"The Canon"

From The English Sonnet (1917)

By T. W. H. Crosland

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[Note to students: The following "sonnet rules" are to be taken with a grain of salt. I post them here to illustrate a kind of criticism that was especially popular early in the 1900s, where rules for writers were defined in great detail. For instance, many of the guidelines of number 17 seem especially amusing today.]

. . . We shall now endeavour to set down for the benefit of whom it may concern a complete canon of the modern English sonnet. The rules in italic are imperative; those in Roman type are essential to perfection.

  1. The sonnet must consist of fourteen decasyllabic (Iambic) lines.
  2. It must be rhymed in two systems, (a) the Octet, or first eight lines; (b) the Sestet, or last six lines.
  3. In the octet, the first, fourth, fifth and eighth lines must rhyme together, and the second, third, sixth, and seventh must rhyme together.
  4. The sestet may be on two rhymes or three, that is to say, the first, third and fifth lines must rhyme together, and the second, fourth and sixth; or the first, second and third with the third, fourth and fifth.
  5. Words ending in "ty," "ly" and "cy" must not be used as rhymes whether in octet or sestet. This also applies to the pronoun "I" and to easy or over-worked rhymes such as "see," me," "be" and "day," "may," "play." "Be," "bee," "maybe,'' "sea," "see" and words ending in "cy' do not rhyme together, and must not be "rhymed" in either octet br sestet.
  6. No sestet should contain a rhymed couplet or couplets, and a sestet may not end with a rhymed couplet. The reason for this is, that what virtually amount to three rhymed couplets have already been used in the octet, and a further couplet or couplets in the sestet thus become monotonous. The final rhymed couplet belongs exclusively to the Shakespearean sonnet and must not be used in a modern English sonnet in any circumstances.
  7. The two rhymes of the octet must be on different combinations of consonants as well as on different vowel sounds. Thus a quatrain rhymed "sedge," "dodge," "lodge," "wedge," is as impermissible as a quatrain rhymed "brain," "rain," "wain," "fain."
  8. Rhymes of the sestet must not be on the same combination of consonants nor on the same vowel sounds as those in the octet. Therefore if "fist," "brave," "drave," "mist" have been used in the octet, "list," "gave," "twist," "nave" must not appear in the sestet, nor must such rhymes appear even with a previously unused rhyme sound between them. The reason here, again, is the avoidance of monotony.
  9. Double rhymes are best avoided altogether; but if used in an octet, they should not be repeated in a sestet, and a sestet with double rhymes should not be preceded by an octet with double rhymes. Mark Pattison holds that double rhymes are inadmissible, but we should not lay this down for a hard and fast rule, though we think that if used, they should be used very sparingly.
  10. The fourteen lines of a sonnet may be absolutely smooth and equable, or they may contain an occasional elision or redundant syllable. They should be ruled rather by accent than by mere beat, but in no case may there be a line or lines which cannot be read as decasyllabic without difficulty or hesitation.
  11. Full pauses should never be employed after the first word in a line, or at the end of the first, second, third, fifth, sixth or seventh line of the octet, or at the end of the first or fifth line of the sestet.
  12. More than one full period in a single line, or more than two or three full periods, or colon pauses placed elsewhere than at the ends of lines, are a defect.
  13. While the sonnet must have unity, there must be a clear break between the octet and the sestet. It has been held that the thought or mood should be led up to or opened in the first four lines of the octet and fully unfolded by the second four lines. There is nothing against this alleged rule, but failure definitely to observe the first part of it cannot be considered a blemish. Failure to observe the second part of it, however, is a serious blemish. There are occasions upon which the octet content may be allowed to overflow into the first line of the sestet; but such overflow should never take up more than a part of the first sestet line. When the octet content overflows into the second line of the sestet, the proper sonnet system begins to be destroyed, while a poem in which the octet content is carried further than the second line of the sestet ceases to be a sonnet.
  14. The sestet of a sonnet should have a clear and independent beginning of its own and constitute a separate short poem of and in itself, though arising out of, developing and bringing to a full conclusion the first or octet-poem. The sestet should never be inferior in force or beauty to the octet, and preferably it should excel the octet in these regards. It need not, however, and indeed should not invariably be at its loftiest in the final line, which must not suggest strain or magniloquence on the one hand, nor have the effect of epigram on the other.
  15. There can be only one legitimate break or turn or pause in a sonnet, namely, that between the octet and the sestet. The breaking up of the octet into two separate poems by its quatrains, and of the sestet into two separate poems by its tercets, cannot be countenanced, at any rate in one and the same sonnet.
  16. The subject matter of a sonnet must be emotional or reflective, or both. Mere descriptions of scenery, or recitals of events, or laudations of the beauty of persons, however admirably done, are not sufficient. They may be used for the content of the octet; but in the sestet following such octet content there must be developed a passion or emotion sufficient to lift the poem as a whole out of the region of word-painting into that of exalted poetry.

    Sonnets have been written with the avowed purpose of creating sheer music and beauty, free of appeal to the emotions or moral nature. Objection is taken to these on the ground that they are deficient in doctrinal suggestion or quality. We agree up to a point. At the same time it seems probable that beauty, beautifully expressed, has a doctrinal force, and when they are not too fantastically conceived, which is their common demerit, exercises in this kind may attain marked excellence.

    A kind of sonnet of description and observation combined with humorous or cynical commentary has been put forward by certain modern writers. It is clear that such sonnets can in no circumstances amount to high poetry, and therefore, while sometimes entertaining, they are negligible as contributions to sonnet-literature.

  17. A sonnet must not be dramatic or exclamatory in its diction; it must not be overburdened with interrogative lines or sentences; it must not contain quotations from other sonnets or other poems; it must not begin or end with a Christian name and surname; it must be in English throughout and entirely free from slang, cant, and foreign words and phrases, Americanisms, dialect, Greek, Latin, Romany, uncouth place names; technical and scientific nomenclature, and names with unpoetic associations, such as "gramaphone," "telephone," "cinematograph."
  18. It must also be free from split infinitives, compound words, italicised words or phrases, words or phrases in capital letters (other, of course, than the personal pronoun "I," which, again, must be used sparingly); inverted sentences, phrases and sentences in which words are obviously removed from their natural places in order to eke out rhyme or measure; iterations of the possessive pronoun "my," or of the particles, or of the same conjunction; and it should not have too many lines beginning with "and."
  19. The precise poetic meaning of every word and phrase must be clear and unambiguous; there must be no confusion or obscurity of thought or idea; the metaphors, similies, and analogies must be true for the imagination; ornament must not be obtruded; the symbolism must at least have the appearance of freshness; the "fancy" must not be far-fetched or over-elaborated, and mere "conceits" must be avoided.
  20. It has been pointed out by Wordsworth that a large part of the language of poetry does not differ from the language of prose; and this dictum is often set up as an excuse for uninspired metrical writing. Obviously, however, the shorter the poem the less apparent should be its prosaisms, and in a sonnet they should not be apparent at all.
  21. By the processes of time and the operation of accident English words and phrases and idioms which are perfectly sound of themselves occasionally become degraded or vulgarised. When this has happened such words, phrases or idioms should not be employed in a sonnet. As an example of what we mean, we may take the last line of Shakespeare's sonnet, 144: "Till my bad angel fire my good one out." Since Shakespeare's day, to "fire out" has acquired a vulgar, comic or burlesque meaning. So that in sonnets angels good or bad can no longer "fire out." Another instance is the adjective "glad"--a fine poetic word, which, however, can be no longer prefixed to "eye" or "hand," because "glad eye" and "glad hand" are now vulgar expressions. Even statements which remotely suggest, or are calculated to recall such vulgarisms, must be avoided in a sonnet. "Thy feet are cold," for example, will not do, because it might suggest the cant phrase "cold feet." It is presumed, of course, that the reader of sonnets has not "come to mock," but he has a right to expect that he will not be given verbal invitations to mockery.

Many of the foregoing rules will appear so obvious that it may be considered superfluous to set them out. Yet there is not a single one of them which has not been violated by the sonneteers. Quite outside all questions of metricism and poetic, we must remember that anything which is bad in prose is bad in poetry, and anything which is bad in poetry is unpardonable in the sonnet.