In fact, it seems to be the opinion of most of the later poets of our language that if the game is to be played at all, it is best to follow the rules without cavil and without claiming any license to depart from them.
A Study on Versification (1911) by Brander Matthews
It is a conundrum, this holy aura that surrounds sonnets. The nearly religious vow that a poet is expected to uphold in pursuit of writing them, by fervently obeying a sonnet’s ancient rhyming rules and metrical structure. I agree with Matthews; “There is no obligation of any poet to make use of the sonnet framework; and if he would express himself without restraint he has at his command the large liberty of all the other lyrical forms. It is in the rigidity of its skeleton that the charm of the sonnet is firmly rooted. It tends to impose a helpful condensation, thus counteracting the temptation to diffuseness.”
Rules aren’t fun when it comes to creative writing. I think it’s why many readers of poetry wrinkle their noses at sonnets like an ancient lyricist has let out a fart in the library and it’s just wafted their way. We might pin the blame for the modern masses eschewing sonnets on Shakespeare, whose sonnets, even his most ardent fans admit, can be at times practically unreadable in the leaden opacity of some of his verse. We are told by learned professors of literature we are supposed to like Shakespeare because he is brilliant, not because we actually like his sonnets. No wonder most modern readers have thrown off their literary chains, shirking their responsibilities of reading Milton, Chaucer, Tennyson, Wordsworth and Dunne to obtain a well rounded appreciation of poetry, instead favoring more accessible poets like e. e. cummings, who followed no rules at all. However, boldly avowing a broad dislike of dusty sonnets would require taking the time to actually read a fair bit of Shakespeare or Milton to have a real opinion on the matter and most of us never cracked those books to begin with in high school, college or beyond.
Sonnets run the risk of offending the sensibility of modern readers of poetry, those readers that are attracted to free verse precisely because poetry doesn’t have to follow the rules of grammar and sentence construction we were taught in school. A modern poet can claim poetic license at anytime and lay down their “get out of grammar jail” free card whenever he or she chooses.
So dear readers, let’s climb into this poet’s confessional and get something off our collective chests early on in this blog. Sonneteers sometimes stretch the rules just a bit in favor of a winning line or for the sake of clarity and story. Let’s not pretend that sonnets are bound by an ironclad suit of armor of 14 lines of 10 syllables each and every time. Many great sonnets stray slightly from this construction, with the occasional couplet getting its freak on by being 9 syllables followed by 10 or 11 syllables, or the addition of a bonus couplet and winding up with 16 lines, or snipping a couplet off and wrapping things up after only 12 lines. Believe it or not, there are even 18 line sonnets, who aren’t kicked out of the family tree of sonnets for having an extra few chromosomes as it were. Rudyard Kipling, a contemporary of Brander Matthew, wrote him a letter following the publication of A Study of Versification and quipped; “I’d like to war over the sonnet idea with you. A sonnet is much more lawless than you’d have it.”
Things happen in poetry, even classical poetry. Its true, that rules are rules with sonnets, and a serious reader of sonnets should probably know the difference between an English sonnet, an Italian sonnet or a Petrarchan sonnet, but not every line must rhyme precisely in its anointed position if the flow and meter is pleasing. Some sonnets follow the – if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck rule of sonnets, for even with slight unique modifications – it’s still a sonnet. But as Brander Matthews said: “A poor sonnet is a poor thing indeed….. nothing is longer than a sonnet if there is nothing in it.” A boorish writer of sonnets can be a slave to impeccable rhyme sequence and structure with nothing interesting to say and the reader is still left with a shortish bit of rubbish.
Why go in search of great sonnets? And whose to be the judge of what constitutes a great sonnet? Both good questions one should ask if we are both to invest considerable time in this endeavor, me in writing this blog and you in reading it. I’ll not impose or assume anything about your motivations. The reason I have an obsession with sonnets is that when I find a sonnet that really speaks to me, in both the fluidity of its language and in the artistry of it’s message, it sparkles. Finding a great sonnet is like finding a keeper agate; I see a glimpse of it sticking out of the ground, I bend over to pick it up and hope that when I lick off the dirt and study it closely I am going to uncover something incredibly beautiful.
Here are four sonnets about sonnets. I figured why not let much better writers than I explain why sonnets can suck you in under their influence if you’re not careful. Astute readers will instantly call foul on the Billy Collins poem, Sonnet, being labeled a sonnet. True, it lacks a sonnets rhyming scheme. But its a ripping good poem, so it qualifies in my book as a true “sonnet.” A sense of humor scores bonus points if I am judge and jury in curating which sonnets make the grade for this blog. Enjoy!
Scorn Not The Sonnet
Scorn not the Sonnet; Critic, you have frowned,
Mindless of it’s just honours; with this key
Shakespeare unlocked his heart; the melody
Of this small lute gave ease to Petrarch’s wound;
A thousand times this pipe did Tasso sound;
With it Camöens soothed an exile’s grief;
The Sonnet glittered a gay myrtle leaf
Amid the cypress with which Dante crowned
His visionary brow: a glow-worm lamp,
It cheered mild Spenser, called from Faery-land
To struggle through dark ways; and, when a damp
Fell round the path of Milton, in his hand
The Thing became a trumpet; whence he blew
Soul-animating strains—alas, too few!
D. G. Rossetti
A Sonnet is a moment’s monument,
–Memorial from the Soul’s eternity
To one dead deathless hour. Look that it be,
Whether for lustral rite or dire portent,
Of its own arduous fullness reverent:
Carve it in ivory or in ebony,
As Day or Night may rule; and let Time see
Its flowering crest impearled and orient.
A Sonnet is a coin: its face reveals
The soul,–its converse, to what Power ’tis due:
–Whether for tribute to the august appeals
Of Life, or dower in Love’s high retinue,
It serve, or, ‘mid the dark wharf’s cavernous breath,
In Charon’s palm it pay the toll to Death.
I Will Put Chaos Into Fourteen Lines
Edna St. Vincent Millay
I will put Chaos into fourteen lines
And keep him there; and let him thence escape
If he be lucky; let him twist, and ape
Flood, fire, and demon — his adroit designs
Will strain to nothing in the strict confines
Of this sweet order, where, in pious rape,
I hold his essence and amorphous shape,
Till he with Order mingles and combines.
Past are the hours, the years of our duress,
His arrogance, our awful servitude:
I have him. He is nothing more nor less
Than something simple not yet understood;
I shall not even force him to confess;
Or answer. I will only make him good.
To read Collin’s poem click the link below.
©2017 Original material copyright T. A. Fry. Other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.