Saturday, November 18, 2006

The Sonnet: Syllables, Meter, Rhythm, and Feet

Syllables, Meter, Rhythm, and Feet

Syllables are pieces of sound. All words have at least one syllable. Syllables can be just one letter or a group of letters - it's the sound that matters.

One way to understand what syllables are is to think of a song, like "Happy Birthday." Each syllable is a different beat in the song, i.e: "Hap - py Birth - day to you."

These words have 1 syllable: walk, go, home.
These words have 2 syllables: happy, birthday, because
These words have 3 syllables: September, underneath, Internet

In English, syllables normally have a vowel or the letter 'y' in them.
Mon - day Syl -la - ble

Meter is the rhythm established by a poem. It is dependent on the number of syllables in a line.

In addition to how many syllables are in a poem, its Meter is usually also dependent on the way those syllables are accented. This rhythm is often described as a pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables.

In English words, some syllables are stressed more than others; We say them more forcefully. Usually, English words stress the first syllable.
Mon - day Jan - u - a - ry

(Be careful though, because the stress on words with a prefix usually changes to the second syllable rather than the first, for example hap - py or un - hap - py.)

What is a foot?

The rhythmic unit is often described as a foot; patterns of feet can be identified and labeled. A foot may be iambic, which follows a pattern of unstressed/stressed syllables.

For example, "The DOG / went WALK/ing DOWN / the ROAD / and BARKED.”

This simple sentence has five feet. “The dog” is one foot. It has two syllables. “The” is unstressed, while “dog” is stressed. You can see from the next foot that sometimes words can be divided between more than one foot. “Went walk” is one foot, while the end of the word walking appears in the next foot: “-ing down.”

Because there are five iambs, or feet, this line follows the conventions of iambic pentameter (pent = five), the common form in Shakespeare's time.

My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips' red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
-From Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 130”

Writing Assignment: The Sonnet


Here is the full text of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130:

1 My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
2 Coral is far more red than her lips' red;
3 If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
4 If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.

5 I have seen roses damask'd, red and white,
6 But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
7 And in some perfumes is there more delight
8 Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.

9 I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
10 That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
11 I grant I never saw a goddess go;
12 My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:

13 And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
14 As any she belied with false compare.

Notice how there are fourteen lines that are divided into three groups of four lines (quatrains), and one group of two lines (a couplet).

For your assignment today, you will begin to write your own sonnet. Don’t let Shakespeare’s style of writing scare you. In your poem you won’t have to rhyme or follow a particular rhythm. All you have to do is make sure that each line has ten syllables. Also, for this assignment, you only have to write the first four lines (the first quatrain).

In these four lines you will introduce the theme or main idea of your poem. You can choose any topic, but it is helpful to remember to be as concrete as possible. In other words, it is easier to write about a real-life problem (like your school exams or a bad haircut) than it is to write about an abstract idea (like happiness or love).

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