[Milton-L] students writing sonnets

Elizabeth Sagaser ehsagase at colby.edu
Wed Feb 25 08:42:38 EST 2004

I always have students write sonnets, no matter what level the 
course, if we are reading sonnets. And they always write Spenserian 
stanzas when we study Spenser. And they always write 10 lines of 
blank verse when we study Milton; I usually assign the blank verse 
for a day or two after our marathon Paradise Lost reading when many 
of us cannot dream, write, or speak in anything but blank verse!

I don't give these exercises letter grades, but a BRAVO! when they 
meet all the demands of the form. If a student doesn't succeed the 
first time or second, he or she gets more chances. Most succeed the 
first or second time, and the students absolutely love when I read 
aloud--anonymously--some of the best sonnets or stanzas or blank 
verse or sometimes rhyming couplets. And they like reading my door 
where I display in one section various student verse triumphs.

I spend a whole class enlivening and demonstrating form and meter in 
various hand-on and voice-on ways early in the semester, and we end 
that class by beginning a sonnet together on the board so everyone 
can see the kind of trial and error, planning and spontaneity, that 
might come together to write in such a form. We have _a lot_ of fun 
doing this, too. I allow students to use the first quatrain we write 
together as their own first quatrain, if they want to be sure they 
are headed in the right direction. Then I get about ten sonnets that 
begin the same but end very differently, to the delight--and now and 
then wonder--of the class.

Some students do get hooked and want to explore further the rich 
possibilities of sonnet form by writing more sonnets. One woman two 
years ago asked to do an original sonnet sequence as a senior thesis, 
and wow! She studied sonnet sequences from the Renaissance to the 
present, wrote a knowledgeable, thoughtful, introduction to her 
sequence, and then presented her 30+ sonnets, some truly innovative 
and beautiful, using the form in sophisticated ways. She read a few 
of them at the department's creative writing final reading and also 
read in the coffee house with the guy who memorized all the 
Shakespeare sonnets, to a crowd of 30-40 students.

Anyway, if I'd never played baseball--or learned to jitterbug--or 
learned to ski-- I wouldn't like watching those things half as much. 
It seems to me that the challenges we best witness and appreciate are 
the challenges we've experienced.


p.s. When I was sophomore at Brown, I had to write a sonnet for Sears 
Jayne's Continental Renaissance course, and I'm always grateful for 
his insight and example with that and other creative assignments.

Elizabeth Harris Sagaser
Associate Professor
English Dept.
Colby College
Mayflower Hill Dr.
Waterville, ME 04901

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