Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Sonnet – A Study in Form #1

Most folks of a European or American (in the larger sense) background will be familiar with the sonnet. We almost certainly had to read them in high school & college, & many of us have probably tried our hand at writing them, either as an assignment or for our own purposes.

So most of us know that a sonnet has fourteen lin
es, & that it traditionally follows a rhyming pattern. We may even know that there are different types of sonnets—the Italian or Petrarchan sonnet & the English or Shakespearean sonnet; there’s also the Spencerian sonnet, but to my mind that’s falls under the larger “English sonnet” rubric.

So the sonnet (the word, by the way, is from Italian “sonnetto,” “little sound” or “little song”) is part of our cultural backdrop & are among the best known of verse forms (because of a tendency for teachers to assign students to write haiku, I’d venture a guess that this may be about as generally known, tho to my mind it “translates” rather roughly into English because of significant cultural & linguistic differences with Japanese). But wha
t exactly do we mean when we talk about “poetic form?” Is it all simply a matter of rhyme schemes & metrical feet & counting syllables—& if that is true is free verse “formless?”

Well, it was a rhetorical question, tho I know some folks won’t agree with my take on this matter. My answer to the first part: clear patterning s
uch as rhyme & meter are in fact of less importance than a system of poetic thought that inhabits a particular shape (to get away from the word “form.”) Meter & rhyme may in fact reinforce the overall shape of the poetic thought, but there’s something primary behind them—poesis (to use a 50¢ Greek word) or the shape of the creation. More on this in a moment, but in terms of the second question: to my mind the term “poetic form” is a redundancy. Whether we’re talking about a poem with a high amount of clear patterning (rhyme, meter, etc.)—a villanelle, for instance“Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night”—or a more “organic” creation with very little clear patterning—think, perhaps, of that perennial favorite “So much depends upon a red wheelbarrow”—and the fact is you are considering a crafted linguistic object. It has a shape.

Of course, there are those who argue that setting out
to write a clearly patterned formal poem is somehow aesthetically flawed in contemporary poetics—that if one writes a sonnet, for instance, it should happen from the organic act of creation not from some pre-conceived intent—“I shall now write a sonnet.” From this perspective, poetic thought entirely dictates poetic shape. While I don’t think the “organic” argument is completely invalid, I do think it neglects the exchange between poetic thought & poetic shape—it also leaves out the fact that it’s fun to write in clear patterns! (fun & play are, thankfully, present in a lot of good contemporary poetry & poetics, tho they’re in woefully short supply on the academic side of things—& I think some of the problem with the “New Formalism” is that it tends to come down on that side).

So if we consider the Italian sonnet (by far my favorite in terms of writing them—we’ll consider the English sonnet next week), let’s put aside the various rhyme schemes you can find in any book on poetic form—or on Wikipedia, for that matter—& consider instead a movement of poetic creation thru time & shape. We typically see four stanzas—two four-line stanzas & two three line stanzas. When we read a typical Italian sonnet, however, we find that the four-line stanzas tend to combine into an eight-line unit (in terms of poetic thought) & that something happens in the space between the eighth & ninth lines (more on that in a moment). The two three line units also seem to be of a piece. Because of this the first two stanzas are thought of as one unit (the octave) & the final two stanzas form a unit called the sestet (“six lines”). What happens between the octave & the sestet is known as the “volte” or “the turn.” In common linguistic terms, it’s a sort of “if this, then that” movement—or a “however,” “moreover,” or “on the other hand.” One part of the overall shape has been created in the octave—something changes & we move to the sestet.

A word on rhyme schemes: rhyme schemes ideally tend to reinforce such shape, tho for my money a number of other techniques also can cr
eate the same shape—also, I’d venture to say that if the underlying poetic creation doesn’t have that shape, the rhyme scheme will only help marginally to create it. Having said that, it’s worth noting that while the rhyme schemes for Italian sonnets are variable, the rhyme scheme always varies between the octave & the sestet. For instance a common scheme might look like the following (each letter represents a distinct rhyming sound, with the number indicating the line):

1A, 2B, 3B, 4A
5A, 6B, 7B, 8A
9C, 10D, 11E
12C, 13D, 14E

Notice that there are not only different rhyming sounds in
the octave, but the overall rhyming pattern differs between the octave & the sestet. This should reinforce the underlying turn, wich I believe to be the formal touchstone of the Italian sonnet.

So let’s look at a couple. You may object that these are both translations (there will be a good old English language Italian sonnet on Saturday), but I wanted to contrast a “formal” & “free” treatment, & believed showing two versions of the same poem might do that best. The original is a sonnet Dante Alighieri addressed to his mentor, poet Guido Cavalcanti. The formal treatment is by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the pre-Raphaelite poet & painter (the image at the top of the page is his illustration for this poem), while the freer version is by a poet whose work I like a lot, Kenneth Koch. I didn’t include the Italian origina
l, assuming that many readers, like me, aren’t quite up to snuff with that language (I do have it if anyone is interested).

First, Rossetti’s translation:


Guido, I wish that Lapo, thou, and I,
        Could be by spells conveyed, as it were now,
        Upon a barque, with all the winds that blow

Across all seas with our good wind to hie.
So no mischance or temper of the sky
        Should mar our course with spite or cruel slip,
        But we, observing old companionship,
To be companions still should long thereby.
And Lady Joan and Lady Beatrice
        And her the thirtieth on my roll, with us
            Should our good wizard set, o’er seas to move
And not to talk of anything but love:

        And they three ever to be well at ease,
            As we should be, I think, if this were thus.

Dante Gabriel Rosetti


Guido, I wish that you and Lapo and I
Were carried off by magic
And put in a boat, which, every time there was wind,

Would sail on the ocean exactly where we wanted.

In this way storms and other dangerous weather
Wouldn’t be able to harm us—
And I wish that, since we were all of one mind,
We’d go on wanting more and more to be together.

And I wish that Vanna and Lagia too
And she whose name on the list is the number thirty
Were put into our boat by the magician

And that we all did nothing but talk about love
And I wish that they were just as glad to be there
As I believe the three of us would be.

Kenneth Koch

I don’t really believe there’s a right answer as to “which is best.” I like the Koch translation quite a bit, & the Rossetti one does less for me (by the way, Shelley also translated this poem). One thing I would point out: Rossetti’s “And Lady Joan and Lady Beatrice/And her the thirtieth on my roll, with us” is a mistranslation; the Italian reads “
E monna Vanna e monna Lagia poi,/Con quella ch’è sul numero del trente”—it’s clear that “she whose number is thirty” is not “monna Lagia,” & readers of Dante’s La Vita Nuova will recognize her as the fabled Beatrice (because in Dante’s numerology, 30 was a very powerful number as it multiplied the perfect number, 10—that is, 3x3+1—by 3; this has to do with trinitarian theology). Otherwise, you can make arguments for either translation. Koch’s language is deliberately plain, & in fact Dante was known for using vernacular speech in his poetry; this was an integral part of the "sweet new style" he championed. Rosetti’s language is ornate, & his syntax a bit contorted; on the other hand, he does give some idea of the rhythmic & sonic effects thru his regular meter & his rhyme scheme; in fact his rhyme scheme is quite close to the original. Rossetti’s rhymes are as follows:

1A, 2B, 3B, 4A
5A, 6C, 7C, 8A
9D, 10E, 11F
12F, 13D, 14E

The main difference is that Rossetti introduces a third rhyming sound (C) into the octave. This is Dante’s rhyme scheme:

1A, 2B, 3B, 4A
5A, 6B, 7B, 8A
9C, 10D, 11E
12E, 13C, 14D

The sestets are the same—which leads me to suspect t
hat the mistranslation of “Beatrice” for “Lagia” was intentional & rhyme-forced (or at least slant-rhyme forced).

The larger point is that both Koch & Rossetti kept the shape of the thought, the octave setting out the idea of the magic voyage involving the three friends, the sestet specifying that this will be in fact a voyage of love; not only will all the Bella Donnas be present, but the discourse will be constantly about love. It’s a case of focusing on why t
he magic voyage would be so marvelous. It’s a pattern of thought that seems made for the sonnet form. Try for instance, to imagine the same “narrative” in the ballad form—at that point its entire character would be changed.

Hope you folks find this interesting. All things being equal, I’ll pick up next week with the English sonnet.

Dante's First Meeting with Beatrice by Simeon Solomon


  1. I'm making lots of notes here, John and already have something cooking as a result. This is great! I really appreciate all the work you put into your posts.
    Oh, and I'm liking the new boldface fonts and additions to the blog too.


  2. what an instructive and informative post!

    alas I even thought I picked up a great new scrabble word (poesis) but unfortunately it isn't considered valid!

  3. Hi Kat: Thanks for the comment (& the email, to which I've sent a response). Glad you found this one informative; & thanks for noticing the new "looks" here in our little corner of the blogosphere.

    Hi Mouse: Great to see you back after your travels! Poesis is a pretty specialized term (I don't know if it's in the OED, actually, & don't have ours handy). It does get used in lit crit, rhetoric etc. Had you been in a Scrabble game with U Virginia grad students in the 80s, we'd have given it a pass!

  4. I love that version by Kenneth Koch, especially the first four lines~ I wish I could go with them! Once upon a time, I did poetry workshops with children and so I have a couple of Koch's books on that subject. I love his spirit. although in Dante's poem, I do like one line better: "and not to talk of anything but love." that was really fun to see the two versions.

  5. Hi John, I have an award waitng for you at my blog. Linda

  6. Thanks for the encouraging words yesterday

  7. Hi Rene, Linda & Randy:

    Rene: Koch is really a delightful poet; I believe he contrasts his translation of this sonnet with Shelley's in one of his books. Intersting about the line from Rossetti's poem: "and not to talk of anything but love"-- I think it's his best line.

    Linda: Thanks so very much! I've picked it up & left a comment; I'll post about it this afternoon!

    Randy: You're very welcome. Hang in there!

  8. Would that I could clear convey my thinking on this post - Whilst riding high upon each word it's clearly yours to boast! (Sorry, couldn't resist leaving a metered little ditty on you. Very good read sir. How did you feel about Sonnets from the Portuguese?)

  9. Hi Cathy:

    Hey nice metered ditty! I'm chagrined to admit that I have a pretty much greatest hits knowledge of Sonnets from the Portugese. My wife Eberle knows them & also knows Aurora Leigh(Eberle also contributes often here, including an ongoing series on various aspects of women's lit combined with everyday 18th & 19th century life). Glad you enjoyed this.


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