Archive for the ‘The Sonnet’ Category

Comments on Sonnets

I have received some comments from friends via email in response to my invitation to comment on the issue of what is a sonnet. They mention various other forms of sonnet such as the “Curtal ” sonnet favoured by Gerard Manley Hopkins (see his poem “Pied Beauty”), the “Caudate” sonnet of 17 lines and the “Meredithian” sonnet of 16 lines.  However, that these are not fully accepted as sonnets is demonstrated by the fact that they are still referred to in this way.

Innumerable poets have experimented with their own variations and the general feeling seems to be that if a poet chooses to describe his poem as a sonnet he may do so, if by this he means that it demonstrates the “spirit” of the form. 

I would still be interested in any comments you would like to make on the subject of sonnets via the “comments”  system but my next post will bring us back to Jack’s poems.


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More on Sonnets

It occurred to me to wonder what the requirements might be if a writer wanted to enter a sonnet writing competition.  I then remembered that “Writing Magazine ” (www.writingmagazine.co.uk) had run a competition for sonnets last year so I checked back to see what the guidelines were.

The magazine made it quite clear that they were after traditional sonnets, adhering strictly to one or other of the set forms.  However entrants were to remember that they were writing today not 200 years ago so vocabulary, syntax and use of language should be contemporary (no Thee and Thou thankyou).  Subject matter could be anything you like – the winning entry was called “Internet Addict” and was about spending time on Facebook, Twitter, Blogs and the like!

So the conclusion is that, although many professional poets experiment with the form,  if you are writing a Sonnet with a view to entering a competition check out the guidelines – you will most likely find they require it to be traditional in structure.

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So let us have a closer look at Jack’s “Sonnet to an Egotist” (see post dated 4th January 2010) and see if we can decide whether or not it is a Sonnet.

Immediately we can see that it is not in Iambic Pentameter (keep up there, we discussed this in my last post!) but Iambic Tetrameter (4 feet to a line):

Ano/ther sum/mer al/most gone

The poem does have 14 lines.  The subject matter could also be considered to fit the bill and it does have a “turn” at the ninth line – “The virgin treble voice…..”   The rhyme pattern however is somewhat erratic.  So is it a Sonnet?

A few months back I had a brief discussion on the subject of when is a Sonnet not a Sonnet with the poet Michael Hulse at a reading from his recently published book “The Secret History” (Arc Publications. ISBN 978-1906570-24-8).  His view was that poetic forms must be allowed to develop, as indeed the Shakesperian Sonnet developed from the Petrachan.  I do not disagree with this view.

However, the question is how far can the form be developed before it ceases to be a Sonnet at all and simply becomes a short poem. Yes, poetry must be allowed to develop, but surely if you are writing a poem to a set traditional form it must, even today, adhere to that form in most respects in order to be described as such.

Modern times call for modern Sonnets: fair comment.  I can cope with erratic rhyme, indeed I can accept that there is no need for it to rhyme at all.  But surely, to be a Sonnet a poem must meet most of the criteria – and indeed I have to say that, as we have seen, Jack’s does.

Michael Hulse also commented that a poem is a Sonnet if the poet says it is.  I have a problem with this statement as it would then follow that any poem is a Sonnet if the writer chooses to describe it as such.  Also I still have issue with the metric form – so ingrained is it from my schooldays that a Sonnet is 14 lines of Iambic Pentameter.

However, we will accept the terms of Michael’s statement and give Jack the last word.  His “Sonnet to an Egotist” is a Sonnet because he said so and it does at least fulfil most of the reqirements of a traditional Sonnet.  What do you think?

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To recap briefly for those who have forgotten the finer details from their schooldays the most basic description of a Sonnet is that it is 14 lines of Iambic Pentameter.  An Iamb is a metric foot consisting of an unstressed followed by a stressed syllable (di-dum) and when you have five of them in a line it is known as Iambic Pentameter.  Sometimes a Trochee can slip in (a reverse Iamb of a stressed followed by an unstressed syllable; dum-di) but the strict form of Iambs should return immediately. Often a Trochee will start a Sonnet as in Shakespeare’s:

Shall I/compare /thee to/ a sum/mer’s day


There are three main types of Sonnet – the Italian or Petrachan, the Shakespearian and the Spenserian. 

The Petrachan comprises an octave (8 lines) with an end-rhyme pattern of abba abba and a sestet (6 lines) with an end-rhyme pattern of cdecde, but this can be varied to cdcdcd, or cdedee, or any other variation you can think of. 

The Shakesperian Sonnet is the native English Sonnet derived from the Petrachan and consists of three quatrains (4 lines) rhyming abab cdcd efef, and ending with a couplet, gg.

The Spenserian Sonnet combines both forms although has most affinity with the Shakesperian.  It rhymes abab bcbc cdcd ee.

The subject matter of a Sonnet is usually personal emotional debate.  The first part stating the “problem” and the second offering the “resolution”.  The point of change, or “The Turn” usually coming at the end of the octave in a Petrachan Sonnet, with slightly more flexibility in the other forms.

This is the description of a classic Sonnet but there have been examples with sometimes less or sometimes more than the 14 line requirement.

For a more complete discourse on the subject of Sonnet form I highly recommend Stephen Fry’s excellent book “The Ode Less Travelled”.

My next post will look at Jack’s Sonnet more closely. (See previous post).

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Jack wrote this poem around 1988.  Strictly speaking, although it is fourteen lines long, it is not really a Sonnet.  However, today I offer the poem for your enjoyment. Next time we will look at the definition of a Sonnet and hopefully generate some discussion.


Sonnet to an Egotist

Another summer almost gone,
White clouds breeze blown across blue skies,
Trailed wispy fronds of memories
Veiled locket for the inward eye.
How long and hot the summers seemed
When we were young, so good at play,
Ah! Yesterday when we were young
A solo waiting to be sung.
The virgin treble voice rang out
So clear, so pure it pierced my shield,
Then to myself I am revealed
A sham, a shame faced egotist
Who hides behind a placid face
And scans the heavens in disgrace.


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