Sunday, October 30, 2011

POETRY: Sonnet Showcase

The sonnet is one of the most popular forms of poetry, historically speaking. While it has fallen out of favor to a certain extent among contemporary poets, we still read the sonnets of the Italian and English Renaissances in schools and for pleasure. Oftentimes sonnets are grouped together in sequences, which may present the journey of a certain character or group of characters, or expound upon a given theme. The most famous sonnet sequence is Shakespeare's, which was published in 1609. However the popularity of the form means that we have sonnets from a very wide range of English poets, a few of which I have reproduced below.

There are two different types of sonnets represented here, but they all have a few things in common. First, sonnets are pretty much always written in iambic pentameter (five "feet," or pairs of syllables that take the form unstressed-stressed), and they almost always have fourteen lines.

But that's all pretty boring. The most interesting feature of the sonnet in my opinion is what is known as the turn. In sonnets that feature a turn, the opening lines introduce the topic or situation, and the speaker elaborates on it for several lines. However, about two-thirds of the way through (usually at line 9), there is a "turn," and the speaker breaks from the previous line of thought and introduces new ideas and/or a new point of view on the subject of the poem. At this point, a good sonneteer can often provide great insight into the topic at hand, and leave you with that feeling of wonder that good poetry instills in us.

So please enjoy these poems; three of my favorite sonnets.

"Bright Star" by John Keats (Shakespearian)*

Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art --
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like Nature's patient, sleepless Eremite,*
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution* round Earth's human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors --
No -- yet still steadfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow'd upon my fair love's ripening breast,
To feel forever its soft swell and fall,
Awake forever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still, to hear her tender-taken breath
And so live ever -- or else swoon to death.

* The Shakespearian sonnet uses the rhyme scheme abab cdcd efef gg.
* Eremite - a hermit
* ablution - ritualistic washing

"Since there's no help..." by Michael Drayton (from Idea; Shakespearian)

Since there's no help, come let us kiss and part;
Nay I have done, you get no more of me,
And I am glad, yea glad with all my heart
That thus so cleanly I myself can free;
Shake hands forever, cancel all our vows,
And when we meet at any time again,
Be it not seen in either of our brows
That we one jot of former love retain.
Now, at the last gasp of love's latest breath,
When, his pulse failing, Passion speechless lies,
When Faith is kneeling at his bed of death,
And Innocence is closing up his eyes,
Now, if thou wouldst, when all have given him over,
From death to life thou mightst him yet recover.

"Death be not proud..." by John Donne (from Holy Sonnets; pseudo-Petrarchan)*

Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so,
For those whom thou thinkst thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure, then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy* or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than they stroke, why swell'st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more. Death, thou shalt die.

* Donne did not always confine himself to a strict form; I am calling this "pseudo-Petrarchan" because he uses the rhyme scheme abba for the first octave, which is consistent with the Petrarchan form. I have never heard another name for it.
* poppy - opium

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