A page from the "Poetry through the Ages" exhibit...

font size:  a  a  a

Level: High School - College
Time for Activity: 2 to 3 weeks. This study can be used for any of the classic forms taught today. Make it a core part of your poetry or creative writing class.
Materials Needed:
  • Podium and microphone, for classroom or group readings.
  • Journals.
  • Book, Sappho: Memoir, Text, Selected Renderings and a Literal Translation, by Henry Thornton Wharton (1920: Brentano’s). You can download this entire book from Google.com.
  • Book, any traditional anthology of poetry.


Many of our most familiar and famous poetic forms are the latest incarnations of lineages that stretch back thousands of years. For instance, the antecedents of the ballad were the epic and lyrical poems of Ancient Greece, written and orated more than two thousand years before English poets popularized the form with a more modern audience. The object is to study the evolution of a form through its examples and poets, and then see how the form was adapted and restructured to suit its rise into the modern day. We’ll work with a most popular form–the sonnet. Then, we’ll write a modern sonnet.

Action Steps:

  1. Study the first body of work that involved structured love poems – the odes of Sappho. Show your students how she defined her lines and stanzas with verbs that invoked heart feelings, and that moved her poems forward while also telling stories. These odes are the most distant ancestors of sonnets. Have your students underline the verbs, and discuss how those verbs propelled her poems. Ask them to write a few paragraphs summarizing Sappho’s use of language, most importantly to convey the passion that spilled from her heart.
    For college students, modify these steps to have students look at several translations of the same poem. This will show them how a translator’s decisions could affect a poem’s meaning.
  2. Carry your study through the ages. Check out the Provencal Literature and Sicilian School entries in the "Poetic Communities" entry of this exhibit, as well as the "canzone" poetic form. Note how Provencal lyrical poetry fed the sensibilities of the Sicilian School. Ask your students to write a one- or two-page paper detailing the interaction of these movements, and how the Provencal poets might have shared their works with Sicilian travelers.
  3. Study the Canzone section of the exhibit. Go beyond the exhibit, and ask your students to study one of the Sicilian court poets and early Italian poets of the 13th and 14th centuries cited in the exhibit. Have them present an oral report on one of the poets, including an oral reading of a canzone, its interpretation, and a description of how their particular canzone started to show the structure of sonnet.
  4. Write a canzone. Present it to the class.
  5. Study one of the several hundred sonnets written by Petrarch. Observe how he arrived at the sonnet’s classic structure. Discuss how the sonnet is structured. Study its line formations, storytelling element, metrical patterns, and how the poem closes.
  6. Ask your students to describe, either orally or in writing, how the sonnet borrowed from the Canzone, Provencal lyrical poetry and the pure passion of Sappho.
  7. Go to Poetry At A Glance within the Spicy Nodes portion of this exhibit. Click through to "England," then to "Sonnets," and study the many types of sonnets that mushroomed following the form’s introduction to England in the 16th century. Note the differences.
  8. Have students pick one structure from the Spicy Nodes entry that suits them – Spenserian, Shakesperean, Petrarchan, Miltonic, curtal or another–and give them the assignment of writing a sonnet. For this exercise, the purpose is to understand and practice the structure.
  9. Using that same structure, give the world of sonnets its newest entry. Tell your students to think of a romantic or political situation that involves (or involved) them, or another, and write a sonnet in modern, 21st century language. Have them write in their everyday, spoken language. For even more interesting results, have them write in the shorthand English used in electronic messages.
  10. After having your students compose a canzone and a traditional sonnet, let them look at the various contemporary sonnets that are merely titled "Sonnet" but do not follow the traditional, structural requirements of the form. Even though these poems do not adhere to the material structure of the form, your students should be engaged in mining how (and why) these poems are reminiscent of the traditional versions. This will add a further depth of understanding to how poets have used (and continue to use) the sonnet form.