

Many famous English poets have written sonnets. Poets as diverse as Milton (17th century) with his "On his blindness" and WB Yeats (20th Century) with "Leda and the Swan" have demonstrated the power of this small, but potent form. The Utmost poet laureate Violet Nesdoly has an example of the Shakespearean form “Family Reunion” on this web site.

Why were sonnets a success?

Possibly, because each is small enough to command a single mood or passion. Thus, the sonnet series can be used to convey a whole range of experiences and feelings. It also demands care in the construction and follows an exact form. The Italian sonnet was initially divided into an octave (8 line part) which stated a question or concern, followed by a sestet (6 line part) providing a resolution or answer. The ninth line, beginning the second part, would also be the moment to alter the stance or mood of the poem. This dividing point gives the sonnet a particular balance, and the writer should aim to catch this moment.

Getting to grips with the form

In my earlier instructional piece "Formal Verse: An Introduction and an Invitation" I suggested travelling some distance with the best proponents. Now I am following my own advice! Here, I have written five sonnets, as an exercise to capture something of the style and mood of previous, justly celebrated writers. This will also, I hope, encourage Utmost readers to have a go—it’s a great way to begin. As you write and feel your way forward with the original authors, you begin to see how they did it. Only this way do you pick up the skills ordinary reading cannot convey.

I have indicated the rhyme scheme with each piece. I have taken five different stylistic approaches, varied the stanza and subject matter. The aim is richness of language, with enough of a challenge to get the reader thinking. In some cases, the obvious parody of another cannot be avoided, as indeed emulation is the purpose.

One more point. The concept of a "conceit" is important in sonnet writing. A conceit is a figure of speech which makes an unusual and sometimes elaborately sustained comparison between two dissimilar things. Conceits often occur in sonnets. Thus Shakespeare famously writes:

May I compare thee to a summer day?

Naturally, this can lead to sonnets that seem artificial and clever, rather than sympathetic and compassionate. Possibly the early writers wanted to impress and not give away too much of their true feelings —maybe this was part of the medieval courtly ritual. Anyway the writer should not be put off using such devices, as they are part of the tradition and add to the delight and strength of the genre and can convey an extra surprise which assists originality.

And now to work

Read each exercise first. Then consider the comments on construction and where a detail is unclear, hopefully a reference to the notes will shed more light. At the end, I hope you will have gained an overall impression of the sonnet form and its diversity. See how the whole pivots on the 6/8 8/6 break. Aim for this, to ensure the form is put to best use. For this reason, I have with one exception, broken up the stanzas to emphasis the point.

Exercise 1

The Battle Of The Abbey Tea-rooms

White knuckles grasped the chairs, with shoulders bowed,
small knots of fire reflecting in each eye.
Bloodless the bitten lip and stark the frown!
There, on the chairs, as furrowed earth when ploughed
they formed their seething ranks—nor any shy
or slow to wield the sword of God when drawn.

They rose in one dark swarm, the air was black
with obloquy—no dignitary was spared.
The Bishop, trembling for his very life
fled out into the close, nor once looked back;
stumbled, tucked up his skirts and disappeared.
And all because the Rector’s upstart wife
Usurped the rota! Deigned to choose the food!
all done these thirty years by Sister Hood!

This is a humorous piece—loosely based on John Betjamin. The proposition is placed in the first six lines. I have altered the model form the Petrarchian 8/6 to 6/8. Thus line 7 (They rose) demonstrates the change from passive to active, so dividing the sestet/octave. Note the last two lines—invariably strong, generally a rhyming couple and emphasising closure. This is the common approach to ending a sonnet. The metre is iambic pentameter, which is the favoured scansion for sonnets. Line 6 is a "conceit," as the sword of God is a picture of righteous indignation. Now, we all know how strong and deep feelings can run, so the conceit highlights the foolishness of losing one’s cool on a matter so trivial.

Notes on content
Rhyme pattern ABCABCDEFDEFGG : this variation of rhyme is unusual.
L10 Close: An overlooked area surrounded by houses.
L11 Skirts: A term often used to describe a Bishop’s robes.
L14 Sister Hood: (maybe a singular lady of the sort that frequently dominates and can’t abide change) This is also a play on the term sisterhood being the group version of the same.

Exercise 2

The Lover’s Rebuff

I rest beside her gate to purchase time.
The fields, with slight, sweet, odours fume the spring;
while doves and flocks do to each other rhyme
such melodies, that vale and pasture ring.

What! Should I hesitate? When so disposed
to take one further step and twitch the elf
who chides the heart? Yet there, I find enclosed,
that wilful, naughty rebel of myself.

“Tis virtue’s kiss I seek, dear mistress mine,
( rising each moment higher, gaining grace)
I would, all other hopes but this resign!”
She straitly turns, and drops her lovers face.

With hands, uplifts my head and whispers: “Hush,
the servants, lest they hear or see me blush!

This (I hope) catches something of the ripeness of the Elizabethan golden age, hence suggestive of Sidney or Spenser. This is a strictly Shakespearean sonnet form viz three stanzas with alternate rhymes and an end couplet. The subject is human love. The lover is desiring some form of physical pleasure. "Thus far but no further" is the lady’s coy response.

Stanza one sets a Pastoral scene. Stanza two the argument within the soul between desire and restraint. In stanza three, desire wins and an appeal for favour is made. The closing couplet contains the rebuff. Note the Change of mood from "contemplation" to "action" in line nine.

When I work in the earlier (Elizabethan) style I try to avoid archaisms to convey the style. To fill a poem with "thee," "thou," "wouldst,"’ etc, is a lazy mans approach and not convincing. Only in the second is the reduced "tis" (L9) used in the old manner—and that is only due to the pressing need of the scansion and is my one compromise. So you see we do break our own rules sometimes, but only a little!

Notes on content
Rhyme scheme ABABCDCDEFEFGG: The Shakespearean

Exercise 3

To a Mosquito

I itch! You uninvited, droning mite.
I heard you tumbling in the stratosphere
about my head, with lone remorseless flight,
searching for elbow or soft springy ear.
Queen of the dark, whose lustrous wing beating
guides oh so perfectly. That needle head
has supped from politician and from King.
How many pontiffs have you chased from bed?
What honey stolen from the cautious bride
before the groom attend? Or left your mark
obstreperous upon the frantic tyrant’s hide!
Those gossamers, that waft your tiny bark
plumped with sweet liquor – speed your vile ship -
be sure, I’ll slap your ribs, if chance equip!

Another strict Shakespearean built around the three stanza with end couplet. Unlike the previous example I have removed the stanza breaks as the octave/sestet divide is not so distinct—bending one of the rules but not breaking it. The use of sonorous and sensuous words—gossamers, lustrous, plumped, obstreperous—is deliberately meant to echo Keats. The gentle humour also, I feel, reflects a jollity that often escaped from his sometimes (I think) affected melancholy. See his delightful “To Mrs Reynold’s Cat.”

Rhyme scheme ABABCDCDEFEFGG: Shakespearean.
L8: Pontiff—the highest religious authority. Technically means bridge builder.
L13: Bark is another name for boat—very popular with the romantics.

Exercise 4

Serving a Double God

Quince, apple, pears and all that’s dusty green
he loves. Smiles, takes amaze of skin’s light hue;
of pollen fume, bark flaked, flecked, freaked with sheen.
Sometime the man, wind tossed from hill heights trailed,
bids Felix Randel; wood hard, knotty, true,
be still! Soothing his raging when assailed.

Received, absolved! Loyola’s ministrant
serving a double God. Devout—he brooks
the blood bought, bred and bent made supplicant,
tamed in the dry dust, down eyed, serried care
of wrinkled parchments and permissive books.
Then, takes he to bright openings of air,
Stairs leap, as falcon flight, ascends air cleaving;
while others, rod and discipline receiving!

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1838-1894) was a Jesuit Priest. The subject is the known tension he felt in the severe religious vocation he adopted. Tension flows in his work and it is difficult to avoid the charge of parody when following the style. This is a more unusual and more difficult piece, as it borrows both Hopkins' sprung rhythm (e.g. L13 ) and his heavy alliteration ( e.g. L3) The sestet/octave divide is more distinct. Here the first six lines express the outside world of action, the eight the closed order of the monastery. The resolution is achieved by the ascent to the roof while others remain in books and study.

Line 5: See GMH sonnet on Felix Randel.
Line 7: "Received" is joining the Jesuit order.
Line 7: Absolved—the removal of sin (actual) through the propitiation of the mass.
Line 7: Loyola—Ignatious Loyola founder of The Society of Jesus (The Jesuits). Their chief tenets being tough intellectual labour and absolute obedience.
Line 8: The double God here distinguishes the severe Jesuit discipline as one face of God, with the exultant joy of creation—one which GMH couldn’t repress.
Line 8: Brooks—bears with or endures.
Line 10: Serried—densely packed or in close formation.
Line 11: Permissive books. ie Non-Catholic works normally forbidden, dissected for the purpose of finding errors and weaknesses in the arguments of opponents.

Exercise 5

Grumpy Old Man

My got up’s gone! Plain yoghurt, seedless grapes.
Pills! Colour coded, lily, plum and peach
drive aerial heroics out of reach.
Farewell Parnassas colt, winged shoes, and capes!
That cunning hammer, Hephaestus conspired
to foist on Black and Decker’s in the shed.
Stud walls need render, bonding – oh my head
It takes ten times as long when you’re retired.

Penelope’s, in good shape though. She weaves,
no suitors puff. Reminds me, as we dine,
“Now, for your stomach’s sake, a little wine!”
But fears Euroclydon or falling leaves
may snare unsteady legs. “More chance” I whine
“Of shipwreck on the surf loud Cyclades!

This is a cynical view of the ageing Odysseus. I aimed at a 1930s feel—maybe W. H. Auden. The adoption of mock heroic and mythological imagery is common in English verse. Yet this is only used to enhance the real down to earth state of affairs. Line 5/6—the mixing of Black and Decker with Hephastus is a typical conceit contrasting the heroic with the mundane. Again, note the mood switch at Line 9 from him to her—from reflection to action, which commences the sestet in accordance with best practice.

Line 4: Parnassas Colt—Pegasus the winged horse
Line 4: Winged shoes—such as Perseus borrowed from Hermes
Line 4: Capes—ironic note, hints at Batman.
Line 5: Haephaestus—forged the armour and weapons for the Olympic Gods
Line 6: Black and Decker—producer of DIY tools
Line 9: Penelope—the wife of Odysseus, who weaved a web while awaiting his return from the Trojan wars. (See Homer’s Odyssey for the full story of the suitors.)
Line 11: First Epistle to Timothy Chapter 5
Line 12: Euroclydon—a storm wind see Acts 27
Line 14: Cyclades—set of rocky islands in the Aegean


Hopefully, some of the varieties of sonnet construction are visible in my examples. Hopefully, the potential variety of mood and style is obvious.

Why don't you try one? If you’ve never done anything formal, it’s a good way to start as the sonnet is a short exercise. Rhyming can vary—you can see some of the patterns above, but you don’t need to stick to these—and some modern sonnet writers have abandoned it altogether, although they always retain 14 lines. The important thing is to see how the form can carry a potent message. Look up some of the classic examples available in any general anthology.

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