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. (For a discussion on the Italian Petrarchan Sonnet, see
Usually, 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 (140 syllables) 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.
- Statement of perspective
- Possibly a shaded re-think
- 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”)
(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.
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
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.
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.
My life’s goal in Sonnets is to “continue the canon”, as many people do in this Society. 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 should 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 modern potter knows what the ancient potter was thinking as the modern potter, today, forms a bowl.
- 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 in the original’s style… even ‘what would they invent next’. I do this with my work presenting programs on, and as, Benjamin Franklin. I also think/hope 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 that Master 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.
- 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.
Links to some of my works
- VIDEO of a Sonnet of Mine “The Theatre”: One of the best of my “period” works
- VIDEO of a Sonnet of mine: “Written in Sound”: Romantic
- PDF: A Sample Book of my works, “Romantique – Petite”: A PDF of collection of my works, taken from the full publication. Graphic Work by Marured verch Gwilym. First of Five Volumes in the works
- PDF: “To Each Their Own”: A Link to the Current Working Script for my 22 Scene Shakespearean-style Comedie, “To Each Their Own”, currently under Internet Production. Also, contains my research notes on period Theatre, Sonnets, Iambic Pentameter and the realities of life for an Elizabethan Poet.
- VIDEO: Proof of Concept: Prologue to ‘To Each Their Own’: A Link to the Prologue from my period-style play,
“To Each Their Own” featuring a very Quilted multi-actor, distanced contribution of many video files.
Shakespeare William, Sonnet #18. Wikipedia. June 6, 2021
VIDEO: Shakespeare’s Sonnet #18 being performed by Lorna Laidlaw. BBC Channel.
Petrarchan Sonnets by Billy Collins on VIDEO: MasterClass (this section is free to view) by Billy Collins Masterclass https://www.masterclass.com/articles/poetry-101-what-is-a-petrarchan-sonnet-learn-about-petrarchan-sonnets-with-examples#what-is-the-structure-of-a-petrarchan-sonnet
Inkwell photo and portrait photo by Brand aux Deux Leons
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.