The Volta

A sonnet may juxtapose two contrasting ideas to generate interest or emotion. Where can you place this join? Right at the end might work, like a punch line in a joke, a big reveal. Shakespeare did this to such an extent the trick was named after him. In this blog, let’s look at where else to spice up your sonnet and it’s about half-way through. This is a trick that has been used by artists, architects and cultures worldwide for generations. And I’m afraid some arithmetic is involved …

It starts with nothing. 0.

Then put the number one next to it.

Now we’ve got two things, a natural next step is to try adding them together. Thanks to the immensely talented number 0, this results in a one again. However, by putting this second one down in the series the next time we add the previous two numbers we get two. Like this:
0 1 1 2
Isn’t this fun? Let’s carry on adding the two previous numbers and putting the result into the list:

0  1  1  2  3  5  8  13

Ah, stop! 13 is close to the length in lines of a sonnet. And look at the ratios: as 13 is to eight, so eight is to five. There is a harmony in their ratios emerging. Where a+b is to b, as b is to a.
Like artillery fire landing before and beyond its target the ratios converge: 1, 2, 1.5, 1.7, 1.6, 1.625, … eventually converging around 1.618. This is known variously as the golden mean or golden section.

This number is special (and for another trick, look at what happens when you calculate 1 divided by 1.618). So let’s apply it to a fourteen line sonnet.

Fourteen lines of five ‘feet’ (iambs) gives seventy. Divide by 1.618 gives just over forty. Applying this ratio splits the lines into eight and six (the exact turning point is the third iamb into the ninth line).

By no coincidence at all, this is the shape of the Petrachan sonnet form named after the fourteenth century Italian Renaissance poet Petrach. The first stanza of eight lines is called the ‘octet’ and the second the ‘sestet’. Not only does the mood change at this point but also the rhyming pattern.

This golden section has a pleasing balance. The ratio turns up in music, architecture and in art. And this wasn’t just a Renaissance ploy, it’s found even in the more modern artwork of Mondrian and Seurat too. Done well it’s just as relevant in modern sonnets. And of course, once you know the rules, you’re ready to break them too. In an informed way.

Agrigento, Temple of Herakles (VIII)


Copyright Clifford Liles 2019

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