Notes on Sonnet Form

This is a collection of extracts I have found interesting, from public domain texts available on the internet that pertain to the sonnet form, interspersed with some of my own observations. While structural descriptions of the sonnet abound, other compositional concerns are not always discussed at much length, and I doubt there are many new texts that examine poetry as exhaustively as some of the older ones.

From ‘A Preface About Sonnets’ in Colors of Life: Poems and Songs and Sonnets by Max Eastman:

“This feeling [of eagerness] is due partly to a kind of honesty of which the squareness of a sonnet is symbolic. It is a form in which poets can express themselves when they are not rhapsodically excited. And very often they are not so excited, and at such times if they write rapid lyrics they have to whip themselves up with an emotion that they get out of the writing rather than out of the facts. And this makes much lyric poetry seem a little histrionic, whereas in order to create a sonnet at all, a concentration and sustainment of feeling is required that is inevitably equal to its more temperate pretensions.”.

From Sonnets Personal & Pastoral with an introduction on the construction of the sonnet by William Dowsing:

While his overblown notions of a “correct” sonnet, and his magnificently purple prose are unlikely to find favour with modern audiences, William Dowsing’s collection of extracts from other scholars on the construction of sonnets is worth reading, in particular, the discussion of climaxes:

My first extract is from James Ashcroft Noble’s essay, “The Sonnet in England”:
“A sonnet must have an imaginative completeness which leaves us serenely satisfied; it must have an artistic perfectness which shall stand the test of that frequent and loving examination to which, in virtue of its very brevity, it makes a claim; it must have its every line strong, its every word harmonious; it must be concentrated, yet clear compact, yet fluent ; and while every phrase and image is in itself a joy-giving thing of beauty, every member must remain in sweet subordination to the total effect and impression of the whole.”

Mr. Watts-Dunton’s sonnet on the sonnet, “A Metrical Lesson by the Seashore,” expresses perspicuously the poet-novelist’s theory of the spirit and poetic evolution of a sonnet:

Yon silvery billows breaking on the beach
Fall back in foam beneath the star-shine clear,
The while my rhymes are murmuring in your ear
A restless love like that the billows teach ;
For on these sonnet-waves my soul would reach
From its own depths, and rest within you, dear,
As, through the billowy voices yearning here
Great nature strives to find a human speech.
A sonnet is a wave of melody :
For heaving waters of the impassioned soul
A billow of tidal music one and whole
Flows in the “octave,” then returning free,
Its ebbing surges in the “sestet” roll
Back to the depths of Life’s tumultuous sea.

John Addington Symonds, whose own sonnets are redolent with the pure atmosphere of Poet-land, remarks that “the striking metaphorical symbol drawn by Mr. Theodore Watts (Dunton) from the observation of the swelling and declining wave can, even in some examples, be applied to sonnets on the Shakespearian model ; for, as a wave may fall gradually or abruptly, so the sonnet may sink with stately volume or with precipitate subsidence to its close.” Another theory, evolved by Sir Henry Taylor a Wordsworthian critic and quoted both by Reed in his “English Sonnets” essay, and Main in his “Treasury of English Sonnets,” as being characteristic of Wordsworth’s sonnets, I quote as being equally applicable to every good sonnet, viz.: “Wordsworth’s sonnet never goes off as it were with a clap or repercussion at the close, but is thrown up like a rocket, breaks into light, and falls into a soft shower of brightness.” Mark Pattison, the scholastic editor of Milton’s sonnets, says: “In the sonnet the emphasis is nearly, but not quite, equally distributed, there being a slight swell or rise about the middle. The sonnet must not advance by progressive climaxes, or end abruptly ; it should subside and leave off quietly.” Another opinion is that of A. T. Quiller Couch, taken from the introduction to his anthology of “English Sonnets,” and is as follows: “The octave should present the poet’s idea, the sestet apply it; or the octave should introduce and develop an image, the sestet give back the general reflection suggested by it. In either case there will be a marked pause between the two.” Charles Crandall, whose work I have mentioned before, gives it that “a good sonnet can well be described as ‘luminous’; the thought shines out; it has life and movement and proclaims its right to exist,” furthermore, “the effect at the close should be as if one had heard music played by unseen fingers.” I must quote a very appropriate passage also quoted by Lloyd Mifflin, in his notes prefixed to his ” Collected Sonnets,” by James Spedding, supplementary to the last phrase of Crandall’s, which is, “To appreciate a collection of sonnets, you should read them one by one, with intervals between long enough to let the impression of each get out of the other’s way. Leigh Hunt says “a sonnet is, or ought to be, a piece of music as well as of poetry.” Petrarch himself said, in one of his notes, that the end of a sonnet should be more musical than the beginning. Lloyd Mifflin has expressed himself on the subject in sonnet form as follows:

Still let a due reserve the Muse attend
Who threads the sonnet’s labyrinth. As some bell
That tolls tor vespers in a twilight dell,
So in the octave, let her voice suspend
Her pomp of phrase. The sestet may ascend
Slowly triumphant, like an organ-swell
In opulent grandeur rising — pause, and dwell
With gathering glories to its dolphin end:
So, oft at eve around the sunset doors,
From up-piled splendours of some crimsoned cloud
Storm-based with dark — unrolling like a scroll —
Forth the accumulated thunder pours
Across the listening valley long and loud,
With low reverberations, roll on roll !

From The sonnet: its origin, structure, and place in poetry by Charles Tomlinson:

“The object of the regular or legitimate Italian sonnet is to express one, and only one idea, mood, sentiment, or proposition, and this must be introduced in appropriate language in the first quatrain, and so far explained in the second, that this may end in a full point; while the office of the first tercet is to prepare the leading idea of the quatrains for the conclusion, which conclusion is to be perfectly carried out in the second tercet, so that it may contain the fundamental idea of the poem, and end, as it were, with the point of an epigram. In short, the quatrains should contain the proposition and proof; the tercets its confirmation and conclusion. It must be obvious that such conditions exclude the final couplet of the English sonnet, and are also opposed to the practice so common with Wordsworth and other celebrated English sonnet-writers, of running the second quatrain into the first tercet.” pp. 27-28

Tomlinson’s translation (p.31) of Petrarch’s 313th sonnet:

I still lament, with tears, the years gone by,
Wasted in loving but a mortal thing;
Though I could soar, not rising on the wing,
To lofty work, which might perchance not die.
O Thou ! who knowest my impiety,
Invisible, immortal, heavenly King
To my frail wand’ring soul some succour bring,
And its defects of Thy own grace supply.
Though tempest-toss’d and oft in strife I be,
At peace, in port, let me my life resign,
Though spent in vain, yet close in piety
In that short span of life I yet call mine,
And in death’s hour extend Thy hand to me
Thou know’st I trust no other aid but Thine.

Tomlinson also describes (pp. 54-56) Petrarch’s practice of making notes to himself in his MSS, and his writing sonnets out first as letters to friends:

We have a still better opportunity of knowing how earnestly Petrarch laboured to make his poems as perfect as possible, from the account given by- Ubaldini, in 1642, of Petrarch’s manuscripts. Some of these are dotted over with annotations, which show how anxiously the author wrote and re-wrote, revised and corrected his verses; and, curiously enough, he usually devoted Friday, a day of fasting and humiliation, to the task of revision. Muratori gives a number of examples of this kind and Ugo Foscolo, in one of his essays, translates from the Latin a series of memoranda attached to one of the sonnets to the following effect :
“I began this by the impulse of the Lord, 1Oth September, at the dawn of day, after my morning prayers.”
“I must re-write these two verses, singing them, and I must transpose them. 3 o’clock A.M., 19th October.” ” I like this. 30th Oct., 10 o’clock in the morning.” “No! this does not please me. 20th December, in
the evening.”
And in the midst of his corrections he writes, on laying down his pen —
“I shall return to this; I am called to supper.”
“February 18th, towards noon — This is now well, but look at it again.”

We also know, from Petrarch’s letters, that he often wrote to a friend details that were fresh in his mind, and which he afterwards condensed into a sonnet. It is instructive to note how in this way a page of prose becomes transformed into fourteen pregnant lines.

Sonnets on the sonnet is an anthology of 152 sonnets, including the afore-quoted one by Theodore Watts-Dunton. I was amazed that there were so many self-referential sonnets even by the end of the C19; goodness know how many more have been added to that subgenre. For a contemporary example, see Stephen Fry’s Petrarchan sonnet in the introduction to his chapter on sonnets in The Ode Less Travelled.

The first sonnet in the collection is worthy of any schoolboy’s assignment, I think:

Soneto del Soneto by Diego Hurtado de Mendoza (1503-1575)

You ask a sonnet, lady, and behold!
The first line and the second are complete.
If equal luck I in the third should meet,
With one verse more the first quatrain is told.
St. James for Spain! the fifth verse is outrolled
Now for the sixth. ‘Twill be a gallant feat
If after all I manage to retreat
Safe with my life from this encounter bold.
Already, rounded well, each quatrain stands.
What say you, lady? Do I bravely speed?
Yet ah! heaven knows the tercets me affright ;
And, if this sonnet were but off” my hands,
Another I should ne’er attempt indeed.
But now, thank God, my sonnet’s finished quite.

Also included are the usual ones by Wordsworth, Rossetti, and Keats. I do like Wordsworth’s description of poets suffering from “too much liberty” – a common malady of contemporary free verse.

… and hence to me,
In sundry moods ’twas pastime to be bound
Within the sonnet’s scanty plot of ground;
Pleased if some souls (for such there needs must be)
Who have felt the weight of too much liberty,
Should find brief solace there, as I have found.

Sonnet Collections

What I Like in a Sonnet

  • Extended metaphors
  • Technical excellence
  • Concise descriptions, sparkling vocabulary
    The sonnet is a relatively short form. Whatever is said must be compacted into a gem of a statement.
  • Their ability to stand alone
    Sonnet sequences are all well and good as long as each sonnet has integrity. I’m here thinking of Vikram Seth’s ‘The Golden Bridge’, a novel in sonnets, which, while an impressive poetic exercise, robs the sonnet of its compressed power.
  • An interesting discussion / conceit
    The very structure of the sonnet is arranged to lay out an argument. I like sonnets that make me think, that use language and analogy open up an aspect of a problem – be it internal or external, great or mundane. That’s what keeps me thinking about them, long after I read them.

Some of my favourite sonnets

And also…