by Gillian Clarke
Form is sound. Sound is form. The pattern on the page is the tune in your ear. A sonnet looks and sounds like a sonnet. This is because words are not silent. They speak aloud in your mind. The human ear and heart enjoy rhythm and rhyme as much as the human eye enjoys pattern. A sonnet is a poem of 14 lines written, usually, in iambic pentameter, that is, each line contained five strong beats, as in most of Shakespeare’s verse. See line 2 in the Shakespeare quotation below, how the five words ‘then’, ‘scorn’, ‘change’, ‘state’ and ‘kings’ carry five stressed beats.
(see also article on iambic pentameter)
A sonnet’s line endings rhyme in various ways. Using the alphabet as a code for the rhymes, look at the two main sonnet sound patterns: they are known as the Italian sonnet, which rhymes a,b,b,a/ a,b,b,a/ c,d,e,c,d,e, and the most common Shakespearean sonnet, a,b,b,a/ c,d,c,d/ e,f,e,f/ g,g. The Italian sonnet (also called the Petrarchan sonnet after the poet Petrarch) has 8 lines, then 6 lines. Often there’s a pause between the two parts, and often the thought shifts at that point.
The Shakespearean sonnet is usually printed in a block, without verses. Shakespeare’s sonnets are often love poems, and his concluding couplets are mood music for lovers:
‘For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.’
All four poets in the AQA Anthology sometimes write sonnets, but only one, Anne Hathaway by Carol Ann Duffy, is included in the selection. In the other section of the anthology, on page 50, there is a beautiful sonnet by William Shakespeare, a love poem known as Sonnet 130. It is a good idea to compare the two poems. Shakespeare follows the rules absolutely. His rhyme pattern, represented by the alphabet, is a, b, a, b, c, d, c, d, e, f, e, f, g, g. It ends, as Shakespeare’s always do, with a rhyming couplet. Carol Ann Duffy breaks the rules. Her sonnet ends with a rhyming couplet too, but in the 8 central lines she chooses the best word rather than force the rhyme into a pattern. She begins with a, b, a, b, and then allows the words at line-endings to echo a word somewhere in the poem, but she does not force it. She ends with a rhyming couplet.
Nevertheless the poem SOUNDS as if it rhymes. After reading it you think you’ve read a rhyming poem. Why is this? It is partly because she keeps to the iambic pentameter, Shakespeare’s favourite rhythm, and partly because the poem REFERS to Shakespeare. The subject is Anne Hathaway, Shakespeare’s wife, to whom he left his ‘second best bed’ in his will. It is a love poem, as most of Shakespeare’s sonnets were. Many of the metaphors in Carol Ann Duffy’s poem make connections with language, words like rhyme, assonance, verb, noun, written, page, romance, drama, all used as metaphors for the relationship between the lovers.