Always Keep a Sonnet in Your Bonnet

So, today being poetry day, and since I have received an invitation to enter a sonnet competition (or ‘bake-off’ as they rather quaintly call it: not sure how that works except as a spurious reference to television) let us consider the question: What is a Sonnet?

Well, basically yer actual sonnet consists of fourteen lines in an abab cdcd rhyme scheme and written in iambic pentameter.  OK if you don’t know what an i p is, it’s the metre most of Shakespeare is written in.  It has five feet with the stress on the second syllable of each foot.  So imagine you take five steps like this: heel-toe, heel-toe, heel-toe,  heeltoe,  heeltoe.  Then you turn and do the same back the other way, for example:

‘The world is too much with us: late and soon

getting and spending, we lay waste our powers’

Of course, you need to break up the syllable pattern a little otherwise it’s too much like doggerel (there! that answers one of the questions from last week), so the example I just gave (another Wordsworth, incidentally) breaks it up on ‘with us’, slows it down on ‘late and soon’ and reverses it on ‘getting and spending’.  However, it still has five metrical feet.  A good poet knows when to break the pattern and when to stick with it.

So much for the rhythm; now for the rhyme.  Rhyme schemes are usually described using letters, where the first rhyme is a and the second b and so on.  So, for example in this sonnet by Shelley, the rhyme scheme starts a b a b:

Poet of Nature, thou hast wept to know

That things depart which never may return:

Childhood and youth, friendship and love’s first glow

Have fled like sweet dreams, leaving thee to mourn.

…then it continues, c d c d:

These common woes I feel. One loss is mine

Which thou too feel’st, yet I alone deplore.

Thou wert as a lone star, whose light did shine

On some frail bark in winter’s midnight roar:

… and now we come to a split.  The original sonnet form divides in two: eight lines followed by six.  This is known as a Petrarchan sonnet, after the Italian poet Petrarch, and can be used to develop an argument or to put two sides of a question: hence the sonnet can be rhetorical as well as lyrical.  Shelley continues:

Thou hast like to a rock-built refuge stood

Above the blind and battling multitude:

In honored poverty thy voice did weave

Songs consecrate to truth and liberty,

Deserting these, thou leavest me to grieve,

Thus having been, that thou shouldst cease to be.

the Petrarchan sonnet can finish with a rhyme scheme e f g e f g – or as it does here, with e e f g f g.

However, Shakespeare came along and, as ever, did his own thing with the sonnet.  He divided it 12 -2, finishing with a rhyming couplet, like so:

So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,

So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

… this, as I’m sure you know, is the final couplet of the famous ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’ sonnet:

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.

.. however, as you can see, Shakespeare has the best of both worlds here as he also uses the 8/6 split: first to examine the proposal that everything fades and decays, and then in the last 6 lines to say, ‘Yeah, but that’s not gonna happen to you.’  Then in the final couplet he says, ‘you’re gonna live forever in these lines, babe’.  So with the Shakespearean sonnet you can not only develop an argument but sum it up with a double-whammy at the end: and that is why I favour the Shakespearian sonnet above the Petrarchan.

You can read more here:

Next week:

Who knows?

I have yet to receive any of your lovely poems, readers!

Kirk out