The case for learning about sonnets – in reverse

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A summer’s day

Working – or playing – with sonnets is a fabulous way to learn about how language works, why poetry CAN be its highest form. But where do you start?
Ask just about anyone what they know about sonnets, and they will probably say “iambic pentameter”.  Then ask them what that means. Some will know that it refers to a kind of rhythm, most will say it means 10 beats to a line, and some that it means 10 syllables to a line. That is not what the words actually mean, but they are on the right track.

Let’s break it down. What does ‘iambic’ mean?  Perhaps you know it refers to a specific rhythm, the one that occurs when you have an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable.  And what is a syllable?  What is a stress?

In the English language, a syllable must have one, and only one vowel sound – but it may also have one, and only one diphthong, which is two vowel sounds quickly run together so that to the uninformed ear, it seems to be one sound. For example, “a” in the sentence “Here’s a box” is one vowel sound, (phonetically I would write it as a schwa thus: /ə/.  “I” in the sentence “Where am I?” is a diphthong, represented phonetically by the two symbols /aɪ/.  The words “a” and “I” are both one-syllable words.

Confused?  How many syllables are there in the word “confused”?  Forget about the spelling. There are three vowel LETTERS in the spelling, but when we say the word there are only two vowel SOUNDS.   Say it out loud, and hear how many vowel sounds you are making. Each vowel sound has one or more consonant sounds before and after the vowel sound, and the combinations of vowel and consonant sounds make up the syllables. So, there are two syllables in “confused”.

As it happens, we give slightly more stress, or emphasis, to the second syllable than we do to the first, so “confused” is a classic example of an Iamb.  One iambic foot.

Still with me?  Many people reading this know exactly what I’m talking about, but there are some who will be thoroughly bamboozled by all this talk of vowel sounds as against vowel letters, and stresses and syllables. These are the ones who will probably be even more put off Shakespeare at the thought that all this is necessary in order to speak, read or perform Shakespeare. This stuff is not taught in schools – any more.

[Oh, in case you are wondering, the word “pentameter” means five measures (commonly referred to as feet) in a line of poetry. So five iambic feet, unstressed + stressed, gives us the well know rhythm of Shakespeare’s sonnets (and of Blank Verse):

di DAH di DAH di DAH di DAH di DAH]*

Personally, I’d rather approach sonnets from the other end. Rather than analysing the structure at the beginning, I advocate starting with the text, the language itself.  What do the words mean? Does it make sense to you?  And this approach also is fraught with danger, because many people will immediately start making assumptions about what the words mean. Actors in particular will often create a whole agenda, a generalised back story – as they’ve often been trained to do in the interests of seeking out the sub-text. In other words, all the stuff that the poet is NOT saying.

So I insist we go back to what the poet IS saying. What are the actual words?

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

When I ask what these words mean, more often than not I will get a reply along the lines of

“My love is very beautiful.”

But that’s is not what he is saying.  For one thing, it’s a question, not a statement. “Shall I?” Shall I what?  “Shall I compare thee?”  (Here usually has to follow an introduction to these strange words, “thee” “thou”, “thy” “thine”, which a lot of people are under the impression refers to themselves, rather than to the person they are speaking to).  “Shall I compare thee (you) with” with what? With “a summer’s day?” Not with a goddess, or a flower, or a galaxy, but a day in summer.

How easy was that! He’s saying exactly what he’s saying. He means what he says. So all the performer has to do is know and understand the words, and say what they mean. And they mean to ask that specific question, and nothing more.

Phew.  Too easy…  And what’s more, if it is spoken as a genuine expression of thought, and asked as an actual (and not a rhetorical) question, it will be in the rhythm of iambic pentameter in which the poet wrote it. He put it there. So you don’t have to. Because it’s already there.

Alright, not quite that easy, but it’s a start.

*Writing the rhythm like that give the false impression that the stressed syllables are equally stressed. They are not! We don’t talk like that. It does not make it poetic to do so.

End of rant.