Water Poetry 2: The Elizabethan Sonnet

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Earlier this week I presented the haiku. Today I present the Elizabethan sonnet. The first sonnets appeared in Italy, and is designed for the rhrythmic syncopation of the Italian language, where every other syllable is stressed. Adapted into English, that rhythm is somewhat awkwardly transposed into the iambic pentameter, a line of poetry that consists of 10 syllables, with every even syllable stressed. There are a variety of sonnets, each with its own rhyme scheme. But every sonnet is written in iambic pentameter.

So to write an Elizabethan sonnet you must follow these guidelines:

  • There are 14 lines of poetry.
  • Each line is written in iambic pentameter.
  • The 14 lines are organized into three groups of four lines and a final group of two lines.
  • The rhyme scheme is thus: abab/cdcd/efef/gg.
  • The last two lines, known as the couplet, either gives the whole poem an unexpected twist, called a volta, or it resolves the conflicts, tensions or issues in the previous stanzas.

This sonnet, dedicated to the Thames River that flows through London, was written when two events occurred months apart.

First there was an uproar when it was discovered that Coca Cola had been bottling their Dasani brand bottled water from the Thames. If you’ve ever been to London, you probably threw up a little just thinking about drinking out of its storied banks; like most urban rivers, it is polluted if not toxic. It just confirmed my stubborn insistence on drinking tap water. And that bottled water a) is a sham, b) contributes to a massive amount of plastic waste, and c) enriches corporations for what should be overflowingly free.

The second event was the London bombings. I felt these two events were related, as they were manifestations of a wayward path humans have been stumbling through. And they contrasted with the timeless Thames, which has witnessed its fair share of human folly, and eventually will outlast it.

Ode to the Thames

Thames water bottled as Dasani Springs
Is Coke’s mad grab to make another buck
It is a sign the world is faltering
The end is near. Maybe there’s no such luck

Undrinkable, the Old Man floats down stream
Drifting past stone, black brick, red steel, new glass
Centuries fade to fog and undreamt dreams
My heartbeat life blinks brief ‘gainst it’s great past

Months later when I’m finally in your arms
The truth that life is fragile bursts apart
When Yorkshire men twisted the Tube with bombs
And allowed fear and hate another start

But on this rare sunny spring day I sense
The old river forgives, it’s heart immense

For more in the Water Poetry Series click on these:

Free Verse about the San Francisco Bay

Villanelle about the Seine

Sijo about the Han River


2 thoughts on “Water Poetry 2: The Elizabethan Sonnet”

  1. Poets of all eras have attempted the sonnet. Why? It’s a form that’s easily recognizable and therefore creates community and identification. In other words, the poet tries his hand at the familiar form. For example, Shakespeare parodied himself in #130. The theme for the traditional sonnet was love. He downgrades his beloved’s traits knowing that the sophisticated, Renaissance reader would get the satire. More modern poets do the same thing: think of Milay, Frost, Yeats.

  2. Shakespeare’s no. 130 is my favorite. it’s satirical and sardonic but i felt it was also romantic in a cheeky earthy way. i even memorized it in high school for my British Literature class. i doubt i can recite it now. here it is if people are curious.

    SONNET 130
    My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
    Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
    If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
    If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
    I have seen roses damask’d, red and white,
    But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
    And in some perfumes is there more delight
    Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
    I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
    That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
    I grant I never saw a goddess go;
    My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
    And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
    As any she belied with false compare.

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