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The Sonnet

Written by: Robert Cortes Holliday

I said that the ballad was the most primitive form of English verse composition of which examples have come down to us, and that it was the easiest form to write. I now come to what might almost be called the antithesis of the ballad—the sonnet. The ballad is simple, the sonnet is complex; the ballad appeals to the uneducated, being, as I said, merely a short story in verse, while the sonnet appeals chiefly to those who have a cultivated taste for poetry. It is easy, I said, to write a passable ballad; to write a sonnet that is merely correct in technique is a difficult matter, and to write a good sonnet calls for the exercise of all a verse-maker's patience, ingenuity and talent.

Theodore Watts-Dunton, himself an accomplished sonneteer, finds the sonnet as "in the literature of modern Europe, a brief poetic form of fourteen rhymed verses, ranged according to prescription." This definition is open to criticism in two respects. In the first place it is redundant, since a poem of fourteen lines necessarily is brief. In the second place Watts-Dunton neglected to state that the length of the line is arbitrarily fixed—if the lines are not iambic pentameters, the poem is not a sonnet.

The first requirements of the sonnet, then, are that it shall have fourteen lines, and that these lines shall be iambic pentameters. Furthermore, the rhyme scheme is arbitrarily fixed, and the number of rhymes arbitrarily limited in such a way as to add greatly to the verse-maker's labor.

The simplest form of the sonnet is what is called the Shakespearean sonnet, from its use in the famous sequence in which the greatest of English poets is said to have "unlocked his heart"—although this does not seem a fair description of it, when we consider the great library of books in which attempts are made to explain what Shakespeare meant in these sonnets. This form consists merely of the quatrains, rhyming a, b, a, b, c, d, c, d, e, f, e, f, followed by a rhymed couplet. The lines are, as in all forms of the sonnet, iambic pentameters.

Obviously, this form presents no real difficulty to the verse-maker with a fair degree of talent. Its use by Shakespeare gives it a certain authority, and some critics, notably Professor Israel Gollanez, of London University, say that it is better suited the English language than the more usual or Petrarchan form. Nevertheless, the weight of opinion is against this form. Many critics deny that three quatrains followed by a couplet constitute a true sonnet, and Professor Brander Matthews always calls this form not a sonnet but a "fourteener." Modern English poets who have written Shakespearean sonnets are few in number. George Eliot wrote a sequence in this form, but did not thereby add to her fame. In fact, the only notable use of the Shakespearean sonnet form during the last half century is to be found in John Masefield's "Good Friday and Other Poems," which contain a sequence of introspective and philosophical Shakespearean sonnets, so lofty in thought and appropriate in expression as actually to suggest the work of the poet who first greatly made use of their instrument.

The form generally used by poets writing in English is what is called the Petrarchan sonnet. In its simplest but not its easiest form, this consists of a division of eight lines called the octave and a division of six lines called the sestet, the rhyme scheme of the octave being a, b, b, a, a, b, b, a, and that of the sestet being c, d, c, d, c, d. Here we have, you see, only four rhymes in all the fourteen lines. An excellent example of the Petrarchan sonnet of this exact type is Austin Dobson's "Don Quixote."



Behind thy pasteboard, on thy battered back,
Thy lean cheek striped with plaster to and fro,
Thy long spear levelled at the unseen foe,
And doubtful Sancho trudging at thy back,
Thou wert a figure strange enough, good lack!
To make wiseacredom, both high and low,
Rub purblind eyes, and (having watched thee go)
Dispatch its Dogberrys upon thy track:

Alas! poor Knight! Alas! poor soul possest!
Yet would to-day, when Courtesy grows chill,
And life's fine loyalties are turned to jest,
Some fire of thine might burn within us still!
Ah, would but one might lay his lance in rest
And charge in earnest—were it but a mill!

This is a good sonnet to study for several reasons. In the first place the accuracy of the form makes it an excellent model. And in the second place it illustrates what I have to say as to the correspondence in the thought of the sonnet and its form.

Now, there have been attempts to make a sonnet the vehicle of a narrative; these attempts have seldom been successful. A sonnet is descriptive and interpretative in theme, and it must give at the very least two aspects of interpretations of the emotion, idea, or object with which it deals. One of these must be in the octave and the other in the sestet. Sometimes the idea is merely expressed or described in the octave, and explained in the sestet, sometimes the idea in the octave suggests a different idea in the sestet—the point to remember is that there must be a change in the thought marked by the beginning of the sonnet's ninth line.

This we see admirably illustrated in Austin Dobson's "Don Quixote." In the first four lines we have a graphic picture of the mad knight of La Mancha, and a statement of the effect this vision has upon those who are wise in this world. But the very first words of the sestet show the development in the thought. The poet ceases to describe, instead he expresses emotion, he expresses his pity, his sympathy, his admiration for Don Quixote, and his wish that the knight might find a successor in our own day. The octave has its climax and the sestet has its climax, and the two sections of the poem are related by the continuity of thought, and divided by the contrast of ideas.

This type of sonnet was called by Watts-Dunton the sonnet of flow and ebb—the significance of this term being that the thought flowed to the end of the octave and ebbed from that point to the close of the sestet. Commenting on this John Addington Symonds wrote: "The striking metaphorical symbol drawn from the observation of the swelling and declining wave can even in some examples be applied to sonnets on the Shakespearean 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."

For a verse-maker to give his sonnet this requisite flow and ebb of idea, and keep at the same time his rhyme scheme accurate is no easy matter. And the very difficulty of the form is a strong argument in favor of its frequent use by novices in versification. If you can write a sonnet that is technically correct, you need fear none of the difficulties that any other kind of verse-making will present. The accuracy and condensation, the concentration of thought, the straight-forwardness of statement, which are the distinguishing marks of the well-turned sonnet are the most valuable tools which a verse writer can have. In writing, as well as he can, one sonnet, the verse-maker will learn more than he could learn in writing half a dozen ballads or twenty volumes full of unrhymed free verse.

This book is intended for the guidance not of poets but of verse-makers. Yet I cannot forbear quoting Watts-Dunton's admirable statement of the whole content of the sonnet. He writes: "Without being wholly artificial, like the rondeau, the sestina, the ballade, the villanelle, and the rest, the sonnet is yet so artistic in structure, its form is so universally known, recognized, and adopted as being artistic, that the too fervid spontaneity and reality of the poet's emotion may be in a certain degree veiled, and the poet can whisper, as from behind a mask, those deepest secrets of the heart which could otherwise only find expression in purely dramatic forms."

As I said, the simplest, and in some respects, the most difficult form of sonnet, has for the rhyme scheme a, b, b, a, a, b, b, a, c, d, c, d, c, d. But there is a tendency to vary the rhyme scheme in the sestet—the octave usually is unchanged. One common variation is to have the rhymes of the sestet c, d, e, c, d, e, instead of c, d, c, d, c, d. This is the scheme we find followed in the sestet of two of "Three Sonnets on Oblivion," by a distinguished American poet, Mr. George Sterling.





Her eyes have seen the monoliths of kings
Upcast like foam of the effacing tide;
She hath beheld the desert stars deride
The monuments of power's imaginings:
About their base the wind Assyrian flings
The dust that throned the satrap in his pride;
Cambyses and the Memphian pomps abide
As in the flame the moth's presumptuous wings.

There gleams no glory that her hand shall spare,
Nor any sun whose days shall cross her night,
Whose realm enfolds man's empire and its end.
No armour of renown her sword shall dare,
No council of the gods withstand her might—
Stricken at last Time's lonely Titans bend.


The Night of Gods

Their mouths have drunken the eternal wine—
The draught that Baal in oblivion sips.
Unseen about their courts the adder slips,
Unheard the sucklings of the leopard whine;
The toad has found a resting-place divine,
And bloats in stupor between Ammon's lips.
O Carthage and the unreturning ships,
The fallen pinnacle, the shifting Sign!

Lo! when I hear from voiceless court and fane
Time's adoration of eternity,—
The cry of kingdoms past and gods undone,—
I stand as one whose feet at noontide gain
A lonely shore; who feels his soul set free,
And hears the blind sea chanting to the sun.

In these two sonnets, you see, Mr. Sterling has in his sestet the rhymes c, d, e, c, d, e, thus having more license than the poet of the sonnet in four rhymes. He uses the same number of rhymes in the final sonnet of this trilogy, but varies the order of the rhymes in the sestet, having for his scheme not c, d, e, c, d, e, but c, d, d, e, c, e. One objection to this method is that it produces, as you see, a rhymed couplet in the midst of the sestet.


The Dust Dethroned

Sargon is dust, Semiramis a clod.
In crypts profaned the moon at midnight peers;
The owl upon the Sphinx hoots in her ears,
And scant and dere the desert grasses nod
Where once the armies of Assyria trod,
With younger sunlight splendid on the spears;
The lichens cling the closer with the years,
And seal the eyelids of the weary god.

Where high the tombs of royal Egypt heave,
The vulture shadows with arrested wings
The indecipherable boasts of kings,
Till Arab children hear their mother's cry
And leave in mockery their toy—they leave
The skull of Pharaoh staring at the sky.

It is seldom that we find such a couplet as: "The vulture shadows with arrested wings, The indecipherable boasts of kings," in the midst of the sestet. But there are many verse writers who use the couplet, unrelated in rhyme to the rest of the sestet, to conclude the sonnet. This of course was Shakespeare's method, but Shakespeare, as we have seen, was not making Petrarchan sonnets. The great danger is that the final couplet will give the conclusion of the sonnet too much of a snap, too much of an epigrammatic flavor. Therefore it is well to avoid this device, although it cannot be denied that some of the greatest sonnets in the language end in a couplet. Some years ago I asked a number of English and American poets and critics to name their favorite brief poems. Many of them chose sonnets, and one of them, Mr. Edward J. Wheeler, a critic of experience and discrimination, for many years the President of the Poetry Society of America, selected a sonnet ending in a couplet—Blanco White's "Night." It may be remarked that this famous sonnet is almost the only one of Blanco White's many compositions to escape oblivion.




Mysterious Night! when our first parent knew
Thee from report divine, and heard thy name,
Did he not tremble for this lovely frame,
This glorious canopy of light and blue?
Yet 'neath a curtain of translucent dew,
Bathed in the rays of the great setting flame,
Hesperus with the host of heaven came,
And lo! creation widened in man's view.

Who could have thought such darkness lay concealed
Within thy beams, O Sun! or who could find,
Whilst fly and leaf and insect stood revealed,
That to such countless orbs thou mad'st us blind!
Why do we then shun Death with anxious strife?
If Light can thus deceive, wherefore not Life?

Here is another sonnet ending in a couplet, which I quote for several reasons. In the first place, the poet, while using the couplet, has avoided the dangers of the epigram. In the second place, he comes as close to writing a narrative as the sonneteer may safely do. In the third place he deviates from the strict rules of the sonnet in one important particular, which should be at once apparent to every student of the subject. I do not refer to the false rhyme of "Africa" and "bar"—the deviation which I mean refers only to the sonnet form, and has to do with the arrangement of the thought.




One night I lay asleep in Africa,
In a closed garden by the city gate;
A desert horseman, furious and late,
Came wildly thundering at the massive bar,
"Open in Allah's name! Wake, Mustapha!
Slain is the Sultan,—treason, war, and hate
Rage from Fez to Tetuan! Open straight."
The watchman heard as thunder from afar:

"Go to! in peace this city lies asleep;
To all-knowing Allah 'tis no news you bring";
Then turned in slumber still his watch to keep.
At once a nightingale began to sing,
In oriental calm the garden lay,—
Panic and war postponed another day.

The deviation to which I refer is the lack of absolute distinction between the octave and the sestet. If the rules of the sonnet were strictly followed, the line which introduces the watchman would begin the sestet instead of closing the octave.

The best form of the Petrarchan sonnet for the novice in versification to use in practice is the form I first described, that in which the rhyme scheme is a, b, b, a, a, b, b, a, c, d, c, d, c, d. But if you find that this at first presents insurmountable difficulty, use three rhymes in the sestet instead of two, as in the two poems following. In these, you will see, the rhyme scheme of the sestet is c, d, e, c, d, e. The first is a deeply introspective study by one of the greatest women poets of our generation; the second is more true to the traditional type of sonnet in thought, giving the subject in the octave, and the lesson drawn therefrom in the sestet. It is the work of a young American poet whose name is familiar to every reader of American magazines.




I must not think of thee; and, tired yet strong,
I shun the love that lurks in all delight—
The love of thee—and in the blue heaven's height,
And in the dearest passage of a song.
Oh, just beyond the fairest thoughts that throng
This breast, the thought of thee waits hidden yet bright;
But it must never, never come in sight;
I must stop short of thee the whole day long.

But when sleep comes to close each difficult day,
When night gives pause to the long watch I keep,
And all my bonds I need must lay apart,
Must doff my will as raiment laid away,—
With the first dream that comes with the first sleep
I run, I run, I am gathered to thy heart.




As in old days of mellow candle-light,
A little flame of gold beside the pane
Where icy branches blowing in the rain
Seem spectre fingers of a ghostly night;
Yet on the hearth the fire is warm and bright,
The homely kettle steams a soft refrain,
And to one's mind old things rush back again,
Sweet tender things still young in death's despite.

So, when the winter blasts across life's sea
Do beat about my door and shale the walls
Until the house must sink upon the sand,
Then on some magic wind of memory,
Borne swiftly to my heart a whisper falls,—
And on my arm the pressure of your hand!

Here is another famous modern sonnet, in which the three rhymes of the sestet are arranged in the order c, d, e, e, c, d.




As one that for a weary space has lain
Lulled by the song of Circe and her wine
In gardens near the pale of Proserpine,
Where that Æaean isle forgets the main,
And only the low lutes of love complain,
And only shadows of wan lovers pine,—
As such an one were glad to know the brine
Salt on his lips, and the large air again,—

So gladly, from the songs of modern speech
Men turn, and see the stars, feel the free
Shrill wind beyond the close of heavy flowers,
And through the music of the languid hours,
They hear like ocean on a western beach
The surge and thunder of the Odyssey.

This sonnet has been criticized by Professor Brander Matthews, not on account of its rhyme scheme, but because of its lack of what he calls tone-color. I will discuss the subject of tone-color later, but it may be well at this point to explain that this criticism means that the rhymes of this sonnet are not sufficiently varied—that "lain" does not differ sufficiently from "wine," and "free" does not differ sufficiently from "beach" (the first two words being similar in consonantal value, and the second two in vowel value) to warrant their use—the theory being that the rhymes used in a sonnet should contrast strongly with each other—"lain" and "hide," for example, and "free" and "shore," for example, contrasting more strikingly than the words used. This contrast in tone-color, to use that phrase, may be noticed in this strongly-wrought sonnet of William Watson's. How strikingly the sound of "old," in the octave contrasts with that of "ing," and how strikingly in the sestet "ove" contrasts with "ire." The poet uses but two rhymes in the sestet, the arrangement being c, d, d, c, d, c.




Dismiss not so, with light hard phrase and cold,
Ev'n if it be but fond imagining,
The hope whereto so passionately cling
The dreaming generations from of old!
Not thus, to luckless men, are tidings told
Of mistress lost, or riches taken wing;
And is eternity a slighter thing,
To have or lose, than kisses or than gold?

Nay, tenderly, if needs thou must, disprove
My loftiest fancy, dash my grand desire
To see this curtain lift, these clouds retire,
And Truth, a boundless dayspring, blaze above
And round me; and to ask of my dead sire
His pardon for a word that wronged his love.

Of course you will find exceptions to the rules I have stated, you will find poets who have combined the Shakespearean and Petrarchan sonnet. The most usual way of doing this is to end the Petrarchan sonnet with the couplet typical of the Shakespearean form, as in Blanco White's "Night." But sometimes we find the octave of the sonnet consisting, as in the Shakespearean form, of two quatrains, and the sestet approaching closely to the Petrarchan idea. Such a sonnet is "Letty's Globe," by Charles Tennyson-Turner, the brother of Alfred Tennyson. In this the octave is Shakespearean—rhyming a, b, a, b, c, d, c, d, but the sestet rhymes e, f, f, g, e, g.




When Letty had scarce passed her third glad year,
And her young, artless words began to flow,
One day we gave the child a coloured sphere
Of the wide earth, that she might mark and know,
By tint and outline, all its sea and land.
She patted all the world; old empires peeped
Between her baby fingers; her soft hand
Was welcome at all frontiers. How she leaped,
And laughed, and prattled in her world-wide bliss;
But when we turned her sweet unlearned eye
On our own isle, she raised a joyous cry,
"Oh! yes, I see it, Letty's home is there!"
And while she hid all England with a kiss,
Bright over Europe fell her golden hair.

You will find also exceptions to the rule that the thought of the sonnet shall be sharply differentiated by the pause between the octave and the sestet, that it shall flow in the octave and ebb in the sestet. John Milton, for instance, certainly the author of some of the greatest sonnets in the English tongue, blended the octave of his sonnets with their sestets, letting, as a critic has said, "octave flow into sestet without break of music or thought." Thus, says Watts-Dunton, Milton, in his use of the Petrarchan octave and sestet for the embodiment of intellectual substance incapable of that partial disintegration which Petrarch himself always or mostly sought, invented a species of sonnet which is English in impetus, but Italian, or partly Italian, in structure. But these innovations are for the Miltons of our literature, not for the apprentices of the craft. We must know how to write longhand before we can write shorthand; we must know the axioms before we can propound original geometric theories. Until he has demonstrated his ability to write a poem consisting of fourteen iambic pentameters with the rhyme scheme a, b, b, a, a, b, b, a, c, d, c, d, the maker of verses should not experiment with any variations of the established form.