The Sonnet: Awakener of the Soul

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Let’s start with a big question: Is it possible that structure can bring freedom? Can some kind of “limitation” ever be inspiring? Your immediate reaction might be to say, emphatically, “No way! I’d just want to break out of it” But that would be too quick and too easy a response. In fact, it would have been a response based only in the realm of the physical, which itself is already very limited by its nature. If that question was put to me — “Can structure bring freedom?” — I would be tempted to have some fun with whatever that structure was — to turn it around — to reinvent it, transform it, without any violation of the original question. You see, working within a structure can be joyful and liberating if your artistic mind is already totally free. For limitations, when confronted by a free mind, do not bring an imposition — in just the same way that so-called “problems” for the free soul are merely exciting challenges. 😊

The Sonnet (from the Italian word, sonetto) first came to light as a poetic form in the 13th century in Italy through a Sicilian poet, Giacomo da Lentini. It was then transported to Tuscany where it was developed by a number of other Italian sonneteers, most notably by a guy called Francesco Petrarca (1304-1374), who developed it into a fourteen-line form that we now call the Petrarchan Sonnet. The rhyming form of the fourteen lines was in an eight-line plus six-line setting, ABBAABBA, CDECDE (or CDCDCD). This is a rhyme-form which works well in the Italian language because so many words rhyme exactly (e.g. -ello, -ella, -issimo, -issima, -ini, -are, etc.). It became an extremely popular poem-form in Medieval and Early Renaissance Italy. (Even the painter, Michelangelo, 1475-1564, wrote 77 sonnets!). From the Italian sonnet, the form was then adopted into Occitan verse by the Troubadours in Provence, in the south of France, in the thirteenth century. The sonnet then went through a number of changes through various poets in Europe until it emerged in 16th century England — via Thomas Wyatt, Henry Howard and, later, William Shakespeare — in the form with which we are most familiar today, as the “English Sonnet”.

This English Sonnet is in the rhythm or meter known as “Iambic pentameter”, with fourteen lines containing ten syllables in each line and that the lines had to rhyme in a set pattern concluding with a wise and pithy rhyming couplet — two rhyming lines together — to conclude (for example: ABBA, CDDC, EFFE, GG; or ABAB, CDCD, EFEF, GG); and that the twelve lines which come before the final rhyming couplet were in three distinct sections of four lines (quatrains) and that at the ninth line there must be a kind of sudden change (known as the “volte” or “turn”) so that you present another side of the matter or lead into a resolution of the sonnet’s stated problem. Would writing a poem in such a tightly limited form intimidate you? Or would you find that the proposition of such a form is uniquely exciting — liberating even? A very simple example of the ABAB kind of English Sonnet was published on my blog yesterday, entitled “Dark Horse”. Here it is, so you can see the structure:

She killed the horse before the race began.
“It’s no use, for I know he’ll never win;
he lost before”, she said. “And if he can
so thwart me once, I can’t again begin”.

“But don’t you see?” the turf accountant said,
“he’s just a fallow, inexperienced lad.
He needs some time out on the track instead
of being put out into pasture, clad”.

On hearing all that bookie’s wise advice,
the woman climbed onto the horse’s back.
She stroked him, saying: “It’s worth the sacrifice”
and soon she ran him on the racing track.

The one who will not gamble on a horse
who’s lost before will not complete the course.

Here I used the ABAB, CDCD, EFEF, GG structure, just as in Shakespeare’s sonnets of more than five hundred years ago. I have always felt that there is something elemental about sonnet-structure. It seems to come bubbling up from a place deep within — like lava from a volcanic crater — some secret ancient subterranean source of literary genius. Strangely, I started writing in sonnet-form in my early teenage years before I even knew what a sonnet was. It was harboured in my genes and nestles in the collective unconscious of humanity! 😊 The concentrated economy of material is like an abbreviated ballad, in which one almost has to crack its code to penetrate to the essence and meaning (though the free and open mind can do that without a problem). I’m convinced that the sonnet would have happened even if it hadn’t happened, if you see what I mean! There was something about it which was inevitable in the history of the written word. As you read a sonnet, it rocks something delicate and precious inside you and you say to yourself “I’ve always known this; why haven’t I thought of it before?”

In many ways, there is a huge parallel between the sonnet and sonata-form in music, which is considered today by trendy musicologists and composers to be an outmoded anachronism. Used by composers for first movements in symphonic works and concertos from the middle of the eighteenth century through till the mid-twentieth century, sonata form (like the sonnet) had three main sections — an exposition with two contrasting but complementary themes, a development section and a recapitulation. Like the sonnet, there is something perfect about sonata form — something fulfilling and inevitable. There is no greater frisson in musical composition than the point in a sonata movement where the development section is screwed tightly into a coil of tension which resolves into the recapitulation, which often issues in a dramatic but transfigured restatement of the opening theme of the exposition at the beginning of the work. (Right now, I wish I could excitedly give you musical examples of all this but I’m digressing away from the sonnet!).

Since Shakespeare’s era, the sonnet has been used from time to time by a number of well-known poets; but today I believe that it is in need of a genuine revival. For the sonnet-form (like its parallel sonata-form) is currently viewed by trendy poets and literary academics as a kind of anachronistic pastiche which has become nauseatingly clichéd and is a distinctly UNtrendy wordsmithing way to go. As an art-form, it is sorely misunderstood and, I believe, that a revival is therefore needed.

It is my firm belief that, for the poet, the sonnet is totally liberating; but not in the way in which we would normally understand that word. For the Sonnet is one of those areas of life in which the saying, “less is more”, comes sharply into play. Some may feel frustrated at the idea of restricting their vast poetic canvas to one hundred and forty syllables in a highly structured rhyming format of fourteen lines. The astonishing thing is that with the need for such thrift of words comes a delightful economy which uses concentrated richness to communicate its treasure. One cannot waffle in a sonnet! Even an outrageously experimental poet such as e.e. cummings (who was essentially a true Romantic in a modernist disguise) wrote a huge number of sonnets as part of his output — though not instantly recognised as sonnets on the page because of his playfully experimental verbal patterns.

The reality is that the Sonnet — in spite of its pre-required form and rhyming patterns — lends itself perfectly not only to heartfelt declarations of love (Francesco Petrarch wrote nearly 400 sonnets to a girl called Laura who he only saw once outside a church in Avignon but never met!) but also to the Big Statements/Questions of Life and even vigorous social commentary (which was the way it was regularly used by the Troubadours of medieval Occitania in southern France). Somehow, the sonnet awakens the soul. Therefore, instead of seeing the form of a sonnet as a prison and its structure as the bars, we can see them as powerful tools with which to transform not only our poetry but even the hearts of others, in some small sense! In the same way that certain frequencies of sound can have a positive, changeful effect on a person internally, I believe also that certain presentations of words, rhythmically and structurally, can have a similar outcome. Thus, I believe that sonnets are, in some subtly mysterious way, transformational.

So far, I have written nearly four hundred sonnets and still counting. Unfortunately, because of the rhythm and syllabic structure, it is not easy to make them into songs with differing melodies. I know of one attempt, by David Gilmour of Pink Floyd, who bravely set to music Shakespeare’s well-known sonnet #18, “Shall I compare thee to a Summer’s day”. However, personally speaking, it is not something which I would attempt to compose, as I love variation in harmony too much to weigh the sonnet down with what inevitably becomes a predictable vocal melody. In other words, I believe that the sonnet is complete in itself without any help from music. In fact, the sonnet IS music already to the ears of those who will receive it with a free and open heart.

© Alan Morrison, 2017

[The attached image is the cover page of the first ever printed anthology of English poetry, containing many sonnets, known as “Tottel’s Miscellany: Songes and Sonettes”, 1557].

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