What Is A Sonnet?

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Given a lesson on sonnets, SWBAT analyze a sonnet by Elizabeth Barrett Browning for both form and content.

Big Idea

If thou must love sonnets . . . let me teach you why!

Shortened Day Schedule

Today's lesson is designed for a 45 minute duration as opposed to the usual 70 minute duration.  This week is student-led conference week, which means we are on our minimum day schedule.

What Is A Sonnet?

25 minutes

In chapter eight of Bad Boy, Walter Dean Myers writes about how the sonnets of Elizabeth Barrett Browning affected him as a middle-schooler.  He writes, ". . . the idea of writing to someone you loved was immediately attractive to me.  The poetry had come from Browning as well as being written by her" (96).  Today, then, we will explore the sonnet and try to determine how the work of this English poet,  " . . . a sickly woman who lived much of her life alone . . ." (95), spoke to our young "bad boy."

I begin with a powerpoint that breaks down the elements of a sonnet and have my students copy down the notes in their classroom spiral notebooks. Throughout the powerpoint, I elaborate as necessary on the following points:

  • I ask students to explain what "closed form" means (if necessary, I give them the hint that the opposite is "free verse").
  • I pause as long as necessary on the sample quatrain in order to demonstrate how mapping a the rhyme scheme works.  This is a concept that usually penetrates once my students have the chance to try it on their own.
  • I survey the names of my students before each class, and try to change the names on the iambic pentameter slide to match those of the current class I am teaching.  Using names to demonstrate what an iamb sounds like, I have found, really helps my students hear what I am trying to get them to hear.
  • While my goal is to simply expose my students to the reality of iambic pentameter (and not to have them master using it, or even scanning for it), I do offer orally a few of the various theories for why it exists, including its mimicry of native English speakers, its echoing of a heartbeat, and even its yin-yang like balance.  Heady stuff, but I usually find a high level of interest in my students.

Sample Sonnet

20 minutes

I have reproduced the entire Browning sonnet to which Myers refers in chapter eight and distribute copies to my students at the conclusion of the powerpoint.

We initially examine the structure of the sonnet and their first task is to map the rhyme scheme.  I ask the student who completes the rhyme scheme mapping first to walk the class through it, as I circulate and clear up any confusion.  I explain to my students that the Browning sonnet follows the rhyme scheme pattern of an Italian sonnet, and that a Shakespearean sonnet, though similar in every other way, follows an alternate pattern.

The next thing I ask my students to do is to select any line and scan it for iambic pentameter. I continue circulating, assisting and demonstrating the technique to any who are confused.  Again, I do not intend to belabor the practice--I do feel it is beneficial, however, for my students to dabble in the meter, if for no other reason than to believe it exists, especially since I have seen it tested more than once on standardized state tests.

Finally, then, we turn our attention to the content of the sonnet.  I ask a student to read it aloud, and then ask for volunteers to offer their interpretations  of the meaning.  We spend the final minutes of class discussing the message of the poem and shaping their written explanations on their handouts.