by Carol Ann Duffy, Helen Taylor and 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. Words are never silent. They speak aloud in your mind. Our ears enjoy rhythm and rhyme as much as our eyes enjoy pattern.
A sonnet is a poem of 14 lines written, usually, in iambic pentameter, that is, each line contains five strong beats, as does most of Shakespeare’s verse. See also my article on iambic pentameter.
A sonnet’s line endings rhyme in various ways. Using the alphabet as a code for the rhymes, it could rhyme like this:
A,B,B,A/ A,B,B,A/ C,D,E/ C,D,E,
or like this:
A,B,B,A/ C,D,C,D/ E,F,E,F/ G,G.
Shakespeare’s favourite is the second pattern. His sonnets are often love poems, and end in what we call a rhyming couplet, like this:
‘For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.’
The words and parts of words in bold print in the rhyming couplet above are the stressed syllables. They are the strong beats in the line.
Read the two following sonnets to the class, and let them have copies of the poems. First is by William Wordsworth, and it is one of the most beautiful poems ever written about London. He uses the A,B,B,A/ A,B,B,A/ C,D,C,D,C,D, pattern. Because it was written 200 years ago, the language will sound old-fashioned to the children. That will be part of its mystery and charm to them. Very early in the morning, Wordsworth stands on Westminster Bridge and makes up his poem. London then was much smaller than it is today.
Lines Upon Westminster Bridge
Earth has not anything to show more fair;
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This city now doth like a garment wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres and temples lie
Open unto the fields and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour valley, rock or hill;
Never saw I, never felt a calm so deep.
The river glideth at his own sweet will.
Dear God! The very houses seem asleep
And all that mighty heart is lying still.
Next, ‘Summer-Water Sonnet’ by Gillian Clarke, which uses a pattern of 7 rhyming couplets.
Summer-water’s puddled, paddled, swum,
sailed, crossed, forded, squandered, spun,
worn like scales, jewellery, chain-mail,
to make a horse’s mane, a mermaid’s tail,
to gather in armfuls, smash to smithereens,
to dig a channel for a little stream,
to drink with cupped hands on the mountain road
to splash, to leap, to scream at, to off-load
in bucketfuls in a sand castle moat,
to float your poppy petals like silk boats,
to fish, to look in, see your own face blurred,
make mirrors for the moon, dragonflies, birds,
to get up in early dazzle and to be
first footprint on the shore, first in the sea.
Once they have listened to the sound, it’s time to think about meaning. First help the class to work out the meanings of the poems, one at a time. Let them share questions, ideas and opinions.
Then help the children to use the alphabet code to work out the rhyme pattern. They’ll manage to do it in small groups, with a bit of guidance.
Bring in and read aloud other favourite sonnets. Don’t worry about sonnets with difficult or archaic words. As we know, children enjoy strange words and don’t need to understand all that they hear.
Choose a rhyming couplet. Count the 5 strong beats and underline them. Let the class listen to the beat over and over.
Divide the class into groups, 4 to a table:
- Write 8 words, in 4 rhyming pairs, on separate scraps of paper.
- This could be: ocean, motion, tide, ride, spray, away, sky, cry.
- Get the group to put these words into rhyming pairs.
- When they’ve done this, give them one pair each, and ask them to write a rhyming couplet with the same tune as:
This ci-ty now doth like a gar-ment wear
The beau-ty of the mor-ning; si-lent, bare,
Display all the couplets prominently in the classroom, alongside sonnets by published poets.
Choose the 7 couplets that best fit the theme, put them together. Hey presto: Year 6’s sonnet alongside Shakespeare, Wordsworth, and the rest.