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


I am What Iamb

The other night on iplayer I watched John Betjeman on trains in Metroland.  And what it was that struck me with great force, was the importance of the face that’s on the screen.  That Betjeman was almost in the background, the features of his face hard to discern, while in the foreground stood the subject-matter: the engines and the lines of Metroland.

To be quite fair, it was a little hazy – the journeys he was making needed maps just so that we could put into perspective where it all stood and where it was all going.  (Remember Lenny Henry’s ‘Distance from Dudley’?)  But atmosphere was key – the lines and stations; the roads and houses radiating from them; the England I grew up with, in a sense; half-built post-war, half-borrowed from Victoria.

I P not R P

Now!  It took me a while to notice while watching this programme, a key fact about it – that much of Betjeman’s commentary was in – wait for it – iambic pentameter!!!  And yet I hadn’t noticed! just as you don’t notice the gentle rhythm of a train when you’re on it and clickety-clacking through the Home Counties.  It’s as though IP is the natural rhythm, not only of the English language, but of English trains and English railways and English streets and houses.  And by the way, if you’re not clear about what IP is, it’s what most of Shakespeare – and about half of English poetry – is written in.  To get a feel of it, just take five steps – heel, toe – and put the emphasis on the toe, like this: di-dah di-dah di-dah di-dah di-dah.  For example:

to be or not to be, that is the question


is this a dagger that I see before me?


the world is too much with us.  Late and soon

Of course, it’s not always rhythmical or the whole play would sound like doggerel – and sometimes extra syllables are squeezed in, like here:

O Romeo, Romeo!  Wherefore art thou Romeo?

– but the essential pattern is the same.  Iambic pentameter.

So now you know.

Not that Betjeman was one of the Shakespearian elite.  He was, I think, working-class or lower middle-class and rose to be Poet Laureate and an Establishment Figure perhaps because of his conservative political views.  I am not keen on B as a poet but it is important to acknowledge the contribution he made to our culture in bringing to our attention – in validating, in a poetic sense, the ordinary and suburban.

Still don’t get it?  OK here’s the first part of the post in verse:

The other night on iplayer I watched

John Betjeman on trains in Metroland

and what it was that struck me with great force

was the importance of the face that’s on the screen

that Betjeman was almost in the background

– I nearly wasn’t sure if it was him –

while in the foreground stood the subject-matter

the engines and the trains of Metroland.

Cool, eh?  And there’s more – but I’ll let you figure it out for yourself.

Kirk out