Paul Fussell on the “Indispensable” Volta

16 08 2012

I recently added to this blog’s “Turned onto Turns: Comments on Structure” page the following:

A characteristic of the Petrarchan sonnet is its convention of the “turn,” which normally occurs at the start of line 9, the beginning of the sestet.  It is perhaps more accurate to say that the turn occurs somewhere in the white space that separates line 8 from line 9, and that line 9 simply reflects or records it.  But wherever we think of it as actually taking place, something very important, something indeed indispensable to the action of the Petrarchan sonnet, happens at the turn: we are presented there with a logical or emotional shift by which the speaker enables himself to take a new or altered or enlarged view of his subject.

The standard way of constructing a Petrarchan sonnet is to project the subject in the first quatrain; to develop or complicate it in the second; then to execute, at the beginning of the sestet, the turn which will open up for solution the problem advanced by the octave, or which will ease the load of idea or emotion borne by the octave, or which will release the pressure accumulated in the octave.  The octave and the sestet conduct actions which are analogous to the actions of inhaling and exhaling, or of contraction and release in the muscular system.  The one builds up the pressure, the other releases it; and the turn is the dramatic and climactic center of the poem, the place where the intellectual or emotional method of release first becomes clear and possible.  From line 9 it is usually plain sailing down to the end of the sestet and the resolution of the experience.  If the two parts of the sonnet, although quantitatively unequal, can be said to resemble the two sides of an equation, then the turn is something like an equals sign: it sets into action the relationship between two things, and triggers a total statement.  We may even suggest that one of the emotional archetypes of the Petrarchan sonnet structure is the pattern of sexual pressure and release.  Surely no sonnet succeeds as a sonnet that does not execute at the turn something analogous to the general kinds of “release” with which the reader’s muscles and nervous system are familiar.

–Paul Fussell, Poetic Meter and Poetic Form, revised edition (New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1979), pp. 115-116.

I love, of course, that Fussell notes that there is “something indeed indispensable” about the volta in the Petrarchan sonnet, that “[s]urely no sonnet succeeds as a sonnet that does not execute at the turn something analogous to the general kinds of ‘release’ with which the reader’s muscles and nervous system are familiar.  In making such claims, Fussell joins other commentators on the sonnet, including Phillis LevinEdward Hirsch and Eavan Boland, and Christina Pugh, who acknowledge the volta’s vital significance.

However, besides its clarity about the value of volta, what I also like about Fussell’s take on the volta is its inability to name exactly what a volta is like, or what exactly it does.  In the space of two paragraphs, Fussell states that a volta is like breathing, an equal sign, and sex–three things that are not much like each other…  Wonderful!  What I like about this multiplicity of analogies is that it correctly identifies the fact that different voltas can, and do, perform very different kinds of duties…  Great stuff!

And, of course, this does not apply only to sonnets–it also applies to many other kinds of poems.  As Ellen Bryant Voigt points out: “The sonnet’s volta, or ‘turn’…has become an inherent expectation for most short lyric poems.”