Sonnet Structure & The Pastime Machine

GearsGears” by William Warby is licensed under CC BY 2.0 and has been color edited.

As you may be aware, I’m building The Pastime Machine, an irreverent novel in sonnets, at a pace of one sonnet a week.

I’d like to bend your ear for a moment about structural choices in that work.

English has two main sonnet schemes: Petrarchan and Shakespearean. Both are 14 lines long. Both use iambic pentameter for line structure (five “feet” consisting of da-DUM rhythm: as in “That TIME of YEAR thou MAYST in ME beHOLD”). The main difference is their rhyme scheme.

Petrarchan sonnets are named after the Italian sonneteer Petrarch (sonnets actually originated in Italy), and they have a tightly woven rhyme scheme. The first stanza is eight lines long (an octave) with an abbaabba rhyme order. It often introduces a question or problem. The second stanza is six lines long (a sestet) with a rhyme order of either cdecde or cdcdcd. Its purpose is to resolve the question or problem. Either way, it’s a lot of rhyme, which is fine for Romance languages like Italian, but not so easy in relatively rhyme-poor English.

Shakespearean sonnets (sometimes referred to simply as English sonnets) instead use three four-line stanzas (quatrains) followed by a rhymed couplet (two lines). Rhyme scheme is often abab cdcd efef gg. Generally, each quatrain presents the same question or problem in a different fashion, and the couplet responds. Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 73” is a pretty awesome example. (The sample iambic pentameter above is the first line of “Sonnet 73.”)

You may also hear of Miltonic sonnets (which I won’t bother describing here) and Spenserian sonnets (which I will). Spenserian sonnets tighten Shakespeare’s form by carrying a rhyme from each quatrain to the next: abab bcbc cdcd ee.

As an aside, let me point you to the masterful variation Shelley used in “Ozymandias“: ababacdcedefef. (That link takes you to a side-by-side comparison of Shelley’s and Horace Smith’s—the latter of which would surely be forgotten entirely if not for its dubious comparison to the former.) And mention that I recall Sylvia Plath (I think—I’m currently living in my oldest daughter’s guest room, waiting for our new home, and my books are in storage) extending her final couplets to iambic hexameter. And toss in that I tend to call my alphabetic morph rhyme poems—such as “Last Flight of a Vickers Gun Bus Pilot“—sonnets (because the word means “little songs”).

That was all introduction. Now to the point.

For the extended sonnet sequence of The Pastime Machine, I’ve chosen to cross Petrarchan and Shakespearean forms for comedic effect. To my mind and ear…

  1. quatrains keep things short and punchy;
  2. rhymed lines immediately next to each other (lines 2 and 3 in each quatrain) lends to comedic sound; and
  3. a couplet ending makes a good punchline.

That having been said, my old friend Shelly Hall (now deceased) pointed out that a whole novel of strong rhyme in this fashion could grow dreadfully sing-song. So I’ve been consciously choosing to distance some rhymes (“place / amazed,” “tale / Hell”), while assaulting your ear with others (“lay / flagrante”).

Having pulled back the curtain for a moment, to hint at the mad gathering of gears behind this monstrous machine, I’ll let it fall again and return to my labors.

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