Let’s talk sonnets.
Sonnets have a reputation as holder for overly saccharine, sappily rhymed love lines – a sort of poetic sugar packet, to be filled and passed around amongst love-sick paramours, but hardly to be taken with much interest or seriousness outside such pangs.
Shakespeare’s sonnets generally make the cut of being excellent enough to warrant interest outside of their purely romantic indulgence (and Shakespeare’s sonnets are often less about romance than one might think at first), but few others are given much notice, beyond a handful from 19th century resurgence.
So then – what is a sonnet, if more than sap and sighs?
Start with the form, sir.
Starting with metrical form, an English sonnet consists of 14 lines of iambic pentameter.
Iambic pentameter is a popular meter, used extensively in the last few hundred years of English verse, and so often dismissingly regarded as ‘standard,’ a meter that ‘feels’ natural and is simple enough to employ.
But what would make a meter ‘feel’ natural, then?
An iamb is an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable – bahDUM. A line of iambic PENTAmeter is a series of five iambs strung together – bahDUM bahDUM bahDUM bahDUM bahDUM.
In how English words are formed and grammatically connected, the pattern of unstressed and stressed syllables fits English constructions without a lot of artificial strain. “Without a lot of artificial strain,” for instance, happens to be in iambic pentameter.
The appeal and symbolic richness of iambic pentameter goes deeper though.
Connecting body, mind, and soul.
In our article about formal meter and free verse, we touched on how meter creates rhythmic resonance between language and the body, creating an artistic experience that touches body as well as mind and spirit.
And what is the first rhythm that a human is consciously aware of, the most fundamental rhythm to human life?
The heartbeat – bahDUM… bahDUM… bahDUM. Whether first a mother’s heartbeat from within the womb, or the later and constant background beating that sustains our individual lives, the heartbeat is the most basic rhythm of animal life. And it is this rhythm that iambs mimic, this heart-centered rhythm that iambic meter sinks into.
In iambic pentameter, a line length is about a comfortable speaking breath, so that lines blend easily into the rhythm of breath. Iambic pentameter becomes the meter that touches heart and breath, a rhythm that connects the beating of a heart to the flowing of breath – and a rhythm that connects poetic verse with the most fundamental of human rhythms, resonating through the core of our bodily experience.
Movin’ on up… to thematic form.
Built on the meter of resonance, sonnets have an upper-level thematic form as well.
English sonnets are separable into four sections – three quatrains (sets of four lines) followed by a couplet. The quatrains are identifiable by interlocking rhymes, and the final couplet by a pair of rhyming lines. The rhyme scheme created, then, is ABABCDCDEFEFGG.
More than simply a system of rhyming is created in these sections though.
In a sonnet, the first bulk of verse creates a picture, sets a scene, introduces an idea – and the final lines reinvent that, turns the rest of the poem on its head. Often this reflection and reinvention occurs in the final couplet, or sometimes in the final quatrain and couplet.
The turn of a sonnet inheres within the form rediscovery and renewal, a reimagining of the world as first seen. A sonnet will introduce its reader to a particular situation or idea, then always offer a new way of seeing it, one that opens up new possibilities within the reader’s perspective of limited subjective experience.
A whole new world…
In this way, the sonnet forms has within it the seeds of rebirth, as well as compassion.
To live compassionately and with love is to live knowing that perspective is nothing more and nothing less – and to be able to shift perspective, and try on the subjective experience of another being. To live compassionately is to live in the experiential knowledge that any situation can be experienced from an endless variety of angles, and through an endless array of interpretive lenses.
The sonnet gently encourages a reader to open to these new possibilities, to the idea itself of new perspectives and conceptual exploration.
Perhaps, then, it’s no surprise that so often sonnets are employed in a romantic context.
A metrical form that resonates in the heart and chest, a thematic form that opens our minds and hearts beyond individualistic perspective, opening a space for compassion and understanding – that does indeed seem particularly conducive to matters of the heart.
And yet sonnets can connect our hearts and minds and bodies to so much beyond romantic experience – sonnets can reinvent our connection to humanity, to the world, to the mysteries of existence. Sonnets allow us to explore, to rediscover and reimagine. What new depths can we plumb?
If sonnets as a form seem interesting and worth exploring to you, swing over and have a look at Elemental Sonnets, a collection of my own sonnets that explore a rediscovery of the natural world – and the human spirit within it.
What are your impressions of sonnets? Has this offered you any new perspectives?
Do you have any favorite sonnets?
Have you ever written your own sonnet?
Join the discussion, and share your thoughts in the comments!
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