Types of topics

Each sonnet form was designed as a vehicle to convey certain topics or situations, using rhyme and scheme to enhance a message. Thus, you should know the tradition before attempting to compose such a poem. Simply, certain subjects do not fit the short form. While a skilled poet can break tradition and employ the sonnet to explain, say, why Communism failed in Eastern Europe, a novice probably should choose a freer form to convey such a notion.

A check of several major poetry anthologies puts the matter in perspective. In the past, the subject matter of the sonnet has clustered into these broad categories:

1. The love sonnet a la Shakespeare, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Spenser (and just about everyone else).

2. The meditative sonnet a la Donne, Herbert, Milton (and just about everyone else).

3. The nature sonnet a la Surrey (who, by the way, introduced into English what we now call the Shakespearean sonnet).

4. The elegiac sonnet a la Gray and Longfellow (the first American master sonneteer).

5. The celebratory sonnet & la Arnold and Poe, praising a person or thing (often the sonnet itself).

Here's a selection of sonnets representing each type. First, an untitled love sonnet by Lady Mary Wroth, using contemporary — instead of Elizabethan — spelling (to read Wroth's sonnets in the original, see The Poems of Lady Mary Wroth, edited by Josephene Roberts [Louisiana State University, 1983]).

Good now be still, and do not me torment With multitudes of questions, be at rest, And only let me quarrel with my breast Which still lets in new storms my soul to rent;

Fie, will you still my mischiefs more augment? You say I answer cross, I that confessed Long since, yet must I ever be oppressed With your tongue-torture which will ne'er be spent?

Well, then, I see no way but this will fright That devil-speech; alas, I am possessed, And mad folks senseless are of wisdom's right,

The hellish spirit-absence doth arest All my poor senses to his cruel might, Spare me then till I am my self, and blessed.

George Meredith's "Lucifer in Starlight" is a meditative sonnet:

On a starred night Prince Lucifer uprose. Tired of his dark dominion swung the fiend Above the rolling ball in cloud part screened, Where sinners hugged their spectre of repose. Poor prey to his hot fit of pride were those. And now upon his western wing he leaned, Now his huge bulk o'er Afric's sands careened, Now the black planet shadowed Arctic snows. Soaring through wider zones that pricked his scars With memory of the old revolt from Awe, He reached a middle height, and at the stars, Which are the brain of heaven, he looked, and sank. Around the ancient track marched, rank on rank, The army of unalterable law.

"The Vantage Point," by Robert Frost, is a nature sonnet:

If tired of trees I seek again mankind,

Well I know where to hie me — in the dawn, To a slope where the cattle keep the lawn.

There amid lolling juniper reclined, Myself unseen, I see in white defined

Far off the homes of men, and farther still, The graves of men on an opposing hill, Living or dead, whichever are to mind.

And if by noon I have too much of these, I have but to turn on my arm, and lo, The sun-burned hillside sets my face aglow, My breathing shakes the bluet like a breeze, I smell the earth, I smell the bruised plant, I look into the crater of the ant.

"Mezzo Cammin," by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, is an elegiac sonnet:

Half of my life is gone, and I have let

The years slip from me and have not fulfilled The aspiration of my youth, to build Some tower of song with lofty parapet. Not indolence, nor pleasure, nor the fret

Of restless passions that would not be stilled, But sorrow, and a care that almost killed, Kept me from what I may accomplish yet; Though, halfway up the hill, I see the Past Lying beneath me with its sounds and sights, A city in the twilight dim and vast, With smoking roofs, soft bells, and gleaming lights,

And hear above me on the autumnal blast The cataract of Death far thundering from the heights.

Finally, William Wordsworth's "Scorn Not The Sonnet" is a celebratory sonnet:

Scorn not the sonnet; critic, you have frowned, Mindless of its just honors; with this key Shakespeare unlocked his heart; the melody Of this small lute gave ease to Petrarch's wound; A thousand times this pipe did Tasso sound; With it Camoens soothed an exile's grief; The sonnet glittered a gay myrtle leaf Amid the cypress with which Dante crowned His visionary brow; a glow-worm lamp, It cheered mild Spenser, called from Faeryland To struggle through dark ways; and, when a damp Fell round the path of Milton, in his hand

The thing became a trumpet; whence he blew

Soul-animating strains — alas, too few!

As you can see, the five major categories of sonnet are broad. Nonetheless, before you compose a sonnet, you should contemplate your subject matter to see if it will suit the particular turn —an element of craft that makes the sonnet more elusive, perhaps, than any other type of poem.

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