The Future of the Fourteen Liner

The further one looks back in history, the easier it becomes to define an accepted sonnet form. Invented in thirteenth century Italy, the sonnet made famous by Petrarch was incontestably divided into the octave, which stated a proposition, and the sestet, which proffered the resolution. The rhyme scheme was equally mandated: abbaabba for the octave and either cdecde or cdccdc for the sestet. The sonnet form introduced to the Elizabethan court by Sir Thomas Wyatt followed these guidelines slavishly, the only break with tradition being the use of iambic pentameter to replace the Alexandrine line more typical of the Romance languages. Subsequently it became clear to sixteenth century poets that the Italian rhyme scheme was limiting: it requires two or three sets of four perfect rhymes. A given word in English typically has fewer rhymes than its Romance counterpart thanks to the agreement of verb endings in the latter languages. Hence the Shakespearian sonnet was born, which typically rhymes ababcdcdefefgg, and thus requires seven sets of only two perfect rhymes.

However, once a received form permits itself to be altered, perhaps the doors are opened more easily for other modifications. The rondeau and the triolet have changed little in the intervening five hundred years, but the poor sonnet would barely recognize itself in the sonnetypes of today, having become so shorn of many of its defining characteristics. What does the future hold for everyone’s favorite fourteen liner?

It would be a gross over-simplification to look on the sonnet primarily as a love poem, even though a significant proportion of sonnets do develop that theme. It has long also been used to expound various philosophies and as a vehicle for religious devotion, and from the Romantics onward, appeared on subjects as widespread as nature and domesticity. The attribute common to all sonnets or at least to all those in classical form is, as John Fuller states in his introduction to the Oxford Book of Sonnets, “a powerful sense [of]…a mind in which thought significantly proceeds to a point of greater understanding.” The classical purpose of the sonnet, then, is to generate some form of spiritual, emotional or philosophical enlightenment. Although the popularity of the sonnet has fluctuated over time, it remains, in Fuller’s opinion, the “best known and most versatile of the free-standing verse forms.” Yet taken literally, it is also one of the most demanding: the poet has approximately 140 syllables to accommodate a finished idea, complete with turn, and is meanwhile constrained by some form of end rhyme. As Molly Peacock says “It takes a wealth of chaos in early life to produce a quest for order as emphatic as the one a sonnet imposes.” It is therefore logical that some of the attraction of the form for poets resides in its difficulty. Form may also partially account for its popularity among readers: there is certainly a satisfaction gained from reading a well-made sonnet akin to that gained from watching a magician pull off a seemingly impossible magic trick. However, before I precipitously conclude that sonnetypes written today, which ignore the constrictions of the form, are missing the point, it is worth examining each of those constrictions in greater detail.

The volta, or turn, in an Italian sonnet takes place at the end of the octave. Fuller is not the first to claim that the beauty of this 8:6 ratio can be “ascribed to its similarities to Platonic or Pythagorean musical ratios that were also incorporated into classical architecture.” Plenty of early Shakespearian sonnets also follow this pattern, using a classic ‘turning’ phrase such as but, yet or however at the start of the sestet, e.g. Line 9 of Shakespeare’s “Shall I compare thee to a Summer’s Day?”

“But thy eternal Summer shall not fade.

Nevertheless, almost as soon as the Shakespearean rhyme scheme took hold, the turn also took up an alternative position at 12:2. This is observable in one of Shakespeare’s other best-known sonnets, “Let me not to the marriage of true minds.” Here, the sestet merely continues the theme of the octave, with:

“Love’s not time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
within his bending sickle’s compass come.”

The turn arrives promptly at the start of the final couplet:

“If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.”

Shakespeare’s habit of ending his sonnets with a complete epigrammatic thought tended to anchor the turn at 12:2, and this was imitated by many, such as John Donne in ‘Death be not proud, though some have called thee’:

“One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.”

But as the fashion moved away from the epigrammatic ending, poets realized the turn too, was free to move. In Wordsworth’s “Scorn not the sonnet; critic you have frowned" the turn occurs three words from the end:

“…Milton, in his hand
The thing became a trumpet; whence he blew
Soul-animating strains—alas too few!”

Thereafter the turn’s location appears widely flexible; it rarely appears in the octave, which we can assume is at least in part due to the number of lines required to set up the ‘problem’ of the sonnet, but it can appear anywhere from the classical position to just two words before the end.

To answer the question of how essential a turn is to a sonnet, I shall ask instead how essential a turn is to a poem. According to Richard Howard’s legendary formulation “Prose proceeds and verse reverses” a turn is required in almost any successful poem. This principle can be illustrated by referring to sonnet sequences such as Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind.” Sonnets one to four in the series exhibit very little in the way of a classical turn, but the last sonnet concludes with a fine reversal:

“The trumpet of a prophecy! Oh Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?”

Prolific practitioners of the modern sonnet, such as Robert Lowell, have attempted to exploit this by being somewhat cavalier with the definition of a sonnet sequence. It could be argued that Lowell’s books History, The Dolphin and To Lizzie & Harriet are each sonnet sequences in their own right, and therefore only the final poem of each need exhibit a strong turn. There are certainly many poems within these volumes which do not show much evidence of a turn. Thus, modern sonneteers who follow Lowell and omit the turn are not the first to do so in the sonnet, yet their poems may suffer as a result.

A sonnet has fourteen lines: this is perhaps the one characteristic modern sonnet practitioners have, as a whole, voted to keep. Paul Muldoon is a primary example: his book Moy Sand & Gravel contains many such fourteen line poems, or ‘sonnetypes.’ Henri Cole’s sequence “Apollo” consists of fourteen fourteen line poems. Yet, surely once one has allowed the turn to become flexible such that the 8:6 ratio is irrelevant, the importance of this exact number of lines comes into question. Nevertheless, as William Matthews admits “Fourteen lines was no accident…I’ve had happy experience with fourteen-line poems.” The principle illustrated here is the one Edgar Allan Poe intended to praise when he said “the phrase, a long poem, is simply a flat contradiction in terms.” It isn’t that poems can’t be long, but a certain type of poem thrives on brevity. The type of poem which seeks to be an elucidation and a solution of one small human dilemma, often an emotional dilemma, cannot afford to bore. This is the heartland of the sonnet. But once one has accepted a need for brevity, can one afford to be lenient at counting lines? Gerard Manley Hopkins tried out a twelve-line sonnet, while John Hollander’s “Powers of Thirteen” each contained thirteen lines. Meanwhile Molly Peacock’s extended sonnet “She Lays” has twenty four lines, but fulfils other sonnet criteria. Perhaps the main reason for retaining the fourteen line count is now cosmetic: all other defining criteria have been relaxed, and so the reader counts the lines to confirm he is reading a sonnet.

The vast majority of sonnets written in the English language over the last five hundred years have been written in iambic pentameter, notwithstanding a couple of proud Alexandrine exceptions, such as Sir Philip Sidney’s “Loving in Truth and Fain in Verse My Love to Show,” and occasional forays into tetrameter. Fashions have come and gone in iambic pentameter much like in hemlines: the Romantic poets were scrupulous about substitutions and limited syllable counts to ten per line. By the time skirts were reaching the knee, Robert Frost had pioneered his loose iambics and was allowing anapestic substitutions.

As skirts shrank to microscopic proportions, so too did the first foot, with many new poets beginning to use the headless iamb where once a trochee would have been de rigeur.

A reluctance to teach the intricacies of meter to undergraduates has since produced syllabic sonnets, where each line comprises ten syllables, but is as far from a line of iambic pentameter as it is possible to be. Meanwhile, meter has loosened often to a shadow of itself or, as in Paul Muldoon, meter has disappeared altogether. From “Anthony Green: the Second Marriage”:

“it would appear, set on the occasional table
in the center of the room—and the outcome is, as he himself would put it, ‘inevitable.’”

Clearly, meter is no longer deemed essential to the sonnet, and yet the modern sonnet has lost out here to its forebears in terms of sheer memorability. Classical sonnets are easy to memorize, with the iambic pulse acting as a mnemonic prompt. Memorizing a Paul Muldoon sonnet is probably no easier than memorizing fourteen lines of free verse.

Sonnets have a precise rhyme scheme. Actually, poets have played fast and loose with the rhyme scheme almost from the very beginning. Here is Shelley’s “Ozymandias”:

“I MET a Traveler from an antique land,
Who said, "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read,
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is OZYMANDIAS, King of Kings."
Look on my works ye Mighty, and despair!
No thing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that Colossal Wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

The rhyme scheme here is ababacdcedfgfg; the word ‘appear’—unthinkable in a traditional sonnet—either has no rhyming counterpart, or is intended as a slant rhyme with ‘despair.’ Shelley has already slipped in a slant rhyme with stone/frown. Yet, many people would never notice these precocious innovations unless it was pointed out to them: Shelley’s sonnet is carried by his impeccable meter, classic turn and the majesty of his words.

William Meredith’s “The Illiterate” uses only identity rhyme e.g.

“Touching your goodness I am like a man
Who turns a letter over in his hand
And you might think this was because the hand
Was unfamiliar, but, truth is, the man…”

Robert Lowell immortalized the non-rhyming or blank verse sonnet, although even he does have a noticeable tendency to use an identity rhyme in his final couplet e.g. in “Caligula I”:

“great Caesar’s painkiller, can strengthen my blood,
green absinthe of forgetfulness, not blood.”

Furthermore, we have Muldoon’s rhyme schemes, which almost border on disreputable e.g. in “The Otter”: desk/blotter/aver/dense/compact/hold/it/hit/old/pact/evidence/her/otter/Eske.

These days even most of the New Formalists, who adhere relatively strictly to meter, espouse slant rhyme rather than perfect rhyme. There are two reasons for this, one conscious, and the other an artifact of linguistic evolution. The conscious rationale would be that perfect rhyme is distrusted by the mainstream poetry community, and seen as being old-fashioned or clichéd—the territory of bad greeting card verse. A stronger underlying cause can be seen in the proliferation of English language dialects since Shakespeare’s day, when English was confined to the small island of Britain. Since then, English has expanded to become the primary or a major language of seven distinct world regions in addition to Britain and the United States: the Caribbean, Canada, Australia, South Africa, South Asia, West Africa, and Southeast Asia. Five hundred years ago, when the ability to read English was confined to an elite group small in number and concentrated geographically, poets could be fairly sure their words were being pronounced the same regardless of who read them. These days, even a quick survey of the differences in pronunciation between two such regions (England and the US) will yield many examples where perfect British rhymes are slant US rhymes: ‘water’ and ‘daughter’, ‘leisure’ and ‘treasure’, ‘vase’ and ‘bars’ to name just three. Clearly slant rhyme, or a combination of slant and perfect rhyme (though never just one instance of slant rhyme, which would be bad form) needs to rule the day e.g. Marilyn Nelson’s sonnet “Balance”:

“She think she something, stuck up island bitch.
Chopping wood, hanging laundry on the line,
and tantalizingly within his reach,
she honed his body’s yearning to a keen,
sharp point, and on that point she balanced life.
That hoe Diverne think she Marse Tyler’s wife.”

Notice how the two pairs of slant rhymes—bitch/reach and line/keen—are concluded with a perfect rhyme in the final couplet: life/wife. Rhyme done well is such a subtle effect there is a limit to the argument that can be made for it as an aide memoire. However, there is no doubt that blank verse sonnets and sonnets with outlandish rhyme schemes lose something compared to the classical sonnets when it comes to closure: few closural effects are as dramatic as the iambic pentameter couplet with perfect end rhyme, as I shall show shortly.

The epigrammatic final couplet, as mastered by Shakespeare, provides a satisfying end to a sonnet. Many sonneteers have used the epigram, and it has been particularly popular with women poets such as Edna St. Vincent Millay. However, an equal number of successful sonnets have been written where the final two lines are dependent on the entire sestet as a complete thought. As a general rule, Shakespearean sonnets tend towards epigrams while Petrarchan tend not to, though there are of course many exceptions. Thus the epigram itself is not an essential sonnet quality. However, it is worth examining briefly the underlying reason why sonnets are such a treasury of aphorisms. The factor responsible is concision: verbal acrobatics are often required to maximize the efficiency of those 140 syllables, producing syntactically dense phrases and sentences with a natural tendency toward apothegm.

Sonnets exhibit an intense degree of closure. In her book, Poetic Closure, Barbara Herrnstein Smith lists a number of ways in which poems can achieve closure; unsurprisingly, a traditional sonnet is set up to fulfill these conditions by its very nature: “The couplet of an English sonnet has notable closural force because any terminal modification of form will strengthen closure.” This push toward closure from the sonnet’s formal structure is assisted by its thematic structure, which may be sequential or dialectic, but by the very purpose of the sonnet describes a move toward a resolution. Furthermore, that resolution is designed to leave the reader with what Smith terms a “sense of truth”. Other closural devices often seen in the last two lines of sonnets include a return to perfect iambic pentameter with minimal substitutions, syntactic parallelism, and antithesis reinforced by alliteration. Modern sonnets which have escaped the form have also shrugged off these natural closural mechanisms. However, free verse poems usually manage to close admirably notwithstanding, and there is no doubt that a sonnetype can do so in the same way.

Sonneteers are writing today at every point within a ‘sonnet continuum.’ Marilyn Hacker writes in tight iambic pentameter with close to perfect rhyme in traditional schemes and a recognizable turn. Seamus Heaney writes a Frostian pentameter with slant rhymes in unconventional schemes, but maintains the turn. Paul Muldoon writes ametric lines with nonce rhyme schemes and optional turn. Kim Addonizio writes sonnenizios. Henri Cole writes in loose metrical blank verse. Molly Peacock writes in very loose meter with rhymes. And there is a whole host of newer, younger poets writing fourteen line unrhyming, ametrical poems which may or may not pass for sonnets.

Fourteen lines alone do not make a sonnet. To be true to the spirit of the classic sonnet, while breaking its laws in every line, the new sonnetype must offer its readers four things: it must have both some sort of turn and a strong sense of closure; it must be concise, and it should be memorable. It is certainly possible to achieve these effects without meter and rhyme, while neither meter nor rhyme is sufficient to guarantee them. However the original characteristics of the sonnet made it easier to achieve these effects: the turn and concision were automatic, while meter and rhyme made closure and memorability more accessible. To paraphrase Seamus Heaney, speaking in Philadelphia this May, modern sonneteers need to be aware of the standards their sonnets will be measured against: quite simply, these standards are every other sonnet ever written.

Books/Essays Referenced
  1. The Oxford Book of Sonnets, Ed. John Fuller
  2. Ecstatic Occasions, Expedient Forms, Ed. David Lehman
  3. The Dolphin, Robert Lowell
  4. Moy Sand & Gravel, Paul Muldoon
  5. The Invisible Man, Henri Cole
  6. The Poetic Principle, Edgar Allan Poe
  7. History, Robert Lowell
  8. Rebel Angels, 25 Poets of the New Formalism, Ed. Mark Jarman & David Mason
  9. Opened Ground, Seamus Heaney
  10. Poetic Closure, Barbara Herrnstein Smith
  11. What Is This Thing Called Love? Kim Addonizio

Another essay on the sonnet by Anna M. Evans: Where Should a Sonnet Turn?"

Anna M. Evans' poems have appeared in the Harvard Review, Atlanta Review, Rattle, American Arts Quarterly, and 32 Poems. She gained her MFA from Bennington College, and is the Editor of the Raintown Review. Recipient of Fellowships from the MacDowell Artists' Colony and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and winner of the 2012 Rattle Poetry Prize Readers' Choice Award, she currently teaches at West Windsor Art Center and Stockton University. Her sonnet collection, Sisters & Courtesans, is available from White Violet Press. She blogs at

Table Of Contents    First Review    Guidelines