Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Sonnet – A Study in Poetic Form #2

A couple of weeks ago, I recorded some observations, opinions, etc. about the Italian, or Petrarchan, sonnet form, particularly noting how its chief characteristic seems to be the division between octave (first eight lines) & sestet (final six lines), with a “turn” occurring at the point between lines eight & nine. As a writer, I find the Italian form the best to work with, & a number of English language writers—from Thomas Wyatt & John Milton to John Berryman & Adrienne Rich—have put this elegant & flexible form to use.

However, when English language poetry readers think “sonnet,” they are quite apt to think of William Shakespeare, & Shakespeare, as well as other renowned English language poets (including John Donne & Sir Edmund Spencer) used a quite different form. There is some variation between the “Shakespearean” sonnet & the “Spencerian” sonnet (tho to my mind there are more similarities than differences); as promised I’ll look at the “Shakespearean” form here.

If the Italian sonnet divides most clearly into two parts, the Shakespearean sonnet divides most clearly into four. These four parts are the three quatrains (typically with alternating rhymes: ABAB; CDCD; EFEF) & a couplet (GG). Of course, there is also a two-part structure comprising the combined quatrains set against the couplet (even as there is also a four part structure to the Italian sonnet: two quatrains making up the octave, & two tercets making up the sestet).

But I like to think first of the English sonnet’s quatrains as separate but unified entities, giving a prismatic view of the poem’s theme or “argument” (the latter term being particularly applicable to the English sonnet form as practiced by Shakespeare & Donne). So in Shakespeare’s well-known Sonnet 30 (given below), you can see the argument advancing in distinct “When,” “Then,” “Then” segments, each a separate quatrain. It’s important, I think, when contrasting the movement in the English & Italian sonnets to note that the rhyme scheme in the former tends to divide the quatrains (because each quatrain has two unique rhyming sounds) while the rhyme schemes in an Italian sonnet tend to unify the octave within itself (because the two quatrains have linked rhyming sounds) & the sestet also with itself, again because the rhymes within that section are linked. Of course the concluding couplet of the English sonnet also is made distinct because this again typically uses unique rhyming sounds.

Now—because the sonnet itself is worth a myriad of my words, here’s Sonnet 30:

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time's waste:
Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,
For precious friends hid in death's dateless night,
And weep afresh love's long since cancelled woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanished sight:
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o'er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restor'd and sorrows end.

William Shakespeare

It’s interesting, I think, to look at the opening phrases of the quatrains in a few other well-known Shakespearean sonnets to get a further sense of the prismatic effect:

Sonnet 18
“Shall I compare thee…
Sometimes too hot the eye…
But thy eternal summer…”

Sonnet 73
“That time of year…
In me thou see’st….
In me thou see’st…”

Sonnet 106
“When in the chronicle…
Then, in the blazon…
So all their praises…”

Sonnet 130
“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like…
I have seen roses damasked…
I love to hear her speak…”

While this prismatic effect seems in itself something that would lend itself to contemporary treatments, in fact the English sonnet form doesn’t seem to be used as much as the Italian form. My guess is we’re so familiar with the English sonnet following an expository argument in Shakespeare & Donne (et al.) that it’s difficult to see the other possible effects as separate from that. It’s true that Ted Berrigan’s sonnets retain something more like the English form than the Italian, but the prismatic character there is even more minutely & irregularly divided. One 20th century poet who did use the English sonnet form in a generally recognizable guise but with a contemporary poetic outlook was e.e. cummings—perhaps not the first person you’d think of when it comes to sonnet writing. Check out this example:

)when what hugs stopping earth than silent is
more silent than more than much more is or
total sun oceaning than any this
tear jumping from each most least eye of star

and without was if minus and shall be
immeasurable happenless unnow
shuts more than open could that every tree
or than all life more death begins to grow

end's ending then these dolls of joy and grief
these recent memories of future dream
these perhaps who have lost their shadows if
which did not do the losing spectres mime

until out of merely not nothing comes
only one snowflake(and we speak our names

e.e. cummings

In certain ways, this inhabits a thematic territory that’s not dissimilar to Sonnet 30, but cummings’ syntactical displacements take us to a wholly new territory—again, as with Berrigan (but in a very different way) the quatrain prisms sub-divide into smaller prismatic units. It’s also worth noting that tho the sonnet has a regular rhyme scheme, all of the rhymes are “off” or “slant rhymes; so while certain sounds tend to unify the quatrains, they also allow the boundaries to be much more blurred.

I’ll post at least one more exploration of the sonnet, probably next Wednesday, tho I’m still cogitating what angle I’ll explore.

Picture of e.e. cummings is from the Library of Congress (thru Wikipedia) & in the public domain.


  1. Excellent! I learn so much from you--everytime.

    I am not too familiar with cummings, save for some few pieces read in school. I really love the quirkiness of his rhymes, his use of odd characters and the way he configures the words themselves.
    My reading list grows long!


  2. And don't forget Ms. Edna St. Vee! She was a great writer of sonnets. Interesting post, John. Thank you.

  3. Interesting, indeed. Thank you for your generous explanations. As Poetikat said, I (we) learn a lot from them.

  4. cummings - possibly my favorite poet - i had no idea he wrote sonnets. i learn a lot from you, too. (Kat's comment). I love Edna St. Vincent Millay, too. (Willow's comment.)

    I may have mentioned this b/f, so forgive the repeat, but my father wrote a French sonnet ONE TIME. He said it was the most difficult poetry (maybe he meant sonnet) form to master. It was my favorite poem he ever wrote, but it has been lost or miplaced, possibly forever. Have you ever written a French sonnet? If so, I'd dearly love to read it.

  5. Hi Kat, Willow, Sandra & Jen:

    Things are finally calming down (more so by tomorrow afternoon) & I'm so looking forward to it-- sorry to not respond to these sooner!

    Kat: Thanks-- yes, Cummings is quirky but worth reading.

    Willow: Excellent point to bring up Edna St. Vincent Millay, definitely a prolific 20th century sonnet writer, who worked in the Italian sonnet form.

    Sandra: Thanks!

    Jen: Geez, my response to this comment was in my response to your comment on today's post! (see opening statement here), so I'll respond to that one here, & say I'll check out for sure. I'm leaning toward since it gives me a venue for selling some without having to make a minimum order--they print on demand. Am still dragging my feet (for various reasons) & have been shokcingly busy on top of that.


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