Shortcutting… The Sonnet

5 Aug

Time, I think, to take a break from the Olympics-related posts. Let us turn instead to that most fiendish of poetry forms, which is to writing what souffle is to cooking – the sonnet. (Actually I’m pretty sure there are more difficult types of poem that are less famous but meh, I’m sure there are many things harder to cook than a souffle, it’s just that us non-cooks haven’t heard of them. What I’m trying to say is that they’re notoriously difficult…) This may seem like a completely arbitrary topic for a blog post but I can assure you, it makes perfect sense to me…

The first step in the recipe for sonnets is iambic pentameter. Iambs are to do with the stresses on syllables – if we call unstressed syllables ‘dee’ and stressed syllables ‘dum’, then an iamb is a ‘dee dum’, for example ‘today’, ‘because’, ‘and then’, ‘instead’. So iambic pentameter is five of these in a row – ‘dee dum dee dum dee dum dee dum dee dum’, for example ‘the other day I went to see a friend’, or ‘I pushed him off a cliff; he met his end’.

Having mastered iambic pentameter, the next stage is the rhyme scheme. A sonnet is fourteen lines long, with the rhyme scheme ‘ABAB CDCD EFEF GG’, or in other words three stanzas of four lines each where lines 1 and 3 rhyme and lines 2 and 4 rhyme, followed by a rhyming couplet.

The king of sonnets is of course Mr. William Shakespeare, so to illustrate the stress and rhyme schemes, here are a couple of his most famous ones:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:

Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;

But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this and this gives life to thee.

(I’m not too sure about the iambic pentameter of the first two lines – you slightly have to force yourself to stress the words as ‘dee dum dee dum dee dum dee dum dee dum’: I suppose things were pronounced differently back then – but apart from that it fits the structure, and the words make sense together too!)

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.

I have seen roses damask’d, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks; 
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.

I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:

   And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
   As any she belied with false compare. 

(This one’s cool because he’s all ‘I’m-not-going-to-pretend-she’s-perfect-but-I-love-her’, so he’s kind of making fun of all overly-romantic poets.)

Hopefully these give you some idea of what a sonnet looks like when it’s done well. For an idea of what one looks like when it’s done badly, here’s one I’ve written about the Olympics:

The Games are here: today is London’s day,

So let’s all gather round our t.v. sets,

And when our favourites win let’s shout ‘hurray’,

And hope that we’ve made money from our bets.

We watch the rowers row and cyclists pedal

And runners run and gymnasts well-dismount.

And pray that they can win some kind of medal,

So we get higher in the medal count.

It kind of makes the nations all unite,

Because we’re all a-watching the same things,

But really we all want to win the fight,

Despite the linked-up-ness of the five rings.

But let’s pretend that we don’t give a jot

When losing – we’re all winners are we not?

(I slightly cheated with ‘pedal’ and ‘medal’ – let’s just pretend they’re only one syllable…)

Keep shortcutting,

Zoe

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2 Responses to “Shortcutting… The Sonnet”

  1. The Good Greatsby August 6, 2012 at 2:21 pm #

    ‘Jot’ isn’t used near enough in poetry.

    • shortcutting August 9, 2012 at 11:17 pm #

      Right you are – old Bill missed a trick with that one…

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