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Sonnets (no, not from the Portugese)

Although while I'm on the topic, my recollection is that the sonnets were all original, and had little or nothing to do with anything Portugese.

Two weeks ago, I wrote a sonnet. Here's how I went about it, in case you decide to do the same and find yourself somewhat overwhelmed by the process:

First, I wrote the rhyme scheme down the left-hand side of the page using letters. I hadn't decided whether I wanted to go with a Shakespearian sonnet or an Italian sonnet, so I used two pages and two sets of letters. For Shakespearian, it's abab/cdcd/efef/gg. For Italian, it's abba/cddc/efg/efg; I've also seen the Italian in another form: abba/abba/cde/cde.

Shakespearian   Italian

a             a
b             b
a             b
b             a

c             a
d             b
c             b
d             a

e             c   or c   or c   or c   or c
f             d     d     d     d   d
e             e     c     c     e     c
f             c     d     c     e     d
g             d     c     d     d     e
g             e     d     c     c     e

I decided to use iambic pentameter (you know, ten syllables per line, with a ta-DUM ta-DUM ta-DUM ta-DUM ta-DUM scheme), which is a pretty common thing, at least in by-gone days. I decided to write about the harvest moon, although that's not what the poem decided to do once I got started. You know how poems are -- they are very slippery things. I wrote my first line, and plugged it in on both pages. I wrote the second, and did the same. Then I found a third, which came to me quite quickly and seemed like a logical next line. It rhymed with the line just above it, so, hey, presto!, my decision was made for me, and I went with the Italian form. (I should note that the gaps are usually closed when the poem is put out for publication, but it's the most visual way of working your rhyme scheme while the poem's in progress, and visual is a good thing for me.) Only as it turned out, I didn't use the classical Italian form at all, but instead something called the Envelope form (abba/cddc/efg/efg)

I have a complete draft of the poem. It is in perfect iambic pentameter. It's rhyme scheme is flawless, and, better yet, doesn't feel forced.

I am now obsessing over whether it meets the next test of a great sonnet: Does it have a "turn" and an adequate payoff? In a Shakespearian sonnet, the first two quatrains are used to set the scene, the third is the "turn" (where the sonnet starts to deepen or call itself into question), and the closing couplet is what I'm calling the payoff -- an answer to the question developed during the poem or in the turn. Some folks say that the turn is the silent pause between the third quatrain and the closing couplet, but I think that close examination of most sonnets will reveal that the third quatrain is where things become murky.

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 ow'st;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Note how the first two quatrains compare "thee" to weather, although in all fairness, the second notes that sometimes nature looks a little ratty. The third quatrain takes a decidedly different course (the turn), and starts noting that the subject of the poem shall never dim, even after death. The closing couplet says why (the payoff): I wrote about you in a poem and now you are immortal.

In an Italianate sonnet, you essentially have an octave followed by a sestet. Or, if you want to split your rhyme scheme, two quatrains followed by a sestet (which is, content-wise, actually two tercets). For the numerically challenged: octave = 8 lines, sestet = 6 lines, quatrain = 4 lines and tercet = 3 lines. Anyhow: The idea in an Italian sonnet is to build tension throughout the octave, with a turn in the first tercet (3 lines) of the sestet that relieves that tension slightly, with the payoff in the final three lines.

"London, 1802" by William Wordsworth

Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour:
England hath need of thee: she is a fen
Of stagnant waters: altar, sword, and pen,
Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower,
Have forfeited their ancient English dower
Of inward happiness. We are selfish men;
Oh! raise us up, return to us again;
And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power.
Thy soul was like a Star, and dwelt apart;
Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea:
Pure as the naked heavens, majestic, free,
So didst thou travel on life's common way,
In cheerful godliness; and yet thy heart
The lowliest duties on herself did lay.

His chosen sestet went cddece. Pretty much anything goes with the rhyme scheme, but it has to have one. Hopefully that makes sense.

An Italianate sonnet also includes a turn (also called a volta, if you care, but since we're talking Italian sonnet, I figured, why not use the Italian term?) and a resolution, all of which occurs during the closing sestet. The turn commonly appears in the first tercet (efg or cde), with the payoff in the second tercet, but not always -- some folks have successfully delayed the turn to the penultimate (second-to-last) line, with the payoff in the final line.

The Italianate sonnet has a lot more flexibility in form than the Shakespearian, and is therefore somewhat more easily manipulated. However, picking your rhyme scheme ahead of time might help you a bit if you're trying to get one done.

In case you're asking yourself "does anyone write these anymore?", the answer is yes. And I'm not saying that simply because I wrote a sonnet two weeks ago in accordance with the classical form -- lots of modern-day poets use the basic structure to construct poetry. They no longer see it only as a love poem (good thing, too, since that's most certainly not what I've written), but use the structure and rhyme-scheme to bemoan unwieldy children or computer malfunction or to extol the Oxford English Dictionary. If you're still unsure, check out the October 2005 issue of The Writer Magazine, which includes (as I discovered today, too late to help me get started) an article entitled "The sonnet: Not just for the lovelorn anymore," by Marilyn L. Taylor. You can also try this link, which has lots of information on the origin and history of sonnets, with rhyme-schemes and definitions to boot: http://www.sonnets.org/basicforms.htm

Happy writing, everyone!


( 12 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 17th, 2005 02:25 pm (UTC)
Not fair to give us all that and not show us your sonnet.

I'll show you mine if you show me yours. :)
Oct. 17th, 2005 02:25 pm (UTC)
Except that mine's not perfect. And I wrote it a long time ago. And it's depressing. So maybe you don't want to see it. :)
Oct. 17th, 2005 06:49 pm (UTC)
I'd love to see yours if you're willing to share. I'd show you mine, but since I'm hoping to sell it as part of a collection, I'm worried about "prior publication" issues. As if anyone is actually buying poetry collections these days. *Sigh*
Oct. 17th, 2005 07:33 pm (UTC)
I'll post it in a protected entry.
Oct. 17th, 2005 02:26 pm (UTC)
Ok, I'll admit that this post is still a little bit over my head :0)

But thank you for your wonderful instructions Kelly - I'm going to come back once I know a little bit more about poetry. Then I might even write my own sonnet!
Oct. 17th, 2005 06:50 pm (UTC)
I guarantee you that if you write down the rhyme scheme in a column, then use ten syllables per line that fit that rhyme scheme, you'll come away with a working version of a sonnet. Maybe not publishable, but working. (And oh, the sense of accomplishment!) Still, starting with rhymed couplets or a haiku may be the easier way to go.
Oct. 17th, 2005 07:38 pm (UTC)
I think I should stay away from rhyme all together - except just for me if I feel like it

Do sonnets have to rhyme?
Oct. 17th, 2005 10:38 pm (UTC)
Typically, yes, even the modern ones, although slant- or near-rhyme is frequently used. Here's one called Reboot by Brendan Crain, which I'm copying from The Writer:

The blue screen stares me down, laughs in my face:
I sit here in a techno-shell-shocked state.
My feeble brain has taken leave of me.
I pick up the phone and dial Dell.
The Automaiden syrup-songs my ear,
convinces me that all will turn out well,
and then the button-summoned guru's there.
I sadly sing to him my blue-screen blues.
The guru tells me I should run a test,
and we find, after just one year of use,
my stupid frigging hard drive has crashed.
I spell for him my name, "B" as in "boy,"
while trying hard not to ["C" as in] "cry."

However, you could just keep the format: 8 lines set-up followed by six of turn/resolution, or 8 lines set-up followed by 4 of turn and 2-line ending payoff.
Oct. 17th, 2005 11:17 pm (UTC)
hmmmm, thanks for the ideas - I could probably do the near rhyme, or make one just using the structure.
Oct. 17th, 2005 10:12 pm (UTC)
Wow. Thanks for this, Kelly. It reminds me of why I like the art of Haiku. ;-)
Nov. 21st, 2007 11:53 am (UTC)
cloudscome says:
Thanks Kelly! If I ever knew all this I had forgotten it. Now I am ready to kick butt in rhyme!
Nov. 21st, 2007 03:27 pm (UTC)
Re: cloudscome says:
( 12 comments — Leave a comment )

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