Sound-Bites: Barrett-Browning’s Sonnet 43 and the Sonnet Form

As we have discovered, ‘sonnet’ comes from the Italian word ‘sonnetto’ meaning ‘little song’ or ‘little lyric’ and contains 14 lines written in iambic pentameter (10 syllables for each line – 5 unstressed and 5 stressed). The iambic pentameter reflects the natural patterns of speech, and, the musicality of the sonnet is further reinforced by regular rhyme schemes. Sonnet 43 is a Petrarchan sonnet ( after an early Italian sonneteer, Petrarca) and was later adopted by the English-language poets Milton, Barrett-Browning, Wordsworth and Edna St Vincent Millay.


I. The Italian (or Petrarchan) Sonnet:

The basic meter of all sonnets in English is iambic pentameter although there have been a few tetrameter and even hexameter sonnets, as well.

The Italian sonnet is divided into two sections by two different groups of rhyming sounds. The first 8 lines is called the octave and rhymes:

a b b a a b b a

The remaining 6 lines is called the sestet and can have either two or three rhyming sounds, arranged in a variety of ways:

c d c d c d
c d d c d c
c d e c d e
c d e c e d
c d c e d c

The exact pattern of sestet rhymes (unlike the octave pattern) is flexible. In strict practice, the one thing that is to be avoided in the sestet is ending with a couplet (dd or ee), as this was never permitted in Italy, and Petrarch himself (supposedly) never used a couplet ending; in actual practice, sestets are sometimes ended with couplets (Sidney’s “Sonnet LXXI given below is an example of such a terminal couplet in an Italian sonnet).

The point here is that the poem is divided into two sections by the two differing rhyme groups. In accordance with the principle (which supposedly applies to all rhymed poetry but often doesn’t), a change from one rhyme group to another signifies a change in subject matter. This change occurs at the beginning of L9 in the Italian sonnet and is called the volta, or “turn”; the turn is an essential element of the sonnet form, perhaps the essential element. It is at the volta that the second idea is introduced, as in this sonnet by Wordsworth:

“London, 1802”

Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour:

England hath need of thee: she is a fen

Of stagnant waters: altar, sword, and pen,

Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower,

Have forfeited their ancient English dower

Of inward happiness. We are selfish men;

Oh! raise us up, return to us again;

And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power.

Thy soul was like a Star, and dwelt apart;

Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea:

Pure as the naked heavens, majestic, free,

So didst thou travel on life’s common way,

In cheerful godliness; and yet thy heart

The lowliest duties on herself did lay.

Here, the octave develops the idea of the decline and corruption of the English race, while the sestet opposes to that loss the qualities Milton possessed which the race now desperately needs.

A very skillful poet can manipulate the placement of the volta for dramatic effect, although this is difficult to do well. An extreme example is this sonnet by Sir Philip Sidney, which delays the volta all the way to L 14:

“Sonnet LXXI”

Who will in fairest book of Nature know

How Virtue may best lodged in Beauty be,

Let him but learn of Love to read in thee,

Stella, those fair lines,which true goodness show.

There shall he find all vices’ overthrow,

Not by rude force, but sweetest sovereignty

Of reason, from whose light those night-birds fly;

That inward sun in thine eyes shineth so.

And not content to be Perfection’s heir

Thyself, dost strive all minds that way to move,

Who mark in thee what is in thee most fair.

So while thy beauty draws the heart to love,

As fast thy Virtue bends that love to good.

“But, ah,” Desire still cries, “give me some food.”

Here, in giving 13 lines to arguing why Reason makes clear to him that following Virtue is the course he should take, he seems to be heavily biassing the argument in Virtue’s favor. But the volta powerfully undercuts the arguments of Reason in favor of Virtue by revealing that Desire isn’t amenable to Reason.

There are a number of variations which evolved over time to make it easier to write Italian sonnets in English. Most common is a change in the octave rhyming pattern from a b b a a b b a to a b b a a c c a, eliminating the need for two groups of 4 rhymes, something not always easy to come up with in English which is a rhyme-poor language. Wordsworth uses that pattern in the following sonnet, along with a terminal couplet:

“Scorn Not the Sonnet”

Scorn not the Sonnet; Critic, you have frowned,

Mindless of its just honours; with this key

Shakespeare unlocked his heart; the melody

Of this small lute gave ease to Petrarch’s wound;

A thousand times this pipe did Tasso sound;

With it Camoens soothed an exile’s grief;

The Sonnet glittered a gay myrtle leaf

Amid the cypress wtih which Dante crowned

His visionary brow: a glow-worm lamp,

It cheered mild Spenser, called from Faery-land

To struggle through dark ways; and when a damp

Fell round the path of Milton, in his hand

The Thing became a trumpet; whence he blew

Soul-animating strains–alas, too few!

Another variation on the Italian form is this one, by Tennyson’s older brother Charles Tennyson-Turner, who wrote 342 sonnets, many in variant forms. Here, Turner uses an a b b a c d c d e f f e f e pattern, with the volta delayed until the middle of L9:

“Missing the Meteors”

A hint of rain–a touch of lazy doubt–

Sent me to bedward on that prime of nights,

When the air met and burst the aerolites,

Making the men stare and the children shout:

Why did no beam from all that rout and rush

Of darting meteors, pierce my drowsed head?

Strike on the portals of my sleep? and flush

My spirit through mine eyelids, in the stead

Of that poor vapid dream? My soul was pained,

My very soul, to have slept while others woke,

While little children their delight outspoke,

And in their eyes’ small chambers entertained

Far notions of the Kosmos! I mistook

The purpose of that night–it had not rained.

Listen to the recordings below of Sonnet 43. Some are readings, some are put to music and others are advertisements, all of which are testimony to the sonnet’s enduring quality. Poetry is nothing but as it is heard.

Charlie Brown

Reading by British actress, Helen Mirren

Words and text to Sonnet 43

Heinz Ketchup Advertisment

New York Bagels

June Bronhill 1977


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