Every year in Creative Writing II (CW2), which we also called All Poetry All The Time, I assigned the
English Sonnet. To deafening groans and much wailing and gnashing of teeth. It was positively Biblical. We even developed together a Sonnet Map, which was a helpful worksheet showing the metric pattern, the rhyme scheme, the quatrain numerals, and blanks for each syllable so that students could write their poem on it with these reminders in place. Eventually, with peer and teacher conferences, my writers created sonnets that were read aloud and critiqued, and they survived it all. Many times, their sonnets were wonderful: some were traditional, some were funny, some were romantic, and others retold stories from literature, film, or even current events.
I love the form of the Sonnet, and the Elizabethan, or Shakespearean Sonnet in particular. Fourteen lines of iambic pentameter arranged in three quatrains (four-line sets). Each quatrain has a rhyme scheme. The final two lines, or couplet, rhyme with each other.
Some people don't realize that there is actually a pattern of development for the Sonnet as well. The first quatrain presents the problem; the second quatrain is supposed to develop or complicate the problem; the final quatrain restates or summarizes the initial problem with more intensity; finally, the couplet reaches a conclusion or solution. The Sonnet offers a chance for a poet to work Creatively Within Limits. For me, I find this liberating. For many others, it is a prison sentence.
Of course, a lot of Sonnets aren't perfect, and a lot are not the classic Shakespearean. I like all kinds, generally. One of my favourites is by Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was a pretty reprehensible individual in a great many ways. Like several of the Romantic Poets, he was a selfish jerk (I'm looking at you, Byron) whose conduct of his personal life was not as beautiful as his poetry.
This particular poem has been on my mind lately, thanks to the mess in Iraq.
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: `Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear --
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.'
If you read this poem with a sing-songy voice, making sure to start on an unstressed syllable, you can sustain it throughout. That's the iambic metric pattern. You'll have to force it on "boundless" and "Nothing," words for which the natural stress pattern is reversed. (Alanis Morissette does this all the time in her hit song "Uninvited"; it's okay.)
But, in spite of having to Follow Some Poetry Rules, Shelley has crafted a wonderful poem of imagery and wordsmithing. I don't like the device of the poem being the recitation of some unnamed tourist, and I often wonder, "Which antique land has native people who speak so gorgeously? I want to go there!" But beyond that, there is an awful lot to like about this poem.
It has that startling irony there in the last three lines, and that's where the tone of the poem changes, too. The traveler's story is a bit bitter, and his cadence is staccato and abrupt as he describes Ozymandias. Of course, when you read the inscription, you have to read it with that pomposity it demands, and it's the best part of the poem, really, "My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:/Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!" Then it drops dead with quietude, and you can almost hear the sighing of the winds over the desert, "boundless and bare." Ozymandias' kingdom is wrecked and gone, and we know that his hubris was the cause.
I'm not going to go into why "Ozymandias" comes to mind lately due to Current Events, or talk now about how heartbreaking (and frightening) it is to hear words like Mosul and Shiite and Tikrit again with some frequency. Or even mention whose "shattered visage" it is that I see when I look at the face "half sunk" in the sands.