The question of where the turn or volta should be positioned in a sonnet came up a few weeks ago when I was teaching a sonnet workshop at the Philadelphia Writers Conference, and I thought it was worth asking, where should a sonnet turn? Of course, purists would say definitively that it should occur after the eight line octave and before the six line sestet, where there is often also a stanza break. While there is plenty of justification for this, the contemporary sonnet has evolved into a form which embraces more ambiguities and complexities.
First, we need to be clear on what the turn is and why a sonnet needs one in the first place. Or, if we subscribe to the view of William Carlos Williams that “a poem is a small…machine made out of words,” what kind of a machine is a sonnet, and why is the turn its critical cog?
A sonnet was, originally, a tool for presenting and challenging an argument in such a way that the reader should experience some form of resolution. Again, to begin with, the argument typically concerned a love that could not itself be resolved–the love of a man for a woman that he could not possess. The Italian poet Petrarch (1304-1374) is typically credited with inventing the sonnet in the fourteenth century, and he certainly not only popularized it but also established its conventions–the 14 line octave sestet structure with a rhyme scheme that runs abbaabba cdecde (or some other pattern involving 3 rhyme pairs.)
Where Should a Sonnet Turn?
14 lines may not seem like much, but it’s a long time to spend mooning without resolution over a love that can have no resolution. The turn, therefore, gave the (typically first person) narrator some control over the uncontrollable, and the reader some satisfaction. Consider this early poem by Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542), one of the courtiers who brought the sonnet to England:
Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind,
But as for me, alas, I may no more.
The vain travail hath wearied me so sore,
I am of them that farthest cometh behind.
Yet may I by no means my wearied mind
Draw from the deer, but as she fleeth afore
Fainting I follow. I leave off therefore,
Since in a net I seek to hold the wind.
Who list her hunt, I put him out of doubt,
As well as I may spend his time in vain.
And graven with diamonds in letters plain
There is written, her fair neck round about:
Noli me tangere, for Caesar’s I am,
And wild for to hold, though I seem tame.
This poem, widely believed to be about Henry VIII’s second wife Anne Boleyn, spends the octave lamenting the fact that the narrator can no longer chase this metaphorical deer. How dull and angsty it would have been to spend another six lines continuing in the same vein. Instead, the poem turns, and looks at the issue from a new angle: addressing other potential huntsmen of the deer, and warning them of the known issues (the deer is wild, and has a diamond collar that says “Don’t touch me!”). The change in the rhyming pattern from abbaabba to, in this case, cdcdee, also underlines that a change in thought process has occurred. The poem leaves the reader with a sage nod and a degree of sympathy for the beleaguered hunters (and a frisson of the required fascination for the poem’s subject.)
And there the sonnet might have stayed were it not for that inveterate innovator, William Shakespeare, who realized that the nature of English–a mutt of a language compared to Italian, with its direct line from Latin–didn’t lend itself well to perfect abbaabba rhyme schemes. Much as he invented words when he couldn’t find one to do the job he wanted, Shakespeare invented the Elizabethan sonnet, which rhymes abab cdcd efef gg, and therefore requires fewer perfect rhymes for the same word.
In many sonnets, particularly early sonnets such as 18, Shakespeare sticks with convention and makes the turn happen between the octave and sestet, even though the astute reader will of course see that now the rhyme scheme changes between the 12th and 13th lines:
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
In this sonnet the octave sets up the issue that comparing the beloved to a summer day is actually problematical because of all the difficulties that can beset summer days, including the fact that summer comes to an end. The sestet turns, hinging on that word but, which really means here “by contrast,” and explains that the beloved shall always be fair because, in fact, Shakespeare’s poem has granted them immortality:
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
The thing about that rhyming couplet at the end, though, is that it is epigrammatic, pithy, and delivers a high degree of closure. It’s not surprising, therefore, that Shakespeare realized you could actually hold off on that turn and place it where it coincided with the change in the rhyme scheme:
Say that thou didst forsake me for some fault,
And I will comment upon that offence:
Speak of my lameness, and I straight will halt,
Against thy reasons making no defence.
Thou canst not, love, disgrace me half so ill,
To set a form upon desired change,
As I’ll myself disgrace; knowing thy will,
I will acquaintance strangle, and look strange;
Be absent from thy walks; and in my tongue
Thy sweet beloved name no more shall dwell,
Lest I, too much profane, should do it wrong,
And haply of our old acquaintance tell.
For thee, against my self I’ll vow debate,
For I must ne’er love him whom thou dost hate.
Here, Shakespeare even enjambs across the octave/sestet linebreak: “I will…be absent from thy walks.” In the first 12 lines the poem lists the ways in which the spurned narrator will continue to love and honor the beloved and do their bidding despite the break up. But the turn happens when the stakes are raised in the final couplet, and the narrator swears to hate himself because he cannot love anyone the beloved chooses to hate.
But can the turn happen any later than the twelfth line? I would argue, yes, it can.
SCORN not the Sonnet; Critic, you have frowned,
Mindless of its just honours; with this key
Shakspeare 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!
Here Wordsworth spends over 13 lines talking about various sonneteers and their practice, with nothing to distinguish the ultimate subject of his poem–Milton, who wrote just 17 sonnets in his lifetime–until you get to the turn just 3 words from the end.
It is, of course, entirely possible to write a sonnet without a turn, and several contemporary poets have done so, although in my opinion such poems are even less like sonnets than curtal free verse versions (13 line poems with no meter or rhyme scheme), but in the final poem I’m going to present, I would argue it actually doesn’t matter if the turn even has a prescribed location as long as it exists. Here’s Ted Berrigan‘s Sonnet 15:
In Joe Brainard’s collage its white arrow
he is not in it, the hungry dead doctor.
Or Marilyn Monroe, her white teeth white–
I am truly horribly upset because Marilyn
and ate King Korn popcorn,” he wrote in his
of glass in Joe Brainard’s collage
Doctor, but they say “I LOVE YOU”
and the sonnet is not dead.
takes the eyes away from the gray words,
Diary. The black heart beside the fifteen pieces
Monroe died, so I went to a matinee B-movie
washed by Joe’s throbbing hands. “Today
What is in it is sixteen ripped pictures
does not point to William Carlos Williams.
The ekphrastic subject of this poem is a collage artwork by Joe Brainard, and the thing about a collage is that there is no sensible starting point for the eye. Berrigan has hit on the masterful idea of similarly collaging the lines of his sonnet. (If you want it to make “sense,” try reading it alternating lines from the top and the bottom i.e. 1, 14, 2, 13, 3, 12 etc.) Although the turn happens at the but of “but they say ‘I LOVE YOU'”, where is this turn actually positioned? Is it at line 7, the arbitrary place the line has been set, or is it at line 13 in the sense structure of the poem? Does it matter?
In fact, the skilled sonneteer doesn’t consciously think about these things any more than they actively scan their lines to check the iambic pentameter as they compose. The need for the resolution of the poem and the satisfaction of the reader is simply internalized so that the turn will emerge. Here are a couple of sonnets online from Sisters & Courtesans–see if you can decide where the turn occurs.
Another essay on the sonnet by Anna M. Evans: “The Future of the Fourteen-Liner.”