The sonnet form in poetry is characterized through several key features: it has a Turn or Volta, a rhyme scheme, regular line length often using pentameter, stanza breaks, and have fourteen lines. Right? Or only partly correct? Over centuries of use of this form, there have been many variants of the form tried by poets and many instances where these traditional characteristics do not appear for good artistic reasons. Two authors, Don Patterson in “101 Sonnets” and Stephen Egan in his recent book “The Sonnet” endorse this to varying degrees.
Having written over 70 sonnets now and read many books on the subject I had concluded that one key and immutable characteristic of the sonnet form is a just-right length of fourteen lines. Until that is I came across the Rondel form and, in particular, the English fourteen-line Rondel, which calls this into question. I have now tried out the form by writing a sample poem and looked at some examples.
The fourteen-line Rondel features a couplet as a refrain, two repeated lines denoted AB. The rhyme scheme is ABab baAB baabAB. Note the use of an enclosing rhyme, which I spoke about in a previous blog. Sometimes, the last “B” line is dropped to render a thirteen-line poem.
The Rondel form looks like a sonnet with iambic pentameter, fourteen lines divided into quatrains and a sestet, and has a formal rhyme scheme. Is it a sonnet? No, it doesn’t feel right because there is no Volta or Turn. No sense of a dilemma or apposition. Instead the returning refrain has a ritual, chant-like or musical power that overwhelms any twists in the narrative. The Rondel has a Medieval origin and has a musical sound that you could imagine singers of that era using. It is based on the French rondeau, which dates back to the 14th century and was used by medieval poets like Geoffrey Chaucer and Charles d’Orleans.
Note the Rondel form should not be confused with the Rondeau form, which is a different form. Examples of Rondel forms are found in the works of Swinburne and notably In Flanders Fields by John McCrae. See Rondel (roundel) | Poetry Foundation.
This goes to show that form just informs poetic expression, leaving a poet able to diverge from any strict definition if there is a good artistic reason. It is more important to understand why certain structural elements are in any definition and what effects they may create in the reader’s mind. Some of this ethos is embraced by the annual Sonnet or Not competition: Cannon Poets. Enjoy experimenting with these forms.