All about Elegy

Elegy.

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Duplication, distribution and/or adaption of any part of the work without the written permission of ELSL is a punishable offence under the Intellectual Property Act, No. 36 of 2003. (Sri Lanka)

In simple terms, an elegy is a genre of poetry which is dedicated to the dead. It, of course, makes sense as the Greek meaning of the word elegos is ‘lament’. In a modern-day perspective, it is a poem with serious reflection which does not necessarily follow a meter, structure or a rhyming scheme. That said, it is crucial to recognize that things were different back in the past. so, let us rewind the time to 7th century B.C.

History of Elegy

On the contrary to the modern-day genre of the poetic style, the Greek version of the elegy is strictly structured. To write an elegy, a poet has to limit his verse to elegiac couplets, in which an iambic hexameter line is followed by an iambic pentameter line. Unlike its contemporary descendant, the Greek/Roman poets did not limit it to the themes related to mortality, and separation. War, love, commemoration, wit, humour, sarcasm. most often, Greek and Roman elegies were mythological and erotic in their nature because of the unique structure which allows a poet to have a plethora of rhetoric devises.

Modern Elegy

As I mentioned in the introduction, the contemporary elegy lacks meter, structure, and any form of rhyming scheme. However it is completely up to the poet to follow the modern trend or not. Rhetorics are not the determinative factor which defines whether the poem has elegiac features. Now lets have a look at some famous elegies to understand its structure.

Copyright © 2020 ELSL. All rights reserved
Copyright © 2020 ELSL. All rights reserved
Copyright © 2020 ELSL. All rights reserved
Copyright © 2020 ELSL. All rights reserved
Copyright © 2020 ELSL. All rights reserved
Duplication, distribution and/or adaption of any part of the work without the written permission of ELSL is a punishable offence under the Intellectual Property Act, No. 36 of 2003. (Sri Lanka)
Copyright © 2020 ELSL. All rights reserved
Duplication, distribution and/or adaption of any part of the work without the written permission of ELSL is a punishable offence under the Intellectual Property Act, No. 36 of 2003. (Sri Lanka)

Sonnets and their structures

Sonnets​

Copyright © 2020 ELSL. All rights reserved
Duplication, distribution and/or adaption of any part of the work without the written permission of ELSL is a punishable offence under the Intellectual Property Act, No. 36 of 2003. (Sri Lanka)

Sonnets originated at the Court of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II in Palermo, Sicily. The 13th-century poet and notary Giacomo da Lentini is credited with the sonnet’s invention and the Sicilian School of poets who surrounded him is credited with its spread.

Giacomo da Lentini
Petrarch -ELSL
Petrarch

A sonnet is a traditional Italian love poem (a poem of appreciation). It is a genre of poetry which has 14 lines and a regular rhyming scheme. The Italian Renaissance poet, Petrarch is the 1st to introduce the poetic genre to the world. Later in the 16th century, English poets adopted the style altering its structure. Even though many poets experiment with the structure of sonnets, there are three main aspects which has not changed over time. They are;

  • The line count
  • The rhyming scheme
  • The meter

The sonnet can thematically be divided into two sections. The first presents the theme, and raises an issue or a doubt. The second part answers the question, resolves the problem, or drives home the poem’s point. This change in the poem is called the turn and helps move forward the emotional action of the poem quickly, as fourteen lines can become too short and too fast.

Italian (Petrarchan) Sonnets

This sonnet is split into two parts, an octave and a sestet. The octave has two envelope quatrains rhyming “abba abba” (Italian octave). However, the sestet’s rhyme pattern varies in the Italian sonnet. It is most often either “cde cde” (Italian sestet) or “cdc dcd” (Sicilian sestet). The turn occurs at the end of the octave and is developed and closed in the sestet. Over the years, many sonneteers tend to prefer the Italian sonnet.

To the Nile - John Keats
To the Nile – John Keats
Batter my heart - John Donne
Batter My Heart – John Done

English (Shakespearian) Sonnets

This contains 3 Sicilian quatrains and one heroic couplet at the end, with an “abab cdcd efef gg” rhyme scheme. The turn comes at or near line 13, making the ending couplet quick and dramatic. However, not many modern writers have taken to writing the Shakesperean sonnet.

Sonnet 141 - William Shakespeare
Sonnet 141 – William Shakespeare

Others styles of Sonnets

Spenserian Sonnets

This sonnet is very similar to the Shakespearian sonnet in form, though its rhyme scheme is slightly different. It is written with 3 Sicilian quatrains and an ending heroic couplet. It rhymes “abab bcbc cdcd ee”, such that the rhyme scheme interlocks each of the quatrains, much like the terza rima is made of interlocking triplets.

Spenserian Sonnets - Sonnet 75 - Edmund Spenser
Sonnet 75 – Edmund Spencer

Envelope sonnets

This is made with two envelope quatrains and a sestet: “abba cddc efgefg (efefef)”. It is almost exactly like the Italian sonnet except the quatrains use different rhymes (notice both quatrains in the Italian rhyme “abba”).

envelop sonnet - Tell Me of Your Anger in Whispers - Anon
Tell Me of Your Anger in Whispers – Anon

Bowlesian Sonnets

This is an Australian sonnet, named after its creator William Lisle Bowles (1762 -1850). The sonnet has three quatrains and a heroic couplet. It is a combination of English and Petrarchan styles as the quatrains are Italian rather than Sicilian in their rhyme schemes. The Volta usually appears in the ninth and thirteenth lines similar to the English sonnet.

Bowlesian Sonnet - On hearing the Bells at Sea - William Lisle Bowles
On hearing the Bells at Sea – William Lisle Bowles

Some advice if you are planing to write a sonnet.

If you have a grip on the blank verse and can write a couplet, tercet, and quatrain, then the sonnet will come easy to you. Both the main (English/Italian) types are composed in three parts, so the sonnet can be simplified, in a way, by being broken down. It’s like making an outline. The turn, I find, usually takes care of itself somehow, and the more the writer worries about it, the more difficult it will be to reach. As with any poem of any kind, let the structure guide you, not vice versa. If you allow the feel and movement of the sonnet to take the poem to the next line, the turn will happen and the sonnet will be well on its way to being complete.


A sonnet is helpful when writing about emotions that are difficult to articulate. It is a short poem, so there is only so much room to work in. As well, the turn forces the poet to express what may not be normally expressable. Hopefully, you’ll find yourself saying things you didn’t know you were going to say, didn’t know you could say, but that gives you a better understanding of the emotions that drive the writing of the poem.

Syllables and Meter in Poetry

Syllables and Meter in Poetry

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Duplication, distribution and/or adaption of any part of the work without the written permission of ELSL is a punishable offence under the Intellectual Property Act, No. 36 of 2003. (Sri Lanka)

Meter in poetry is measured by the ratio of stressed and unstressed syllables. It is the rhythmic structure of a line of a poem. Even though the meter is available in all kinds of writings, poetry in specific uses meter consciously to maintain the clarity of the ideas, to maintain the rhythm as well as to emphasize key concepts of poets.

For example, in the word “discuss”, “dis”, is unstressed, and “cuss” is stressed. But if you change the stress by adding emphasis to, “dis”, and unstressing, “cuss”, the meaning completely changes in a spoken context. (A heavy thick-centred disc thrown by an athlete) If you are not native to the English language, at first it will be a bit difficult for you to get used to this concept. However, it always helps when you pronounce the word loud.

The seven golden rules of breaking a word into syllables.

Rule one

To find the syllables of a word, you have to count the vowels of the word. In the word compare, there are three vowel letters. They are “O”, ‘A”, and “E”.

Rule two

Now you have to subtract the silent vowels. In this case, we have one, the final “E” Now we are left with, “O” and “A”. that means the word compare has two vowel sounds so that it is a two-syllable word.

Rule three

You have to subtract one vowel from every diphthong, in other words, when there are two vowel letters next to each other, you only count the dominant vowel sound. In the word cause, “A”, and “U” are two vowels placed next to each other. So, we only count it as one. And don’t forget of omit the final silent “E”. now we are left with only one vowel sound which makes the word cause a one-syllable word.

Rule four

When there are two middle consonants in a word, you divide them into two. In the word “happen”; between the two vowels of “A”, and “E”, there are two letter “p’s”. so, you divide the syllable between the first “p” and the second “p”

Rule five

When there is only one middle consonant in a one-syllable word, you divide the word before the consonant. In the word “open”, “p” is the only consonant available between the two vowels of “o” and “e”. so you divide the word before “p”.

Rule SIX

When there is a word which contains “_LE”, you divide the syllable before the consonant found before “_LE”. in the word mumble, you break the syllable before the letter “B”, which is found before “_LE”.

NOTE THAT “_CKLE” WORDS ARE EXCEPTIONS. THERE YOU BREAK THE SYLLABLE FROM “_LE”.

Rule seven

Compound words, prefixes, suffixes and roots which have vowel sounds are considered as syllable breaks. ‘Unhappy’, ‘prepaid’, ‘rewrite’, ‘teacher’ can be considered as some examples for those.

Now that you know how to break a word into syllables, by now you should have understood when a word has more than one syllable, one of the syllables is always a little louder than the others. The louder syllable is called the stressed syllable, and the soft syllable is called the unstressed syllable.