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Posted on FB 21 March 2020

Writing on the Sand' by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1859).

Essentially the sonnet is a word production in 14 lines. These 14 lines consist of 8 lines (the octave) and 6 lines (the sestet). This is the convention that is kept with the great majority of sonnets written in English and other languages. This form evolved because it was easily memorable and you could say a lot in a little. Lovers like to say it succinctly, sensually, and without labouring the announcement. Polemicists wish to parade their opponent’s opinion (the octave), only to demolish it (the sestet). Mystics would draw our attention to wondrousness, only to increase the wonder, in case we weren’t paying enough attention the first time. The role you adopt in writing your sonnet can be of some use in how it is pitched and which words are chosen. Two members of Sonnet School are lawyers, for example, who know the skill of forwarding the evidence (the octave) only to draw attention to those details that will win the case (the sestet).

Some of you may be troubled by end rhymes. Rather than seeing this as a chore, play around with the possibilities, and don’t be afraid either to go for an outlandish rhyme or to abandon the existing word as resistant to rhyme. Good rhymes are there to heighten the meaning, to intensify or surprise with their connections, to make the sonnet a tight operation. If rhyme is not working for you then unrhymed endings are permitted, but remember you are also working with rhythms and metrical counts. Rhythm is often innate within the language you are using, but the line soon tests you to arrange words one way rather than another. You will start discovering the beauties of English syntax, syntax being the vital way in which emphasis falls, prize elements do their tricks, and sentences flow. Metre will mean syllable count, which is great when you want your sonnet trim, but my own view is it must not become the overriding force of the sonnet, otherwise it’s just dum-de-dum-de-dum. The main thing is enjoyment and to say something in your way. Trial and error is inevitable, such that you will wish to start a whole new sonnet out of irritation with the current one. You are free to use a layout other than octave-sestet, by the way.  

The other thing to do in school is read sonnets to see how they work. Find ones that work. Shakespeare is especially good because of his astounding flow (“How **does** he do it?” as Stephen Fry would say), his method of making an argument with his chosen set of thoughts and words, and because he revolutionised the form by making it satiric, political, moody, &c. as well as a romantic playing card. He wrote with three quatrains and a couplet, ever the one to have the last word. Dante Gabriel Rossetti said “A sonnet is a moment’s monument.” That sounds grandiose, if true, but more concerned with product than process. I think firstly we trust the process, i.e. what we want to say, leaving ourselves open to the unexpected places the words take us.
Any questions?    


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