Both motifs usually found within conventional sonnets include


Both the Shakespearean sonnet and the Petrarchan sonnet have
faced changes over time regarding subject matter and plays on the traditional form
by modern poets. Typically, the form of the sonnet consists of 14 lines written
in iambic pentameter. While the Shakespearean sonnet includes a rhyme scheme of
abab cdcd efef gg, which is separated into three quatrains and a concluding
couplet, the Petrarchan sonnet is split into an octave with the rhyme scheme of
abbaaabba and a sestet which can vary in rhyme. Furthermore, the themes and
motifs usually found within conventional sonnets include the idealised mistress
which has become subject to change in the work of modern poets. Traditional
sonnets usually involve a turning point in the poem where the ending acts to
resolve the poem. Arguably, modern poets have adapted the sonnet form to the
point that it is only recognisable as a sonnet by its 14 lines or indeed its
title. The 20th century lead to a lot more flexibility in the form after
it was revived following diminishment during the restoration period. This essay
will explore the ways in which Robert Frost and Edna St. Vincent Millay who
were both actively writing in the 20th century have adapted these traditional
sonnet conventions through both the Petrarchan and Shakespearean sonnet. From Robert
Frost’s work I have chosen to use The
Oven Bird and Acquainted with the
Night. The effects of these adaptations as I will explain, could reveal a
reignition of the sonnet form after a period of idleness and work to create a
new type of modernist sonnet.

One poet who adapts the forms of the traditional Petrachan
sonnet is Robert Frost in The Oven Bird first
published in 1916. The rhyme scheme could be argued to adhere to the
conventions of the Petrarchan sonnet. However, lines 11 and 13, although have
plural endings and subject to opinion could rhyme with lines 1 and 2, making
the scheme aabcbdcdeeafaf. With this in mind, the rhyme scheme is that of a
‘nonce’ form which Lewis Turco defines, ‘many poems are “regular”, that is,
traditionally formal, but the specific combinations of stanza pattern, line
lengths, rhyme schemes, and meters have sometimes been created by the poet for
that specific poem’1.
This has the effect of a more personal nature, as well as bringing the reader
back to the beginning by having the first two lines rhyme with the conclusion
of the poem which wouldn’t work with the traditional rhyme scheme. Furthermore,
the way the stanzas look show an adaptation of the form. While usually this
type of sonnet would be divided into an octave and a sestet, here Frost
presents this poem as one stanza. This being said, the last 4 lines of the
stanza do somewhat provide a turning point in the poem, whereby the birds stop
singing ‘The bird would cease and be as other birds’ (line 11), although the
turn does occur much later than in the traditional sonnet form (sonnet means
little song and so the form is somewhat appropriate when talking about a birds
song, hence the continued use of iambic pentameter. While fracturing other
conventions of the sonnet, Frost has mostly kept to the ideal of iambic
pentameter. Furthermore, the poem doesn’t necessarily conclude as most
Petrachan sonnets would. Frost presents a sort of question to his readers-
‘what to make of a diminishing thing'(line 14), Frost doesn’t progress his poem
by answering a question, but instead provides another question, forcing the
reader to think about its meaning. The poem can be interpreted as being about
the passing of time, and so providing a question at the end allows the audience
to really think about a topic that concerns us all, and that is the passing of
time and appreciating life. Frost may have chosen to adapt the form of the
sonnet in this way to evoke thought about life in his readers minds and posing
further questions. This gives an effect of ongoing thought rather than
providing a straight solution, to which there is none when it comes to the
length of one’s life. Moving on to the meter of the poem, it isn’t strictly written in
iambic pentameter as expected from the traditional sonnet formMML1  which gives the poem an upbeat tone, lines
4 and 7 in this poem are not iambic and which rhyme.


It appears that Frost adapts the Petrarchan sonnet theme
with the expected effect of reflecting the theme of the poem better, therefore
making the form more personal to each poem. James R. Vitelli explains Frost’s
poetry ‘some of which are
surely among the most crafted, carefully designed, of all modern poems’ which
could explain his move away from the traditional form.2
This is exemplified in Acquainted
With the Night in which the poet plays on the number of lines in each
stanza to reflect the theme of isolation spread throughout the poem. The poem
can be interpreted in a way that the poet is deeply lonely, and in the midst of
night is on a search to find answers. Rather than using the traditional octave
and sestet stanza form, Frost presents this poem with four tercets and a
couplet. This presentation leaves much blank space on the page, and with the
stanzas being very short, seem to stand alone, almost isolated, reflecting the
talked about themes within the poem. While poets of the sonnet tradition tended
to write poems about love, and religion as Donne later developed. Frost touches
on themes of isolation and loneliness which in some ways differs from Petrarch
who created sonnets to talk about his love for Laura. Both examples of Frost’s
poems do not touch on the original topic of romance, neither are ideas of
nature spoken about.

A second modern poet who has adapted the sonnet form is Edna
St. Vincent Millay, who has been widely critiqued for her use of antiromance in
her poetry. In Euclid Alone Has Looked on
Beauty Bare, although the format of her poem doesn’t physically separate
the octave and the sestet, the rhyme scheme abbaabbacddccd splits the poem into
an octave and sestet

Millay’s sonnet Love
is not blind plays on the Petrarchan sonnet with regards to its central
theme. As previously mentioned, Petrarch dedicated many sonnets to his love for
Laura, in which declarations and descriptions of love are categorized as a
blazon. Millay flips this convention on its head in two ways. Firstly, being a
female writer, it was strange for women to be writing declarations of love as
they were usually reserved for men to write about women. Furthermore, Millay
attacks the Petrarchan convention by describing her lovers lack of beauty which
could be a criticism of patrchiarchal society given that Millay was well known
for her feminist views. This seems to somewhat copy Shakespeare’s My Mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun
on the surface, however, while he simply inverts Petrarchan ideals throughout
the entire sonnet, Millay is faced with the idea that her lover is unable to
perfect Petrarchan beauty. ‘the eyes too wide apart’ doesn’t depict her lover
as beautiful or ugly, but as not good enough. While Shakespeare has adapted the
Petrarchan form, Millay has taken the adaptation further.

To conclude, Modern poets have arguably adapted the original
Petrarchan and Shakespearean sonnets to suit their own poems. Frost
demonstrates a creative technique whereby he uses the sonnet form, however not
strictly. While the sonnet form diminished by the late seventeenth century, the
revival of the form by modern poets produce a fresh type of sonnet which is
open to adaptation and changes. Modern poets seem critical of the strict form
and so this could explain the changes we seen in modern sonnets today, giving
the effect of a new and revived sonnet form that focusses on broader topics
that include modernist politics and philosophy.

1 Lewis
Turco The Book of Forms: A handbook of
Poetics Third Edition, A companion volume to the book of Literary terms (New
England, Hanover, University Press of New England, 2000) p.93

James R. Vitelli

about enjambment as a tool for slowing of pace reflecting aging. How does this
link to the meter used?

Could something be mentioned about the general theme of
the poem. How does the theme sit with traditional Petrarchan sonnets? Do
sonneteers use this much philosophical technique. What about the extended


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