Yet another How-to, principally axed on iambic pentameter
|WRITING A TRUE SHAKESPEAREAN SONNET
There are two elements in poetry using any given specific form, Villanelle, Haiku or Sonnet, which must be taken into consideration; the message contained in the words themselves and the form used to portray that message.
Frequently, the messages contained in would-be Shakespearean Sonnets are well expressed. Taken as a simple text, there is nothing to be said against them. It is easy to write a combination of words which is sensitive, and tells a poignant story.
Where many would-be Shakespearean Sonnets poems fall short is in the form. A Shakespearean Sonnet contains two major elements which must be present in each poem. The rhyming scheme – abab cdcd efef gg is the first one; the second is that all of the lines must be written in iambic pentameter.
The rhyming scheme is the element most poets unfamiliar with the Shakespearean Sonnet master easily, thinking they have included in their “sonnet” all of the keys necessary to writing a true Shakespearean Sonnet.
The next element, iambic pentameter, is usually transcribed in a poorly constructed Shakespearean Sonnet as ten syllables per line. This is the most common error found in the poorly written sonnet, and I myself, until the end of 2006 did not preoccupy myself with this “minor” detail. I have in my port older items listed as Shakespearean Sonnets which are in fact only Modern Sonnets.
In order to write good Shakespearean Sonnets, it is my opinion that one must read The Bard himself, aloud, in order to understand the short LONG, short LONG short LONG short LONG short LONG pattern of a line written in proper iambic pentameter. True iambic pentameter means five feet per line, written in iambs, with the accent on every second syllable. A foot is normally a two syllable group of words — “my SOUL does CRY” or “my DYing SOUL” — with the second syllable of each pair the accented one. In my second example the word “dying” is actually a trochee, another type of metric foot, for its natural stress falls on the first syllable, DY-ing. True two-syllable words which are iambs would be re-WARD, de-PART, un-DONE.
The two other most common types of feet are three-syllable feet, the anapest and the dactyl. And anapest is a word (or a word group) with the third syllable accented as in "uncontrolled" or "underneath," and the dactyl is a word (or word group) with the first syllable accented as in "harmony" or "melody."
Recently, I reviewed a Shakespearean Sonnet where four two-syllable words were used as the rhyming end words: treason, reason, and measure pleasures. These words are as trochees and not iambs. They are not commonly pronounced treaSON reaSON, meaSURE or pleaSURE. But if you place other words in between them, they become incorporated into the iambic rhythm of a phrase: and THEN | her TREA |son DID |mis-TAKE | my HEART.
I myself, as do many poets, always write my poems in iambic pentameter in the following way, using capital letters to denote the accented syllables. I reproduce the first stanza here, of my poem “its absence vanquished” to show you what I mean.
this LIFE is DEAD, no MORE will DESperate TEARS
reLINquish HOPE, I THROW my VOWS to DEATH
its FOOTsteps CLING to SADness, ROARing FEARS
and PROMised ANGuish THROUGH my LAST sweet BREATH
As you may see, three of the four lines are obviously written in iambic pentameter. The first line contains a possible metric exception in the stanza, depending on how the reader pronounces the word des-per-ate. The word also is commonly pronounced in two syllables; I could have written desp’rate to assure my reader that that is the pronunciation desired. My use of it here usually implies to the reader that I do, in fact, pronounce it in two syllables.
And even should the reader pronounce desperate as a dactyl, that’s to say a three syllable word with the accent on the first syllable, the break-down of the feet in this line would be the following:
this LIFE | is DEAD |no MORE |will DES | per ate TEARS
and the last foot is substituted into an anapest, a three syllable foot with the accent on the last syllable.
Good Shakespearean Sonnets may, exceptionally, have lines where there is a foot of three syllables or the substitution of a trochee opening the line. Shakespeare used many kinds of rhythmic variation in his sonnets, but it is rare to find more than one variation per stanza. The upshot of this means that if a young poet is striving to write a good Shakespearean Sonnet, he should try to write all of his lines in proper iambic pentameter and not allow himself the liberty or pleasure of disrupting the meter of his poem. It is always good measure to properly learn the rules of any given form before beginning to bend them through what is commonly known as “poetic license.”
And for your reading pleasure.
this life is dead, no more will desperate tears
relinquish hope, I throw my vows to death
its footsteps cling to sadness, roaring fears
and promised anguish through my last sweet breath
the final day, when all was black as coal,
I could not win against the strength of pain
as dreaded weeping clutched my dying soul
distressful battles grew like storms of rain
and love was gone, its absence broke my will
no more to bathe in gentle sky-blue eyes
your smile will light another’s heart from chill
alone in winter fright, my soul now dies
forget-me-nots now grace my quiet tomb
yet bring no peace, those tears forever bloom
"its absence vanquished"
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