Sonnets

To enter the thought process of Shakespeare, I started to write in a poetic form he favored - Sonnets, writ in Iamic Pentameter.  That was 5,000 sonnels ago - Sir Brand.

Why is speech important? And once we speak, why Poetry?

Language is a marker of Civilizations. An accomplishment. A way to advance a People.
How a People speaks and communicates to others. Allows them to prosper, if their speech is effective.

Poetry is a deliberate distillation of Language to its essence, putting the best words in the best order.* Poetry is common across cultures. It does not always rhyme, and can be long or short. It has few absolutes. But the power it can wield is substantial. It can help us achieve an understanding of another person’s soul, or help us understand a new way of thinking/experiencing we had not considered before.

England under Elizabeth I (1558-1603) gained new prominence in the World Order. Its arts, culture, military and religious influence expanded. Its language (the mish-mash of grammar and expression that is English) expanded with it. And the Poets of the Elizabethan Age excelled at this juggling of phrase and theatre of thought.

Shakespeare was one of the best at this expressive enterprise. He wrote often in Iambic Pentameter. Its alternating rhythm of unstressed and stressed syllables (e.g. “we HOLD these TRUTHS to BE self-EV-i-DENT”)** works well with English. He played with words and let Iambic Pentameter crack open new ways to smack ideas together in his Audience’s minds. New words. New combinations. New challenging thoughts. Words, words, words, words, words.

*from Samuel Taylor Coleridge
** an example of iambic pentameter, not of Shakespeare.

What is a Sonnet?

The Sonnet is most often a 14-line poem. The sonnet structure was introduced from the Italian (as so many things were) and was a favorite form in Elizabethan England.

Inkwell and bone-handled tool on a white cloth.

Each line is 10 syllables long, and is made up of 5 beats of syllables, an un-stressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable called an iamb. I use the colors here to show the accenting.
The word “toDAY is an example of an iamb. Five iambs becomes Iambic Penta (pent = 5) or Pentameter.
[shall _I_ comPARE thee TO a SUMmer’s DAY]

In 14 lines, there isn’t a lot of room for waste. Ideas must be condensed. The message must be concentrated, for the form – which seems like a formulae of sorts, or potion – is potent. This structure generally allows the Poet to convey just two or three thoughts.

  1. Statement of perspective
  2. Possibly a shaded re-think
  3. A conclusion – often showing a different, even more potent perspective.

Sonnet 18 – decoded

One of the more well-know Sonnets by Shakespeare is # 18.
His sonnets as originally published have no titles except numbers (possibly added by the printer, not the author) so the sonnets are often referred to by the first line.

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

(which is not really a question, but a polite way of saying “I’m going to do this”)

Thou art
(the word ‘thou’ is often used in the familiar, with those close to us, or under our position. YOU is more formal.)

Here is a dive into the structure and intent of the entire sonnet of 14 lines. It rhymes odd numbered lines with the same, and even numbered lines with the same, which is charted using letters: abab, cdcd, efef, gg. (Sonnets can vary in their rhyme scheme; some are abba, cddc, effe, gg, and other combinations.) I use underlining in the first 8 lines to show where the stressed syllables are, and the rhyming words as well.

This is a chart of Brand's analysis of the Sonnet #18.

VIDEO: Shakespeare’s Sonnet #18 being performed by Lorna Laidlaw. BBC Channel.

Best Seller List… for 400 years

Shakespeare’s sonnets are approximately 154 in number (plus a few contained in the plays). He wrote these poems four hundred years ago, yet they are still popular, being reprinted in hundreds of iterations. They are often used in an Actor’s audition to show command of the Language of Shakespeare. They are put on coffee cups, t-shirts, posters… 154 sonnets written by someone who died in 1616. Still a Best Seller. They must work.

My Process for Creating a Sonnet

One of my most Period Sonnets – “The Theatre.” It came out of my passion for the Stage and its transformative powers.
A Sonnet, writ in real time, by Brand.

In sorrow, felt for one of life's poor pains.
I slip into a Dusk tho' at a Noon.
With dirty boot I kick at faultless grounds
and hollow out my soul to fill with Doom.

I know this test. I frequently does meet
and scorn me for the fool that I become.  In younger days, I'd stumble from my feet and land in Pity's self, and be undone.

But how, in but few years I now step sure
and walk from out the stumble to a dance
for Mistress Muse has sung me with heart pure
to better give accompany its chance.

There is a Sun of Days I know now well.
For she has made me see, and thus do tell.
(c) 2021 GregRobin Smith  Washington Shakespearean Festival

When I write a Sonnet, I almost always start with an idea, a desire. A specific tale, a ‘mental map’ from point ‘a’ to point ‘b’. It isn’t enough to want to say ‘I love you’. The map must go from (making up an example) “I am upset” to “you make me feel better”. Then the map can be drawn through the terrain of the thought process it evokes in me.

I improvised a sonnet (the final version on the left) while I typed and explained the process, using the Story Map mentioned above. The notes are in the next section.
NB: After 15 minutes, the sonnet on the left was created
.

How I (usually) Write a Sonnet – Part Deux

DEMONSTRATION: I wrote notes of what was going on in my interior sonnet editor, as I was composing the above sonnet.

Brand's new sonnet and analysis

OK – about 15 minutes to write the above, but I was adding in notes, which I would normally skip. I used some Alliteration: the same sound at the beginning of adjacent or closely connected words – Poor Pains. Mistress Muse. (Also popular in Norse poetic styles.) I used Allusion: words designed to call something to mind without explicitly naming it – kicking at the faultless dirt, an action pretty well known by most of us; Dusk at Noon for a feeling of gloom. These tools all figure into my choices.

A sonnet. On the fly.
In full form above.

Rinse and Repeat.

A recent poem, again, done with video with text to convey the meaning on more than just the textual level.

Goal

My life’s goal in Sonnets is to “continue the canon”, as many people do in this Society for Creative Anachronism. Making MORE garb, in the style. More armor, more dance, more pavilions, more ceremony, more Heraldry, more songs, more gatherings.

My goal is to create something that non-scholars might actually confuse with a period piece.

That has been my passion and my practice, for over 40 years. Perhaps, I could say I have two goals, and the second is to produce Sonnets that feel like they are from late 16th Century England. The main goal is to ‘breathe the air the Masters breathed’ and know, or as much as a potter knows what the potter in the past was thinking as they, today, form their bowl.

Conclusions

  1. I began my exploration of entering into another person’s psyche decades ago. I do believe we can not only copy the style of an artist, but actually create new works, thoughts, formulae… even ‘what would they invent next’. I do this with my work presenting programs on, and as, Benjamin Franklin. I do think I can touch some small part of the genius that was Will Shakespeare. I can write something he might have written… maybe on an off day, maybe a draft crumpled and left on the floor… but occasionally, I can at least ‘breathe the air the Masters breathed.’ That is a reward sweet and heady. It may be a little like simply having empathy for another’s experiences… being able to know what they felt like. It may be why Theatre exists… to bring us lessons from a journey we never took, and that we carry with us as if we did.
  2. Trying to Continue the Canon for a dead poet is rather a cerebral thing. I can walk by a painting, or a wooden chest and get a good idea of the art, the craft, the time, and the meaning of the piece, at a glance. I see a chair, or a pavilion, and can picture myself in them. Boom! Done. But a sonnet must be internalized. Much like a research paper, it must be read and held, taken in, considered… For your time and interest in doing that, I thank you. You have helped my work live in you for a while. May it do you well.

Links below to some of my, and other’s, works.

My thanks for your time and attention.

Brand.


Sources

Links to some of my works

Citations

Shakespeare William, Sonnet #18. Wikipedia. June 6, 2021
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sonnet_18

VIDEO: Shakespeare’s Sonnet #18 being performed by Lorna Laidlaw. BBC Channel.

Inkwell photo and portrait photo by Brand aux deux Leons

Acknowledgments

The layout and editing of this page was made possible by the phenomenal Web Team of Athenaeum, especially Mistress Lion Rowenna and Viscountess Mistress Lion Kerij-e. All mistakes are mine, and my profuse and heart-felt thanks are theirs.

6 Replies to “Sonnets”

  1. This is a really excellent explanation of sonnets, sixteenth-century perspectives on poetry, appropriate language use, and how you go about composing with all this in mind.

    I’d love to hear/read more about how you find yourself trying to emulate Shakespeare’s style in particular, as opposed to Spenser or Marlowe or [insert contemporary author’s name here]. That is, if you were to extend your insights in the direction of assuming a specific stylistic perspective, how might you articulate your process there?

    Thank you!
    Olivier de Bayonne, Atlantian

    1. Good Olivier.
      Thank you for taking the time to look over and comment on my display.
      To your points.
      1) My thanks, heart-felt, to your compliment and approbation. I am glad my labors pleased you.
      2) Shakespeare vs Marlowe, Spenser, et al. I have read more of Shakespeare, and produced/acted in more of his works. In the study of Idiolect (determining the language use ‘fingerprint’ of a subject) one steeps themselves in a subject’s writings and use of language. I focus on WS because that is what I know. It is my hope to explore much more of other writers (I am diving into Francesca Caccini at the present. Wrote one of the earliest operas we know of (and it is a lovely piece). And a Poet:-) All such “diving” helps me understand the age and world of WS and QEI.
      3) Process – I follow Ben Franklin’s methods. He tried to emulate other writers to improve his own writing (I believe this to be the Atelier method of copying a master, then re-arranging the lessons learned into new works). He would copy, then ‘tear apart’ the sentences of an author he appreciated, then let it sit for a few days, then try and re-arrange the lines in the best order. Sometimes, he found, he improved the piece. Plus, he read widely and deeply on many subjects and noted and absorbed the best practices, as they struck him. He also practiced Poetry (and was a printer) so word substitution was a necessary tool to him, for both demand limits (one of rhythm, rhyme and other ‘matching’ challenges, the other of pure space since type frames have physical limits which cannot be exceeded.) As a Printer, he dealt with many people’s turns of phrases. He began early (Silence Dogood Letters) in altering his voice to affect a new style to please his readers. I have done most of these things to achieve some sense (it is my hope) of speaking as if in and from another time and culture.
      Please let me know if I may address more points.
      Thank you again for your time and courtesy.
      Hail Atlantia!
      Sir Brand.

  2. Addendum… in case anyone has an interest in the process I use, seen in action.
    Above, I type out my thoughts while I created a sonnet. Yesterday, I wrote a sonnet for my Dottir’s birthday and videoed myself as I typed, and made verbal comment. I edited out some of the hems and haws, but it is still about 12 minutes. If you want to see how my mind works while writing a sonnet, go to
    https://youtu.be/A6sX3kxHX90
    Brand

  3. Oh, that is some fine work! Nicely done! The logical dissection of the sonnet makes the process very clear.

    I have written only one sonnet, years and years ago. It was for a contest, and I prepped for it by reading most of The Bard’s sonnets to catch the “music”. (I still remember coming up with “velvet chains”.)

    You have inspired me to have another go at it, but this time in a more organized fashion. Thank-you!

    1. Most kind you are, good Halima!!! And going back in to write again. Huzzah! My goal is met. To lead another to discover, it it is their will, to try their hand (for the first, second, or 1,000th time).
      I hope you will send me the samples.

      My very best, Sir Brand.

  4. Brand here: This web-tune-up is even more extensive then when I wrote my initial thanks. Viewers, my work presented here has been upgraded (leveled up?) with much better charts to make my points clearer and better presented by these good folks. Their patience was Jobian. When I mention above “this took me 15 minutes to write” I meant only the actual sonnet (Reversal of Fortune) and the bulk notes… not the extensive charting. That would have taken me hours!!! We Displayers are made better by such labor. Their Arts are not a bit less than mine.

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