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!

Robert Hillyer’s Sonnet Thought

10 07 2017

A number of thinkers, including DanteChristina Pugh, and I (building off of the other two), have argued for the primacy of the sonnet as structure over the sonnet as form. (For more on the structure-form distinction, click here.) It turns out, poet-critic Robert Hillyer does, as well. Here’s Hillyer, 4 pages into his 25-page discussion of the sonnet (pp. 88-114) in In Pursuit of Poetry (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., Inc., 1960):

Before speaking of the sonnet in England, I should like to describe the thought-form of the sonnet, which is, in fact, more important than the rhyme-scheme, so important that both Spenser and Keats wrote sonnets in blank verse which are still recognizable as sonnets. All that follows is normal usage; many exceptions may be found, and in most of Milton’s sonnets and many of Wordsworth’s the divisions between the parts are not observed.

These divisions are one major and two minor, the major break being between the octave and the sestet. The two other breaks are usually observed, though sometimes no more than by a pause which a comma would indicate. The Italian sonnet divides thus: a b b a / a b b a // c d e / c d e (or c d c’ d c d). The Italian sonnet, too, often has a monumental and sounding last line which, by its very rhetoric, sets it off as a single unit. This last line is important in the Italian form, and I shall give examples of it shortly. In the English sonnet, the breaks occur naturally between the quatrains and before the couplet: a b a b / c d c d // e f e f / g g. Instead of the sounding last line of the Italian sonnet, the terminal couplet of the English tends toward an epigrammatic illustration of what has gone before. (91)

Hillyer then maps out how a few poems (the sixty-first sonnet of Michael Drayton’s sequence, Idea; Shakespeare’s sonnet 87; Shakespeare’s sonnet 18; and some others) engage the English sonnet’s thought-structure. He then directs attention to the Italian sonnet: “When we turn to the Petrarchan sonnet, we find the same thought-structure with the addition of the high-sounding last line” (94). Hillyer demonstrates how Keats’s “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” and George Santayana’s “As in the midst of battle there is room” exemplify this structure.

The case for sonnet thought, it seems, is developing.

Check out some of Hillyer’s own sonnets here.


Add Excitation to Your Recitation: Attend to the Turn

27 08 2011

W.W. Norton & Company is organizing The Norton Anthology Recitation Contest.  This contest is open to college and high school students worldwide.  Additional information, including rules, can be found here.

Recitation is a demanding–but also very rewarding–art.  At, John Hollander’s “Committed to Memory” offers some helpful insights into and advice about recitation.

Here, I’d like to offer a simple but also powerful bit of advice to anyone preparing to recite a poem: attend to the poem’s turn.

A turn is a major shift in a poem’s rhetorical and/or dramatic trajectory.   Most poems–certainly most great poems–have turns.  And almost all of the recitation contest’s eight authorized poems have turns in them.  Any skilled recitation needs to communicate the power of the turn.

Writing about the volta–that is, the turn in a sonnet–Phillis Levin states, “[t]he reader’s experience of this turn (like a key change) reconfigures the experience of all the lines that both precede and follow it.”  Thus, when reciting a poem, the performer must know where the turn is–or, turns are–and must be aware of, and communicate, the nature of the turn’s key change: what is the argument and tone of the poem prior to the turn?  how does the argument and tone shift after the turn?

To assist potential performers with this aspect of their recitation, I offer a few notes on the turns in some of the authorized contest poems.  Links to some of the contest’s authorized poems are below.  Each link is followed by a brief discussion of the poem which locates and describes each poem’s major turn(s). 

A few details:

While there certainly are numerous minor–yet still significant–turns in each of the following poems, I will only discuss the major turns, offering what I hope will be a helpful orientation to the poem and introduction to some of the poem’s demands on the performer.

Additionally, I suggest that if you plan to participate in the contest, you should use the versions of these poems found in the Norton anthologies listed on the contest webpage–the Norton judges may be very particular about what edition of a poem is recited.

Sonnet 12 (“When I do count the clock that tells the time”), by William Shakespeare

This poem has two major turns: one at the end of line 8, and one at the end of line 13.  (Notice that there is no major turn at the end of line 12, where one might expect one in a Shakespearean sonnet.  For information on the mobile volta, click here.)

The first turn turns from an account of the omnipresence of aging and death to then consider the beauty of the person to whom the sonnet is addressed, which also will be subject to aging and decay.  The turn here goes from serious to even more serious, from general considerations of mortality to the mortality of the sonnet’s addressee.

The second turn turns from an impossible situation–the truth of the addressee’s mortality–to offer some hope: breed (this word requires a lot of emphasis), that is, have children so that you may brave death when it comes to take you away.

“Death be not proud,” by John Donne

The major turn of Donne’s sonnet occurs right before the sonnet starts.  One needs to imagine Donne’s speaker hearing someone (such as the speaker of Shakespeare’s sonnet, above) talk about how all-powerful death is, making claims the speaker recounts in lines 1 and 2: “some have called thee / Mighty and dreadful…”  

A kind of cliche-and-critique poem, Donne’s whole poem is a turn from thinking death is powerful to offer an alternative vision.  And it needs to be read this way, with emphasis on the words that stress the speaker’s alternative viewpoint.  Take, for example, the first two lines–they need to be read with the following rhetorical stresses:

“Death, be not proud, though some have called thee / [“]Mighty[“] and [“]dreadful[“], for thou art not so…”

(One can imagine scare quotes around “Mighty” and “dreadful”…)

So, the major turn occurs before the poem even starts, but there are some vital, minor turns in the poem.  The speaker turns at the end of line 4 from his almost mocking introduction to offer a picture of how peaceful death–which is no worse than rest or sleep–must actually be.  This new, softer kind of mockery of death ends at the end of line 8.  Lines 9-10 become heavy again, a direct attack on death.  And then comes, again, that softer approach to critiquing death in the next line-and-a-half.  The rest of the poem is explanatory, showing the reasons death should not “swell’st,” that is, get all puffed up with pride, and it is (for the poem’s speaker) glory: death is just sleep until the resurrection.

A great question for anyone thinking about reciting this poem is how to perform its final four words, “Death, thou shalt die.”  Certainly, as the end of the poem is making clear a paradox, “thou” must get a good deal of rhetorical stress, as in, “Surprise, Death: YOU are the one who will die.”  But what’s the voice here?  Is it heavy, growling, antagonistic?  Or is it already victorious, and, so, matter-of-fact?  Try it many ways, and see what works for you.

“Here Follows Some Verses upon the Burning of Our House, July 10th, 1666,” Anne Bradstreet

Bradstreet’s poem has three major turns: one in the midst of line 13, another at the end of line 20, and another at the end of line 36.

The first part of this poem is filled with distress and despair, fright and sadness, mixed with pleas for God’s assistance.  One must imagine a long pause at the end of line 12: the speaker has just realized that her whole house has been destoyed by fire.  But, in line 13, a virtual miracle is in the making: the speaker collects herself and realizes that, even in the midst of such (seeming) loss, she is participating in the playing out of the will of God, of the way things should be.  Again, one needs to pay attention to the rhetorical stresses in this section, especially those needed to make clear the speaker’s new realizations: that all that she had thought she had owned actually all along was God’s.

The next major shift occurs at the end of line 20.  There’s a temporal shift–the poem has moved beyond the night of the fire.  And there’s also an emotional shift: the confidence the speaker felt in the Lord’s will slips when she looks sadly upon the ashes of her house and remembers what life had been like in the house. 

But then, in the pit of despair–having acknowledged that it seems to her that “all’s vanity”–the speaker moves again to acceptance, and even to praise.  This final section–perhaps up until the final two lines, which might be read as summation–should largely be read as an ever-growing crescendo; the speaker, after all, is delivering a sermon, sharing a vision.

“How do I love thee,” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

The major turn in this poem occurs in the middle of line 13.

While any performer will have to work out how to modulate the voice while performing this list, it’s clear that there’s some crescendo from the middle of line 12 to the middle of line 13.  This crescendo suddenly stops, and the speaker, in the space between the words “life!” and “and” (one imagines there must be a significant pause here), realizes that death could end her love, and so prays quietly that God (whom she seemed earlier to have given up on) allow her and her beloved to live on after death.

* * *

Enjoy exploring these poems!  And, if you decide to participate: best wishes in the recitation contest!