Reading Poetry, and Finding the Volta

22 07 2022

Over the years, I’ve been paying attention to the place of the turn in poetry pedagogy, investigating handbooks and textbooks to see how they attend to the turn, or not. Is the turn mentioned? Is it featured? Is the volta at least mentioned as a key part of the dynamics of the sonnet? Some of what I’ve discovered from this work can be found here, and here, and here.

I’ve also been interested in thinking about the place of the volta in discussions of the sonnet. Some of my thinking on this topic can be found here and here.

My most recent bit of exploration into Tom Furniss and Michael Bath’s Reading Poetry: An Introduction has turned up something very interesting: poetry pedagogy that explicitly recognizes the significance of the volta in sonnets. Though substantive, it’s still something of a brief recognition, a shining moment, with some sparkly follow-up. No matter what, though: it’s all worth considering.

“Part Three” of Reading Poetry, “Texts in Contexts/Contexts in Texts,” is about how information from outside of a poem informs a reading of that poem, including “Genre,” the explicit topic of chapter 11, and the chapter immediately preceding the chapter on “The Sonnet.” The chapter on the sonnet opens with a section titled “The Sonnet as a Fixed Form,” and in it the authors make clear that the sonnet was explicitly selected by them to continue the “discussion of genre…because [the sonnet] is in many ways a representative form as well as a distinctive genre” (280–I’m citing the first edition, from 1996). The authors liken the sonnet to a limerick, noting that the sonnet “is another example of a fixed or ‘closed’ form because its defining characteristics are largely formal” (280). Knowing about the sonnet’s form is crucial: “Arguably, it is possible to make sense of many poems without consciously identifying their genres, but to read a sonnet without recognizing that it is a sonnet is likely to frustrate any competent understanding” (280). 

The section “The Sonnet as a Fixed Form” then glances at Shakespeare’s sonnet 18 (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”), noting its rhyme scheme while also observing that “It is not difficult to show how this structure of three quatrains and a final couplet corresponds to particular developments in the argument of the sonnet,” including how, at the beginning of the third quatrain, “the speaker turns” (281). This interest in the turn only builds. The authors go on to state,

As this brief analysis shows, the overall argument of the poem has a logical structure that corresponds to the divisions of the verse form into three four-line sections and a final couplet. Each quatrain contains a stage of that argument, or a unit of sense that is syntactically complete by the end of the quatrain. Shakespeare’s argument depends on a contrast between the tenor and vehicle of his proposed metaphor, a contrast which turns on the word “But” at the beginning of line 9. That turn in the argument occurs at the place which had become the most important of the structural divisions in the sonnet form as it had evolved in Italy and elsewhere in the two hundred years or more before 1609 [the date of the first printing of Shakespeare’s sonnets]. (281)

The authors then define the sonnet: “A sonnet is a short poem in iambic pentameters, fourteen lines long, which can often be divided into two parts know as the ‘octave’, the first eight lines, and the ‘sestet’, the last six” (281). They differentiate the English and Italian sonnets, noting how “the Italian form appears to insist more strongly than the Shakespearian on a division between octave and sestet, which is why Italian readers coined the term ‘volta’ (‘turn’) to refer to this shift which the introduction of new rhyme sounds appears to signal after line eight” (281-2). They add: “In the Shakespearian sonnet each quatrain introduces new rhyme sounds, and the major formal break appears to be the shift from the three alternately rhymed quatrains to the final rhymed couplet, which is why some textbooks define the ‘turn’ in an English sonnet as occurring after line twelve” (282).

What’s beautiful about all of this, of course, is the focus on the turn, a focus that only increases in the next section, “Finding the Volta: Form and Meaning.” This section begins, “If things were this simple, we could end this chapter here. Needless to say, they are not” (282). The authors note that the volta is more than “just a matter of a shift in the rhyme pattern,” recognizing the shift between octave and sestet “corresponds to a turn in the syntax or grammar, a change in the argument or subject matter” (282). They refer back to the turn in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18, then note that “Such a turn is very common in sonnets of all types,” and observe that the terminology used for Italian sonnets also can and should be used as well for English sonnets as “it can refer not just to sonnets’ rhyme scheme, but also to the conventionalized structure of their arguments” (282).

The authors then turn to discuss Shakespeare’s sonnets 130 (“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun”) and 29 (“When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes”). As I’ve already discussed in a previous post the incredibly interesting discussion of the strange volta in Sonnet 130, I’ll leap to their discussion of Sonnet 29, where the authors’ commentary is perhaps a bit less idiosyncratic but at least as effusive about the power of the turn. For them, the sestet “overturns” the octave at the location of the volta, the poem’s “major shift”–and they add, as well, that “Certainly, the final couplet also stands apart in some ways by presenting a final resolution of the argument, identifying–for the first time–the ‘love’ which explains and motivates the turn, justifies the compliment, and finally reveals that this sonnet is some kind of love poem” (284).

Though Furniss and Bath note that other readings of this sonnet are possible–including one focused less on love and more on the patronage behind the sonnet (284-5)–they reemphasize that their point holds about the “clear way” the poem’s “formal and argumentative structures” relate  (285). They make clear, as well, that Sonnet 29 “is by no means exceptional, for that accommodation of meaning to form–or form to meaning–is crucial to the sonnet as a genre” (285). They continue: “Learning how to recognize and analyze this interplay of form and meaning is the fundamental skill required of any competent reader of sonnets. As with any genre convention, it is a matter of programming your expectations as a reader…” (285). 

However, after this, Furniss and Bath really do settle again into focusing for the most part on form rather than the structural volta. After a brief examination of the topic of “Identifying a Speaker,” Furniss and Bath then move in a section called “Donne’s ‘Holy Sonnets’: A Hybrid Form?” to a close consideration of one of John Donne’s Holy Sonnets, “At the round earth’s imagin’d corners, blow.” Of course, the authors note that “This sonnet turns very decisively on the ‘But’ of line 9” (286). How could they not?! This is one of the most shocking voltas in the sonnet tradition! However, after noting how “the volta at the octave-sestet division stages a dramatic swing in the mood and tone of the poem,” the authors themselves turn to discuss form, making the case that this sonnet’s structure “combines elements of the ‘English’ and the ‘Italian’ sonnet”: “The structure…appears to consist of an Italian octave followed by an English sestet, and the turn in the syntax or argument at the beginning of line 9 coincides with the way the third quatrain breaks away from the tight, infolded rhymes of the octave” (286; 287). Though they have moved back to discussing form, the authors still do the good work of reminding readers that “This hybrid form of sonnet suggests that the rules of this genre were never as rigid as some modern textbooks, with their clear distinction between the ‘Petrarchan’ and ‘Shakespearian’ forms, would have us believe. Indeed, sixteenth- and seventeenth-century writers did not distinguish between the two types of sonnet, or use our names for them….Whether they staged a turn in the syntax or argument of the sonnet at the beginning of line 9 was an option that always remained open to them, whatever the rhyme pattern used” (287). Also, at least it seems, no matter what, that a sonnet needs a turn.

In the next section, “Expectation and Variation,” Furniss and Bath continue this focus mainly on formal elements. In this section, the authors make the case that “The sonnet is a more protean form (always changing its shape) than our normative description allows” mainly by pointing to other forms, including the Spenserian sonnet and even the 18-line sonnets in Thomas Watson’s Hekatompathia (287-8). Consideration of the variations with, say, the placement of the volta, does not enter in the discussions of this section. And this remains largely the case for the rest of the chapter, which moves on to give an overview of the progress of the sonnet. The remaining sections include: “A History of the Genre: Petrarchan Conventions”; “Constructing Voices: An Example from Sir Philip Sidney”; “The English Sonnet Tradition: John Milton”; “The Second Coming of the English Sonnet”; “Finding a Voice: Wordsworth and Milton”; “Romantic Sonnets: John Keats”; and “The Modern Sonnet.”

However, it also is the case that the authors’ keen attention to the volta never fully goes away. How could it? Not only have Furniss and Bath revealed their great interest in the volta, many of the sonnets discussed in the remainder of the chapter have some thrilling turns in them–they cry out to be commented on! These sonnets include Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella 1 (“Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show”); Milton’s “When I consider how my light is spent”; Charlotte Smith’s “Sonnet: Composed during a Walk on the Downs, in November 1787”; and Gwendolyn Brooks’s “the rites for Cousin Vit.” Additionally, Furniss and Bath really have strong interest in the volta. So, they make note of Sidney’s inventiveness with the placement of his ultimate volta (291-2). They also perform an almost Dantean analysis of the structural shifts in Milton’s sonnet, noting that “A useful kind of exercise with this and sonnets like it might be to break down the sense units in order to see how they correspond with or override the conventional divisions of the verse structure” (293). However, they go further to investigate the strange placement of the volta in Milton’s sonnet–“at a strong caesura in the middle of line 8”–and then speculate about a reason for that placement, stating, “One reason for this premature appearance of the volta, we might suggest, is that this is a sonnet about patience and frustration. The volta is perhaps anticipated because it is acting out the very manner in which ‘Patience’ (8) intervenes to ‘prevent / That murmur’. ‘Patience’ is the sestet’s answer to the octave’s question, and patience here is impatient” (295).

I love this reading! It really jibes with my work on “Strange Voltas.” In fact, I wish I’d encountered Reading Poetry prior to writing that brief essay. Furniss and Bath would have provided me with some fine material for that work, including this excellent summation of the powerfully (mis-)placed volta: “Whether or not a sonnet’s rhyme scheme corresponds with, or runs counter to, that semantic shift is always likely to be of interest, for the point about sonnets is that their conventional verse pattern traditionally relates to the organization of meaning in ways which are more direct than is the case with almost any other poetic genre” (282).

I’m happy to report, though, that I also think I could have brought something to Furniss and Bath’s reading of Brooks’s sonnet. Furniss and Bath are right, I think, to see the Brooks’s volta as occurring early in her sonnet–they suggest it occurs “in line 5, where the speaker imagines the corpse’s liberation from confinement in the coffin” (301)–and I think they’re pretty much right about that. However, the authors still feel compelled to recognize something happening between the octave and the sestet, so they speculate, asking, “Would it be true to say that there is more approval or celebration of [Cousin Vit’s] vitality in the octave, but more criticism and disapproval implied in the sestet?” (301-2). Perhaps, but there’s no need to fish for something there. As I argue in “Strange Voltas,” what’s beautiful about this sonnet is the way that Cousin Vit is so vital she not only breaks out of caskets and through death, but she also breaks the sonnet structure.

But that is a quibble. Furniss and Bath do great work, in my estimation, with honoring and thinking about the volta significance to the sonnet. 

Next step: an introduction to poetry–besides John Ciardi’s How Does a Poem Mean?, from 1959 (!)–that is as interested and invested in the turn for all of the poems under discussion–not just the sonnets!


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