What is a Sonnet?

Dear Roger

Although I agree with you that form matters in poetry, I'm afraid your definition of a sonnet as a 14-line poem in iambic pentameter with ten syllables to each line contains at least three oversimplifications.

1. A sonnet doesn't have to be pentameter. Sidney's Astrophel and Stella begins with a famous one in hexameter ("Fool, said my Muse to me, look in thy heart and write.").

2. It doesn't have to be iambic, at least not consistently so. Try scanning this equally famous opening by Hopkins:

No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,
More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.
Comforter, where, where is your comforting?
Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?
The first two lines are more or less regular, but the other two are irregular in their stress pattern and one of them has eleven syllables - which brings me to point 3.

3. Its lines don't have to have ten syllables. Shakespeare's Sonnet XX, because of the feminine endings, has 11 syllables per line all the way through. Ten syllables doesn't guarantee metrical regularity any more than a different number invalidates it, as can be seen if we adopt Mike Parker's sarcastic suggestion of 'regularising' the fourth line of Shakespeare's Sonnet LII by dropping the word 'fine':

For blunting the [fine] point of seldom pleasure.
To do so would in fact irregularise the line, because 'fine' carries one of the five stresses, so that its loss would change it from a pentameter to a tetrameter.

Statistically the third line of the Hopkins example just about qualifies as iambic if we allow two reversed feet, but there would be little point in attempting to draw lines to separate one foot from another. However, in the context of the rhythm Hopkins has set up in the two previous lines it undoubtedly has five stresses, and so, I think, does the one that follows, despite its extra syllable.

Comforter, where, where is your comforting?
Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?
Although Owen's Anthem for Doomed Youth is predominantly iambic, the line

Only the | stuttering | rifles' | rapid | rattle
works brilliantly because the two dactylic feet it opens with mimic the uneven fusillade they describe, and despite its extra syllables the line still has five stresses.

Metre implies syllable-counting, but it is seldom uniform in any one poem and in any case it is only a subset of stress-based rhythm. Despite Sidney's exception, 'pentameter' matters much more than 'iambic' in the definition of the rhythmic line that predominates not only in the sonnet but in English poetry in general.

© Brian Fewster,
Envoi, 2000

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