Thursday, 23 February 2012

Elephant No. 144: Sonnet

I didn't feel like making anything with my hands today, so I thought I'd write a sonnet instead. Outside of an abortive attempt at the behest of my favourite English teacher, Mr. Lemke, I've never tried writing a sonnet before, so this was going to be interesting. Not only does it have to rhyme, but it also requires a certain rhythm. Once I realized that, I almost decided to make something with my hands after all.

The sonnet is a form of poetry that was likely invented by Sicilian poet Giacomo da Lentini during the thirteenth century A.D.  The word "sonnet" is derived from the Occitan sonet and the Italian sonetto, both of which mean "little song".

Sonnets usually have fourteen lines, and follow relatively strict rules for both rhythm and rhyme. The world's best-known sonnets are probably the 154 sonnets written by William Shakespeare during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In a Shakespearean sonnet, there are fourteen lines, each of which contains ten syllables written in iambic pentameter. There are many variations on this, of course, but here's a little cheat sheet on the most common sonnet forms:
Italian/Petrarchan Sonnet: Fourteen lines, hendecasyllable (eleven-syllable line) or Alexandrine (twelve syllables), with the rhyming scheme a-b-b-a, a-b-b-a followed by c-d-e-c-d-e or  c-d-c-c-d-c or c-d-c-d-c-d. Famous practitioners: John Milton, Thomas Gray, William Wordsworth, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Edna St. Vincent Millay.

Spenserian Sonnet: Fourteen lines, iambic pentameter, with the rhyming scheme a-b-a-b, b-c-b-c, c-d-c-d, e-e. Most famous practitioner: Edmund Spenser.

Modern Sonnet: Fourteen lines, no set rhythm, often no set rhyme. Modern sonnets tend to be fairly free-form, with the format known as the "word sonnet" having the requisite fourteen lines, but only one word per line.

Occitan Sonnet: Fourteen lines, iambic pentameter, with the rhyming scheme a-b-a-b, a-b-a-b, c-d-c-d-c-d. Although there is only one extant example of this form, written in 1284 and recorded as part of a troubadour manuscript, this is the type of sonnet that started it all.

To give you an idea of what a sonnet sounds like, here is one of Shakespeare's most famous sonnets, written in the English/Shakespearean style, followed by a sonnet by Elizabeth Barret Browning, written in the Italian/Petrarchan style. Both, however, are in iambic pentameter.

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 often 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 ow'st;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

—William Shakespeare 

Sonnet 43
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day's
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood's faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death. 
—Elizabeth Barrett Browning 
And here's a word sonnet, just for fun:

Late-Day Launch


—brock currie
(from Foreplay: An Anthology of Word Sonnets, 2004—Source:

For today's elephant, I decided to go old school, following the Shakespearean form for my first sonnet. This means fourteen lines, iambic pentameter, and a a-b-a-b, c-d-c-d, e-f-e-f, g-g rhyming scheme. For those of you who don't know what iambic pentameter is, a quick refresher (I needed one myself): ten syllables per line, with a ta-DUM ta-DUM ta-DUM ta-DUM ta-DUM rhythm.

For the second sonnet, I followed the Italian/Petrarchan form, which is also in iambic pentameter in this case, but a  a-b-b-a, a-b-b-a followed by a c-d-c-d-c-d rhyming scheme.

For the third sonnet, I wrote a simple word sonnet, with one word per line.

I am by no means any kind of poet, and I don't tend to think instinctively in rhythm or rhyme, as do the more musically-inclined. But here are my final efforts—maudlin, all of them, but this is a genre that seems to demand it. I didn't give them exciting names, but most sonnetteers don't seem to do that, either, so I'm sure I'm in good company.

Sonnet the First (Shakespearean)

There is no room for elephants on land
We have now filled with farms. And so they must
Invade our homes, destroy our crops and stand
Before us as we raise our guns. Unjust
It is for us to seek, secure, their doom.
It is but we who take away their home,
Leaving for elephants no proper room
And zoos the only place in which to roam.
Where once thousands of them could thunder through
With food and drink not shared with we who want
The land, the trees, the lakes—more than our due—
The elephant has lost the war and will haunt
Us and the generations yet to come,
When from our world the elephant is gone.

Sonnet the Second (Petrarchan)
A herd of elephants crosses the plains.
Seeking water and food, they stop beside
The bones of a lost loved one recognized.
Tho’ years have passed, the memory remains.
Touching the bones of she who once stood tall,
Trunks sleeking skull and ribs they silent stand:
A pause to grieve and remember, unplanned—
Perhaps wishing her back, amongst them all.
Ceremony now done, they move along
No backward glance to slow them down or keep
Them as they leave, no lullaby or song
To rock the lost one left behind to sleep.
But in the bones dust swirls in ribbons long
As if in answer to retreating feet.

Sonnet the Third (Word) 


Not only did I find this a difficult activity, but writing a sonnet seems to lend itself to melancholy. In fact, I would go so far as to say that this is a rather mawkish form of poetry—even love sonnets seem to have a vague tinge of wistfulness and regret. I've decided that I'm probably never writing one again.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Since I thoroughly depressed myself writing sonnets, I decided to lighten things up for today's elephant lore, and found this rather sweet story from Thailand.

In January 2011, Paul Barton climbed a Thai mountain—dragging his studio piano behind him, despite a bad back—to play classical music to a group of blind elephants. The elephants live in the Elephant's World mountaintop sanctuary, which provides a home for sick, elderly, abused and disabled street elephants, allowing them to live out their days in a natural environment.

Barton and his wife had been working with blind elephants for years, and thought the animals might enjoy hearing piano music. Settling on the second movement from Beethoven's Pathétique sonata and "The Elephant" from The Carnival of the Animals by Saint-Saëns, Barton took his piano to the top of a very steep mountain, and played for a group of appreciative pachyderms. 

To see the mini-concert, which was also a fundraising event, click here for Beethoven, and here for Saint-Saëns. Towards the end of the Saint-Saëns clip, you'll see that one of the elephants becomes very curious about the piano. And not to worry, the keys of Barton's piano are made with a synthetic material—piano keys haven't been made of ivory in many years.

To raise more money for Elephant World's elephants, Barton is planning to hold a full concert at a later date.

Paul Barton serenading blind elephants in Thailand.

To Support Elephant Welfare
World Wildlife Fund
World Society for the Protection of Animals
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information on a number of sanctuaries around the world)
Performing Animal Welfare Society
Bring the Elephant Home
African Wildlife Foundation
Elephants Without Borders 
Save the Elephants
Elephant's World (Thailand)

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