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The Sonnet Game. Or how fashioning poems becomes a metaphor for Early Modern English creative life. Blank verse Common meter Broadsides Shaped verse Counterfeiting Pastoral Sprezzatura Enjambment Tottel’s Miscellany Fashioning/ Self-Fashioning. Sonnet Italian or Petrarchan

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the sonnet game

The Sonnet Game

Or how fashioning poems becomes a metaphor for Early Modern English creative life

key terms
Blank verse

Common meter


Shaped verse






Fashioning/ Self-Fashioning


Italian or Petrarchan

English or Shakespearean


Octave & Sestet

Quatrains & Couplet

Turn, Epigram


Sonnet Sequence


Key terms
focusing on lyric poetry means we pay attention to quantitative and qualitative aspects of verse
Focusing on lyric poetry means we pay attention to quantitative ANDqualitative aspects of verse:
  • Poetic forms (e.g. elegy, sonnet, etc.) [B&Y ch. 12]
  • Meter (the number of syllables and the rhythm they take) [B&Y ch. 12]
  • Figurative language (especially images and metaphors) [B&Y ch. 6]
the early moderns are crazy about meter it shows their intellectual creativity
The Early Moderns are crazy about meter—it shows their intellectual creativity
  • Blank verse (drama): Unrhymed, enjambed iambic pentameter: think Shakespeare!
  • Common meter (hymns): A closed poetic quatrain, rhyming A B A B, in which iambic tetrameter alternates with iambic trimeter. (e.g. “Amazing Grace”)
  • Ballad meter (popular verse): Common meter with the rhyme scheme X A X A—‘broadsides’
The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want.

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:

He leadeth me beside the still waters.

He restoreth my soul:

He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name' sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,

I will fear no evil: For thou art with me;

Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies;

Thou annointest my head with oil;

My cup runneth over.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,

and I will dwell in the House of the Lord forever.

--King James Bible, 1611

The Lord to me a shepherd is, X

Want therefore shall not I, A

He in the folds of tender grass X

Doth make me down to lie A

To waters calm he gently leads X

Restore my soul doth he B

He doth in paths of righteousness X

For his name’s sake lead me. B

Yea though in valley of death’s shade

I walk, none ill I’ll fear,

Because thou art with me, thy rod,

And staff my comfort are.

For me a table thou hast spread

In presence of my foes;

Thou dost anoint my head with oil

My cup it over-flows.

Goodness and mercy surely shall

All my days follow me;

And in the Lord’s house I shall dwell

So long as days shall be.

--Bay Psalm Book, 1640

shaped verse layout of text enhances content possible with printed texts herbert s easter wings
Shaped verse: layout of text enhances content (possible with printed texts): Herbert’s Easter Wings
Poetic poses allow counterfeiting of emotion, values, beliefs, stances. Common personae: shepherds, lovers, scholars. Common stances:
  • The pastoral (Marlowe, The Passionate Shepherd to his Love)
  • The witty (Raleigh, The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd)
  • The amorous (successful or otherwise) (Sidney, Spenser, Shakespeare, etc.)
  • The spiritual (Donne, Herbert)
their favorite game the sonnet
Their Favorite Game: The Sonnet

We can die by it, if not live by love, And if unfit for tomb or hearseOur legend be, it will be fit for verse ; And if no piece of chronicle we prove, We'll build in sonnets pretty rooms ; As well a well-wrought urn becomesThe greatest ashes, as half-acre tombs, And by these hymns, all shall approve Us canonized for love…

----John Donne, The Canonization

why sonnets pretty rooms
Why sonnets? ‘Pretty rooms’
  • Display of sprezzatura—art without visible effort, creativity with self-governance
  • Tension of expressing an idea about love, politics, or spirituality within a fiercely-regulated form (fourteen lines of iambic pentameter)
  • Use of enjambment to fight the rhyme scheme
  • Lots of puns, metaphors, and signs of verbal cleverness
  • Intellectual puzzle as a sign of humanist learning
  • Art about making art (originally circulated among courtiers; Tottel’sMiscellany (1557) is first print ed.)
the types of sonnets
The types of sonnets
  • Italian or Petrarchan, popularized by Wyatt and Songs and Sonnets (a/k/a Tottel’s Miscellany)
  • English or Shakespearean, probably invented by Surrey and popularized by guess who
  • Spenserian, invented by Edmund Spenser, a combination of the two (bravura, sprezzatura)
italian petrarchan sonnets
Italian (Petrarchan) Sonnets
  • Only five rhyming sounds allowed (Italian has more words ending in vowels—it’s easier!)
  • Structure is an octave rhyming ABBAABBAfollowed by a sestet with several possible arrangements of the C, D, & E sounds
  • There is a turn of thought after the octave so that the sestet answers, completes, and/or releases the tension of the octave
  • Lines are enjambed to fight the sense of couplets: syntax vs. meter creates tension
  • Big names: Wyatt & Surrey
example of italian sonnet
Example of Italian Sonnet

My mouth doth water, and my breast doth swell, A

My tongue doth itch, my thoughts in labor be; B

Listen then, lordings, with good ear to me, B

For of my life I must a riddle tell. A

Toward Aurora's court a nymph doth dwell, A

Rich in all beauties which man's eye can see; B

Beauties so far from reach of words that we B

Abase her praise saying she doth excel. A

Rich in the treasure of deserved renown, C

Rich in the riches of a royal heart, D

Rich in those gifts which give th' eternal crown; C

Who, though most rich in these and every part D

Which make the patents of true worldly bliss, E

Hath no misfortune but that Rich she is. E

--Sir Philip Sidney

english shakespearean sonnets
English (Shakespearean) Sonnets
  • Uses seven sounds in a strict rhyming pattern:ABAB CDCD EFEF GG
  • Three quatrains and one couplet
  • Final couplet is usually epigrammatic (a summing up, the sonnet’s sound bite)
  • Sense of build-up through the three quatrains, then a conclusion or release in the couplet
example of english sonnet
Example of English Sonnet

A witless gallant, a young wench that wooed A

(Yet his dull spirit her not one jot could move), B

Entreated me, as e'er I wished his good A

To write him but one sonnet to his love; B

When I, as fast as e'er my pen could trot, C

Poured out what first from quick invention came, D

Nor never stood one word thereof to blot, C

Much like his wit, that was to use the same; D

But with my verses he his mistress won, E

Who doted on the dolt beyond all measure. F

But see, for you to heav'n for phrase I run, E

And ransack all Apollo's golden treasure; F

Yet by my froth this fool his love obtains, G

And I lose you for all my wit and pains. G

---Michael Drayton

spenserian sonnets
Spenserian sonnets
  • Written by Edmund Spenser and very few other people because they are so difficult technically
  • Only allows 5 rhymes (from Italian) but uses quatrain/couplet structure (from English)—interlaced stanzas
  • Looks like this:ABAB BCBC CDCD EE
example of spenserian sonnet
Example of Spenserian Sonnet

Obscurely yet most surely called to praise, AAs sometimes summer calls us all, I said BThe hills are heavens full of branching ways A Where star-nosed moles fly overhead the dead; B I said the trees are mines in air, I said B See how the sparrow burrows in the sky! CAnd then I wondered why this mad insteadB Perverts our praise to uncreation, why C Such savour's in this wrenching things awry. C Does sense so stale that it must needs derange DThe world to know it? To a praiseful eye C Should it not be enough of fresh and strange D That trees grow green, and moles can course in clay, EAnd sparrows sweep the ceiling of our day? E

---Richard Wilbur

taking them to the next level
Taking them to the next level
  • Sonnet sequences link a group of sonnets together to tell a story, usually of a courtship
  • The poet may give himself and his lovers classical psuedonyms (e.g. Astrophil and Stella), pretend they are all shepherds or pastoral characters, and otherwise counterfeit the relationshipsto each other to show off the author’s persona (self-fashioning)
  • The challenge in a sequence is to use the same form without becoming repetitive (i.e. a challenge of fashioning) and Shakespeare’s sonnet sequence has plots and subplots, characters, and contains 154 sonnets
when reading sonnets
When reading sonnets
  • Read them aloud. There’s a music in the rhythm, and part of the fun is finding the variations.
  • Look for the conceits, the central ideas or metaphors with which the writer is playing
  • Watch the tension of enjambment vs. rhymeas the writer tries to cram a big idea in this very tiny space
shakespeare sonnet 73
Shakespeare, Sonnet 73

              That time of year thou mayst in me behold

              When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang

              Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,

              Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.

              In me thou see'st the twilight of such day

              As after sunset fadeth in the west,

              Which by and by black night doth take away,

              Death's second self, that seals up all in rest.

              In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire

            That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,

            As the death-bed whereon it must expire, Consum'd with that which it was nourish'd by.

            This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong,

            To love that well which thou must leave ere long

verbal display
Verbal display

Whoever hath her wish, thou hast thy Will,

And Will to boot, and Will in overplus;

More than enough am I that vex thee still,

To thy sweet will making addition thus.

Wilt thou, whose will is large and spacious,

Not once vouchsafe to hide my will in thine?

Shall will in others seem right gracious,

And in my will no fair acceptance shine?

The sea all water, yet receives rain still

And in abundance addeth to his store;

So thou, being rich in Will, add to thy Will

One will of mine, to make thy large Will more.

Let no unkind, no fair beseechers kill;

Think all but one, and me in that one Will.

--Shakespeare, Sonnet 135

sonnets everyone must know
Sonnets Everyone Must Know…
  • Wyatt, “The Long Love,” p. 420
  • Spenser, Amoretti #75, p. 580
  • Donne, Holy Sonnets #10, p. 815
  • Shakespeare, Sonnet #18, p. 737
  • Shakespeare, Sonnet #60, p. 739
  • Shakespeare, Sonnet #73, p. 739
  • Shakespeare, Sonnet #130, p. 741
  • and…….your table’s sonnets.
so when you study your sonnet
So when you study your sonnet
  • Figure out which of the three kinds of sonnets it is (when in doubt, look at the beginnings of lines 5, 9, and 13)
  • Figure out the rhyme scheme (remember that pronunciations have changed over 400 years—use the OED)
  • Figure out the conceit the writer is playing with
  • Practice reading it to emphasize the enjambment—don’t read it like Dr. Seuss!
  • Check the OED for help with word meanings
  • and
Above all, have fun! Writing sonnets, then reading them aloud, was a game that people in the Early Modern period enjoyed as a way to show off their intellect and creativity. Just as modern musicians want to create lyrics that sound spontaneous but that they have worked on for many hours, sonneteers used these forms to express many of the same emotions and feelings.