When to use the sonnet form
A sonnet usually has a volta (from the Italian word for “turn”), traditionally after the eighth line. This indicates a switch from what is laid out in the first eight lines, to a different mode or state of mind. So the sonnet is like an argument that has a decisive shift two-thirds of the way through.
A sonnet begins with exposition, and then reaches a conclusion. Or a sonnet starts with a problem, and works toward resolution. It has to be a situation that can be spelled out and resolved in 120 syllables, which isn’t a lot of verbiage, so an extremely complicated premise isn’t going to work. The topic of a sonnet also has to lend itself to the argument, counter-argument format, though that is less important in more recent sonnets, such as the poems of Marilyn Hacker, which tend to be more narrative.
Here’s a sonnet that seems to me almost a perfect embodiment of the form, John Keats’s great poem, “Bright Star”:
Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art—
Not in lone splendor 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 stedfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow'd upon my fair love's ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft swell and fall,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever—or else swoon to death.
The first eight lines, called the octave, present a model of constancy, using diction that is full of distance, coolness, and religiosity: “lone,” “aloft,” “watching,” “Eremite (hermit),” “priestlike,” “pure,” “ablution,” “mask,” “snow,” “mountains,” “moors.” Everything suggests the opposite of heat or passion. The rhymes are tight and unwavering: art-apart, night-Eremite, task-mask. At least until the last word of the octave, or first eight lines. These first eight lines spell out the argument or the problem—the speaker yearns for the fidelity of the star. The star is a perfect image of loyalty, particularly the pole star or North Star that stays in one place in the sky, but it’s also remote and untouched, which makes it an incomplete role model for lovers.
In the sestet, the last six lines, Keats gives us the counter-argument, making it clear from the first word—“No”—that he’s going to show us the exact opposite of that cold version of constancy. The contrary is the extremely close, warm, and intimate image of the speaker lying with his head on his lover’s chest. He feels the motion of her breath as her chest rises and falls. This is as far as you can get from the distant, cold-hearted star. And yet the speaker hopes to combine this time-bound passion with the constancy of the star: “yet still stedfast.” Interestingly, this bodily version of love could lead to something even more immortal than the star: “And so live ever,” but it can also lead to mortality: “or else swoon to death.”
One thing Keats shows us in “Bright Star” is that the sonnet can take in everything from passion to metaphysics in just fourteen lines. It's a great form to play out an argument you're having with yourself or another person, but not a violent argument, more like differing viewpoints. The form can also portray a moment of intense closeness. Oddly, Keats addresses the poem to the star, using the intimate “thou” form. The poet speaks of his beloved in the more distant third person. But hey, this was 1819. I think this was about as sexy as you could get in England at that time—and then some.
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