Traditionalism and Modernism in Poetic Form: Sonnet and Villanelle

Categories: ModernismTradition

Sonnets and Pantoums are two of the most widely recognized poetic forms. Each is known for rich histories, as well as for modern variations which have allowed the more traditional forms to take on more contemporary subject matter. Sonnets are no longer thought of as being the devotional poems of Shakespeare’s day, while pantoums have managed to progress from poems characteristic of the Romantics to poems used to create a more melodic feel in modern verse.

It is the variations in both form itself and the theme of the traditional poem, which has allowed the form to remain popular in more modern writing without limiting the poets’ sense of creativity and message, although the ways in which the poems have been modernized are also considerably different.

Sonnets are synonymous with love and matters of the heart. William Going’s article, “The Term Sonnet Sequence” states that, “The Elizabethan poet who could not write a series of sonnets about the beauties of his mistress was indeed an unworthy lover and a parsimonious sonneteer” (400).

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That argument has been strengthened throughout the course of modern education, as Shakespeare’s poems have been used as the primary examples of what form and subject matter sonnets are meant to have. There are two main sonnet forms: Italian (Petrarchan) and English or the Shakespearean. While both sonnet forms are characterized as lyrical poems, have a meter of iambic pentameter ( ‘ / ‘ / ‘ / ‘ / ‘ / ) and consist of a total of fourteen lines per sonnet, the arrangement of those fourteen lines and the rhyme scheme are different.

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The Petrarchan sonnet is divided into two stanzas, the first consisting of eight lines and the second consisting of six lines. The rhyme scheme is a b b a a b b a for the first stanza and a variation of three rhymes for the second stanza ( c d e c d e, c d c d c d, etc. ). The Shakespearean sonnet consists of a total of four stanzas. The first three stanzas consist of quatrains, while the last stanza consists of a closing couplet. The rhyme scheme is a b a b, c d c d, e f e f, g g. The subject matter for both sonnet types is traditionally the same.

The poem “Surrender” written by Anonymous in the 1880s demonstrates how references to love and beauty are manipulated in traditional sonnet form: Take all of me, - I am thine own, heart soul, Brain, body - all; all that I am or dream Is thine for ever; yea, though space should teem With thy conditions, I’d fulfill the whole (Taylor, 2). The first quatrain of “Surrender” immediately demonstrates the power of love. The sonnet’s persona speaks of loving his lover so unconditionally that he is willing to give his lover every part of his being.

The poem is written in iambic pentameter and has the beginning rhyme scheme of a b b a. Although the sonnet is meant to be devotional and focused on physical beauty, as well as on the strength of love on another, Shakespeare used a number of negative images in his own sonnets, especially in his sonnet 180: My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun; Coral is far more red than her lips’ red; If snows be white, why then her breasts are dun; If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.

Although Shakespeare’s poem continuously insults his lover as being considerably unattractive, especially by the standards of his time, the closing of the poem demonstrates that his love is still unconditional and despite his lover’s physical deficiencies, he still finds himself attracted to her. Shakespeare’s variation of the Petrarchan sonnet is only a predecessor for more contemporary versions, which have no emphasis on love or beauty. Marilyn L. Taylor’s article “The sonnet: Not just for the lovelorn anymore” states that, “Nowadays, however, the skilled sonneteers among us might not even be thinking about love.

They’re just as likely to be preoccupied by cleaning the garage, taking a final exam or dealing with a misbehaving child” (1). That notion of “anti”-sonneteers can be found in Howard Nemerov’s poem “A Primer of the Daily Round”. The poem is written in iambic pentameter, has the fourteen line quota, and has a specific rhyme scheme. The only difference is that the subject matter is considerably more whimsical than the traditional sonnets about a lover’s beauty: A peels an apple, while B kneels to God, C telephones to D, who has a hand On E’s knee, F coughs, G turns up the sod

For H’s grave, I do not understand But J is bringing one clay pigeon down, While K brings down a nightstick on L’s head, And M takes mustard, N drives into town, O goes to bed with P, and Q drops dead, R lies to S, but happens to be heard By T, who tells U not to fire V For having to give W the word That X is now deceiving Y with Z, Who happens just now to remember A Peeling an apple somewhere far away (6). Numerov’s sonnet is a variation of the Shakespearean sonnet. Although the first stanza consists of twelve lines, the lines are not broken up into the traditional three quatrains.

But the poem still utilizes the Shakespearean sonnet’s rhyme scheme of a b a b, c d c d, e f e f, g g. The closing couplet of “Who happens just now to remember A/ Peeling an apple somewhere far away” is used as a means of bringing the poem back to the beginning stanza and creating a termination of the verse. Although the poem does mention a number of relationships amongst the letters of the alphabet, there is no sense of true love. For the most part, the relationships hint at being adulterous, as in, “That X is now deceiving Y with Z” and “C telephones to D, who has a hand on E’s knee”.

The many references to death, as in, “G turns up the sod for H’s grave” and “Q drops dead”, assist in making the poem less about love and more about the dark side of human nature. The poem does not believe that there is the romantic sense of beauty that was continually spoken of in the traditional sonnets and alludes to the idea that despite the poets’ continual beliefs in an unrequited love and perfect beauty, neither ideal has ever been capable of existing because human nature is so flawed. That sudden change in theme is one of the greatest changes between the traditional and modern sonnet forms.

Although Numerov’s poem continued to utilize the traditional form of fourteen lines, as well as the same stresses and rhyme schemes, it is the change in theme that proves that sonnet form can help to strengthen modern verse, as well as to prove that poetic forms are not so rigid as to be unable to change with modernization. The Shakespearean sonnet is not the only sonnet form to have attracted variations in modern time. The Petrarchan sonnet is the model for James Wright’s poem, “Saint Judas”: When I went out to kill myself, I caught

A pack of hoodlums beating up a man. Running to spare his suffering, I forgot My name, my number, how my day began, How soldiers milled around the garden stone And sang amusing songs; how all that day Their javelins measured crowds; how I alone Bargained the proper coins, and slipped away. Banished from heaven, I found this victim beaten, Stripped, kneed, and left to cry. Dropping my rope Aside, I ran, ignored the uniforms: Then I remembered bread my flesh had eaten, The kiss that ate my flesh. Flayed without hope, I held the man for nothing in my arms (144).

Wright maintains the use of iambic pentameter, as well as uses the fourteen line form broken into the first stanza of eight lines and the second stanza of six lines. The rhyme scheme is a b a b c d c d / e f g e f g. Once again, it is the variation in theme that makes the poem so different from the traditional form. Instead of being about romantic love, the poem is about Judas’s decision to help a man who is being beaten, even while he recollects on what his actions have done to Jesus, and how he was greedy enough to take money in exchange for another’s life.

But the poem does have a sudden change in the second stanza, as the sonnet form traditionally does. The first stanza consists of Judas’s memories of selling Jesus to the soldiers, while the second stanza gives Judas more humanity than is often seen, as he forgets the importance of money and becomes selfless enough to come to the aid of another. The fact that he remembers the sacrifices Jesus made for him is not lost in the poem and it is that sense of selflessness which Judas begins to mimic in the closing lines. The pantoum is yet another poetic form which has undergone great transformation through the years.

But unlike the sonnet, the pantoum’s variations are centered more around slight changes in the poem’s actual form, rather than in changes in theme. Brian Newbould’s article “Ravel’s Pantoum” states that: The pantoum consists of a number of quatrains with isometric lines and alternating rhymes. An essential feature is that the second and fourth lines of each stanza become the first and third of the following stanza; the first line should also return as the last line of the poem. The poem treats two themes of which the one serves as accompaniment to the other; one

idea occupies the first two lines of each stanza, and the other the last two (228). The continued repetition throughout the poem creates a very lyrical, melodic feel to the poem. It becomes almost songlike in quality. Newbould also states that the poetic form was of “Malay tradition” and often utilized by the French Romantic poets. The poem form is also argued to be present in musical arrangements. Newbould states that: If all or most features of the pantoum are to be translated into a musical equivalent, then the undertaking must by its very nature present a special

challenge to the composer’s powers of integration. Two themes are to be developed alternately, in a coherent fashion, but in such a way that the two strands of development may be extricated and reassembled as separate, intelligible entities. Ravel does in fact attempt this, and succeeds well enough to have most listeners and commentators oblivious to his feat. His first theme and the beginning of his second […] X is staccato, brittle, percussive in its cross-rhythms; Y is legato, surging and falling in short breaths […] contrasting but not incompatible companions (228).

The pantoum’s presence in musical arrangements can be an indicator as to why the pantoum’s form has a musical quality. The intricate weaving of rhymes creates a sort of chant to the poem, such as in Mary Beth O’ Connor’s poem “Pantoum”: It was a small house Clearly there were too many of us During games of hide and seek I’d hide in a bowl of fruit Clearly there were too many of us There weren’t enough beds to go around I hid in a bowl of fruit Until my mother came calling There weren’t enough beds to go around So I slept in the orchard Until my mother came calling Then I rolled to her like an apple As I slept in the orchard

Orion shot his arrows I rolled to my mother like an apple and she cored me Orion shot his arrows Into the black sky above the chimney As she cored me And put me in the oven to bake In the black sky above the chimney The smoke of me escaped She put me in the oven to bake And I left her, floating there The sweet smell of me escaped It was a game of hide and seek I floated there, having left her It was a small house. The pantoum form is created by alternating lines. The first line is repeated as the last line of the poem. The second line of the first stanza is repeated as the first line of the second stanza.

The third line of the first stanza is the third line of the last stanza. The fourth line of the first stanza becomes the third line of the second stanza. This process is repeated, with the second line of each stanza becoming the first line of the next stanza, and the last line of each stanza becoming the third line of the next stanza. Commonly, the pantoum consists of a total of 28 lines. The idea of two themes is also present in O’ Connor’s pantoum. There is an emphasis on childhood which is alluded to by the idea of “games of hide and seek” and the making of apple pie, both images that are reminiscent of early childhood.

There is also an emphasis on the poem’s persona struggling to find a sense of identity and place throughout the poem, and the constant repetition of the lines “It was a small house”, “There weren’t enough beds to go around”, “I left her” and the word “escaped” creates an idea of an oppressive environment and the persona’s desire to leave. Even the image of the mother coring her child “like an apple” is an oppressive image, one that shows that the child’s only sense of purpose is built around a sense of pain and a longing to escape.

It is not until the mother “put me into the oven to bake”, which is itself also a harsh image, that the child is able to finally escape. There can also be an alternate theme of a child believing that death is the only way that the pain of childhood can be escaped. O’ Connor’s pantoum form is clearly organized into stanzas consisting of quatrains adding up to the traditional 28 lines. This is far different from Elaine Sexton’s version of the pantoum, “Lower Manhattan” which also uses the 28 line method but does not break up the poem into separate stanzas: Always a bad sign

people on the sidewalk looking up. A crowd forms, cars slow then stop, people on the sidewalk looking up. I step into the pool of them then stop, I gape like the others. I step into the pool of them, become the pool and gape like the others. Mothers, peddlers, suits become the pool of a wreck. Mothers, peddlers, suits, my super, my neighbors, a wreck, unfolding, undone. My super, my neighbors no one is stunned. Unfolding, undone we look at our watches, stunned. Someone says let’s pray. We examine our watches. A crowd forms. Cars stop. Someone says let’s pray - always a bad sign.

Sexton’s poem, while not specifically organized into individual quatrains, still utilizes the pattern of line repetition. The first line of the first stanza still ends the poem. The second line of the first stanza becomes the first line of the second stanza. Sexton follows the poem completely. There is also an idea of two parallel themes occurring in the poem, contrasting each other. The poem states that “no one is stunned” and “we look at our watches, stunned”, which demonstrates people’s tendencies to expect accidents to occur while still being horrified that such a tragedy has happened.

Although the two ideas are present in the poem simultaneously, they are still barely present and are only named by two passing references. Traditional poetic forms, although known for their original contexts, have now become more modernized through the use of variations in the form, as well as changes in the traditional theme. Because the poems are so easily utilized in a more modern setting, the timelessness and flexibility of the form is inarguable, and can only be strengthened by the changes the forms endure over time. Works Cited Going, William T. “The Term Sonnet Sequence”.

Modern Language Notes 62 (1947): 400-402. Nemerov, Howard. “A Primer of the Daily Round”. Contemporary American Poetry. Ed. R. S. Gwynn. New York: Penguin Academics, 2005. 6. Newbould, Brian. “Ravel’s Pantoum”. The Musical Times 116 (1975): 228-231. O’ Connor, Mary Beth. “Pantoum”. Massachusetts Review 41 (2001). Sexton, Elaine. “Lower Manhattan Pantoum”. Poetry 186 (2005) Taylor, Marilyn L. “The Sonnet: Not just for the lovelorn anymore. ” Writer 118 (2005). Wright, James. “Saint Judas”. Contemporary American Poetry. Ed. R. S. Gwynn. New York: Penguin Academics, 2005. 144.

Updated: Jul 07, 2022
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Traditionalism and Modernism in Poetic Form: Sonnet and Villanelle. (2016, Aug 31). Retrieved from

Traditionalism and Modernism in Poetic Form: Sonnet and Villanelle essay
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