Freshman Composition and the Sonnet

I am a firm believer in teaching the Trivium—logic, grammar, and rhetoric—but I am also a firm believer in the power of rules in writing. As a result, when I teach composition, I always have the students write a sonnet.

I do this for several reasons. One is that strict rules govern the construction of a sonnet. Each of the fourteen lines has to be iambic pentameter, so the students have to pay attention to syllables and sound. Rhyme also makes them think about sound, and both rhythm and rhyme force the students to think about the words they choose, whether they can fit into the rhythm and whether they rhyme properly. You cannot just throw words together if you are writing a sonnet.

Until you internalize the rhythm, you have to think very hard about the words you choose because you have to think about the rhythm(s) of each word. Once you have internalized the rhythm, the right words with the right rhythms do come to you much more quickly, but that isn’t going to happen with one assignment.

But that is not the only rule I use in having my students write a sonnet. Another rule guides the development of the sonnet. I have the students write a Shakespearean sonnet, which requires three quatrains and a closing couplet. The first quatrain acts as the introduction to the topic of the sonnet. The second quatrain acts as the thesis of the sonnet. The third quatrain develops an antithesis. Finally, the couplet synthesizes the thesis and antithesis. As a result, the students have to develop a complex, logical argument for the sonnet to be successful.

We can see that development in many of Shakespeare’s sonnets, including Sonnet #18:

            Shall I compare thee to a Summer’s day?
            Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
            Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
            And Summer’s lease hath all too short a date:

            Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
            And oft’ is his gold complexion dimm’d;
            And every fair from fair sometime declines,
            By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d:

            But thy eternal Summer shall not fade
            Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
            Nor shall Death brag thou wanderest in his shade,
            When in eternal lines to time thou growest:

            So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
            So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

In the first quatrain, Shakespeare introduces the idea of comparing someone to a summer’s day, suggesting its absurdity. In the second quatrain (thesis), he explains how the person in question is in fact like a summer’s day in its heat and brevity; in the third (antithesis), with the use of the word “but,” he explains how the person is not at all like a summer’s day because he shall live forever. 

How is it that someone lives only a season, yet shall live forever? The answer is the poem itself, as the ending couplet explains, synthesizing both ideas—temporary and eternal existence. This poem thus shows the kind of logical thesis-antithesis-synthesis dialectic I have my students mimic in their own sonnets. Naturally, I have my students read this and several other sonnets by Shakespeare so they can understand the development and understand the rhyme and rhythm.

The vast majority of first draft sonnets are dismal failures. I have discovered that most of my students have no sense of rhythm or syllable division (at least, I hope they have no sense of syllable division rather than not having an ability to count to ten). A slightly higher percentage get the development of the sonnet more or less correct, but still fewer than half. None of this is unexpected—indeed, it is precisely why I teach the sonnet.

Writing formal poetry is something the students have never done before, due to the contemporary emphasis on poetry as “expressing yourself,” which boils down to little more than anything goes. One of the results is a bunch of free-verse poetry that all sounds exactly the same, expressing exactly the same things, because everyone is writing the first things that come to mind, which are often very common things and themes.

If you have to choose another word to fit the rhythm and/or the rhyme, then you are often made to think of better words, or of something different, sending you off in another direction. That’s when something interesting happens. That’s when you start expressing something worth reading. As it turns out, following strict rules allows you to express yourself in more interesting ways, and even to write in a unique voice. What other assignment can better teach the power of following strict rules in writing? Or teach you that you can develop a complex argument in a very small space?

I find that most students fail with their first draft. This allows for true revisions, which certainly benefit the students. Every once in a while, however, I have a student who created a truly great poem. (And if you can get the rest to create a poem that follows the rules exactly, they will create at worst good poems.)

I remember one student in particular, who grew up on a ranch. Wearing plaid flannel shirts, a ball cap, and speaking with a strong Texas accent, he seemed to exhibit just about every stereotype of that fact. Indeed, he was going to college to study agriculture so he could go back home and farm. On the day the sonnets were due, he came up to me and said as he turned in his poem, “I can’t believe I wrote this. This isn’t me.” He followed the rules exactly—the rhythm was precise, the rhymes exact, the development of the poem perfect—and as a result, the sonnet was perfect, beautiful, with wonderful metaphors and depth of meaning.

This happened because he had to choose words he would not have chosen, forcing him to go in directions he would not have otherwise gone, to think wiser thoughts than he otherwise would have.  He told me that his father was so impressed with it that he framed a copy, and made other copies to hand out to family members for an upcoming family reunion. This student was amazed both at the fact that he could write such a poem, and that his father was so impressed by it. And herein lies the true power of teaching the sonnet: it finds even those who had no idea they are poets.

But the real point of assigning the sonnet is not to discover the world’s next Shakespeare, Donne, or Hopkins. No, the real point is to actively teach students how to write using a method beyond mere intervention.

Most approaches to writing consist of having students write an essay and then the teacher telling the student what is wrong. One of the problems of this approach is that students can disregard your “suggestions” by treating them as exactly that, ignoring what they want to ignore, because after all, it’s just your opinion (something they have also been taught in writing all too often).

By having students write a sonnet, they are able to judge the poem’s success based on the degree to which they have successfully followed the rules. And that is an objective criterion. The words rhyme or not. The lines have 10 syllables or not. The lines are in iambic or not. The development of the poem can be shown to have an introduction, thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, or not. And then, a funny thing occurs.

When the student is made to follow the rules, and has to revise the poem until the rules are strictly followed, things like proper grammar and syntax, far more often than not, follow. By getting the student to focus on words at the level of phoneme, at one end of complexity, and at the level of dialectical development, at the other end of complexity, the intermediate levels tend to organize themselves.

If you want to learn psychology, you have to be taught psychology directly. The teacher does not just intervene to correct students’ misperceptions. If you want to teach mathematics, you have to be taught math directly. The teacher does not just intervene to correct students’ miscalculations (one would never learn calculus that way). Only in writing do teachers try to teach their subject primarily by intervening to correct errors. But writing is like any other subject. It has to be taught directly. Teaching the sonnet is one way to do just that.


Editor’s note:  Other articles about freshman composition on the Pope Center site include:

Freshman Comp, Then and Now,” by R. V. Young

“From Trivium to Triviality,” by Troy Camplin

“It Was All ‘About Me’” by Ashley Russell

“A Writing Program that Works,” by Steve Horwitz and Hillory Oakes