Structure in Poetry – Sonnets.

Hello everyone and welcome back to another Theory Thursday. Last week I broke down Rate & Pace so you should check that out if you haven’t already. My Rate & Pace breakdown will be the first of a few Theory Thursdays that I feel will be really helpful when it comes to helping readers get better at public speaking.

I ran a poll on my Instagram –@katelovesliterature, you should follow me there if you don’t already. I asked if people would find tips and advice about how to become a more confident speaker helpful and the response I got was very positive so going forward there will be more Theory Thursday breakdowns that are aimed towards anyone who may wish to become a more confident speaker whether it be for presentations, interviews or just day to day conversations. It won’t be every single week as I like to do something different and keep things fresh so there is something for everyone, but going forward I will be including more public speaking tips so if that is something you know you would find helpful then do stay tuned and do keep tabs on my Instagram because then you will see when a piece that you might find helpful is coming up.

Today though is all about poetry. Going forward I am going to be breaking down all aspects of poetry here on Theory Thursday, I’m going to discuss form, style, poetic techniques and much more and today I am starting off with structure and I am starting off with a sonnet.

There are many types of poems and a sonnet is one of them. So let’s dive in.

What is a sonnet?

A sonnet is a lyrical poem that consists of fourteen lines. The sonnet dates all the way back to the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The sonnet was originated in Italy and it was perfected by Petrarch and Dante and it became popular in England in the sixteenth century as it was used by well known English poets such as William Wordsworth and William Shakespeare.

A sonnet is written in iambic pentameter. What does this mean?

Iambic pentameter refers to the rhythm that the words establish in a line. The rhythm is measured in small groups of syllables, these are referred to as ‘feet’. Iambic pentameter is extremely popular, in fact it is one of the most commonly used meters in English poetry.

Shakespeare famously used iambic pentameter in his plays and in his sonnets, and so now that we are more aware of what iambic pentameter is, we can now look at a sonnet and how it is constructed.

A sonnet is a very specific and disciplined style of poem because in a sonnet every word is important.

There are two kinds of sonnet – The Petrarchan Sonnet (also can be referred to as the Italian Sonnet) and the English Sonnet.

In the Petrarchan Sonnet, there is a clear break between the first eight lines and the following six lines. The first eight lines introduce the poem’s theme and the following six develop that theme or introduce something new. The rhyming scheme of a Petrarchan Sonnet is usually ABBA ABBA CDE CDE OR CD CD CD.

The first eight lines are called an octave and the following six are called a sestet.

In the English Sonnet, the theme is introduced in the first four lines and developed in the next eight. Sometimes each stanza can deal with a different aspect of the overall theme and it is usually summed up at the end. The rhyming scheme of an English Sonnet is usually ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. In each stanza, the mood may be different and so the speaker should reflect this if they are reading a poem aloud – that however will be a different Theory Thursday as how to go about reading a poem aloud is an entire blog post in itself.

Why is this important?

The sonnet as a poetic form has remained popular for five centuries so I feel that understanding how a sonnet is constructed allows readers of poetry to have a greater understanding of the poem itself. As I said before when I spoke about Form & Themes, having an understanding of form, of how a piece is written allows us to have a greater appreciation for that piece. Having an understanding of what a sonnet is will improve close reading skills and analytical skills. It will allow you to have a greater understanding and appreciation of poetry and when this happens, a poem becomes much more meaningful.

I am aware that not everyone is an English student, but if you are studying English in school or in college then analysing a poem is something you will have to do at some point and knowing about form will be part of that analysis. When one is studying Shakespeare in school or college, analysing form will come up again and since Shakespeare famously uses sonnets in his plays, having an understanding of how a sonnet is structured will help you especially in the Leaving Cert or in your college essay.

I feel that sonnets are really useful poetic devices because they allow a poet to explore the tensions that may exist in the theme they are exploring. Sonnets tend to feature two contrasting emotions or beliefs, love and hate, winning and losing, life and death etc. and the structure of a sonnet – the introducing of a theme and then either expanding on it or arguing against it – really lends itself to the themes and emotions that a poet is expressing in a sonnet and of course I spoke about how form & theme can compliment each other already in my Theory Thursday entitled Form & Themes, which you should check out if you haven’t already but another example of form and theme working together can be found when one is analysing sonnets.

Something to note is that aspects from previous Theory Thursdays may pop up again and again in future breakdowns and this is because all aspects of literary theory are entwined with each other and once you begin to understand each aspect, it will become easier to recognise them in all works and of course that is the goal. I want English Literature to be accessible to anyone who wishes to access it and my Theory Thursday breakdowns are aimed at anyone who wishes to read about English Literature in more detail but they are also aimed at anyone who is struggling with their English classes because they may find my breakdowns really helpful and once you begin to understand the many aspects of literary theory, they become easier to recognise and then learning becomes much more enjoyable and much more layered because with each aspect, we are opening the door to English Literature more and more, and the more we understand these aspects, the more we can appreciate literature and the more meaningful literature becomes and so that is why I consider it very important to learn about literary theory and why I chose to discuss the sonnet today.

This has been my Theory Thursday. I hope you enjoyed it and found it insightful. Do you enjoy poetry? Do you have a favourite poem? If you are a student, is poetry something you struggle with? Let me know and if you do have any questions then please do comment below, ask away because I would be delighted to get back to you.

Kate xo.

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