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December 18, 2014
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Rated: 13+ | Book | Writing | #1192227
Research for different forms terms and devices in the world of poetry. By Larry Powers.
#575277 added March 23, 2008 at 4:44pm
Restrictions: None
The Spenserian Sonnet and Iambic Pentameter
The Least-Known Sonnet - The Spenserian Sonnet

When discussing poetry forms written in accentual meter, especially iambic meter, perhaps the most notorious is the sonnet. The least known and practiced sonnet form is the Spenserian Sonnet.

Edmund Spenser, a sixteenth century English poet, invented the sonnet form which is named for him. The Spenserian sonnet emerged from the stanza pattern Spenser employed in writing The Faeire Queene, an epic romantic poem created to celebrate Queen Elizabeth I and an ideal England.

Similar in format to the English or Shakespearean sonnet, the Spenserian has three quatrains and a closing sonnet, which are sometimes combined as one complete stanza. The primary difference between the two sonnet forms is the rhyme pattern and the purpose of the closing couplet. In the Shakespearean sonnet form, the closing couplet, or volta, is a turn or resolution for the preceding quatrains. In the Spenserian sonnet form, this in not required of the closing couplet; the rhyming scheme interweaves the stanzas.

The Spenserian, like the Shakespearean, is most commonly written in iambic pentameter. Iambic pentameter is five iambs (feet) or 10 syllables combined in pairs (or feet) of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. With (x) being an unstressed syllable and (/) a stressed syllable, here is how a line of iambic pentameter (5 iambs – 10 syllables) would scansion:
x / x / x / x /x /
(x /) = 1 iamb (unstressed syllable + stressed syllable).

The rhyme scheme for the Spenserian sonnet is:
a b a b | b c b c | c d c d | e e.
The 'b' rhyme in lines 2 and 3 of the first quatrain (4-line stanza) carry over into lines 1 and 2 of the second quatrain.
The 'c' rhyme in lines 3 and 4 of the second quatrain carry over into lines 1 and 2 of the third quatrain.
The closing stanza, which is not required to offer a resolution, is a rhyming couplet, employing its own unique rhyme.

Following is a Spenserian sonnet composed by Edmund Spenser. Though most commonly displayed as one complete stanza, I have taken the liberty to break it down into three quatrains and a couplet to more clearly show the rhyming scheme. The interlocking rhymes will be in blue and green font colors. Keep in mind that some of the language is Sixteenth Century English.

Sonnet 75 from the Amoretti

One day I wrote her name upon the strand,
But came the waves and washed it away:
Again I wrote it with a second hand,
But came the tide, and made my pains his prey.

Vain man, said she, that doest in vain assay
A mortal thing so to immortalize,
For I myself shall like to this decay,
And eek my name be wiped out likewise.

Not so (quoth I), let baser things devise
To die in dust, but you shall live by fame:
My verse your virtues rare shall eternize,
And in the heavens write your glorious name.

Where when as Death shall all the world subdue,
Out love shall live, and later life renew.

A line in this poem points out something interesting about iambic meter. In the first line of stanza two, Spenser uses “Vain” as an unstressed syllable in the opening word of this line, then repeats the word “vain” toward the end of the line in a stressed syllable position. This shows that a word is not always a set 'stressed' or 'unstressed' word, but the stress depends upon the placement in the context of the line. This is one reason iambic meter and other accentual meters cannot be considered a 'pure science.'

The Spenserian sonnet (after Edmund Spenser, he of the Faerie Queene) is often claimed to be a compromise between Italian and English sonnet forms; it rhymes ababbcbc/cdcdee. The alert reader will notice that its rhyming scheme is every bit as demanding as that of an Italian sonnet. Hardly anyone other than Spenser himself has ever used this form.

When I read things like the last sentence of the above statement, I am instantly challenged. On another site, I read that the Spenserian sonnet is rarely used among modern poets of distinction. Much like the mountain climber seeks a greater challenge in the more formidable mountains, something inside me begins to stir at such a challenge as a poetry form which few attempt. So, I invite you to accept the challenge along with me and create a Spenserian sonnet.

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