John Keats ‘On Receiving a Laurel Crown from Leigh Hunt’ (c. 1816)
It’s Week 2 of our poetry challenge. Each Friday at noon we will post one of our favourite poems by a woman writer in our collection, and invite you to try your hand at imitating its style. Over the week, we will be logging in to provide you with some starter challenges and tips to help develop and hone your skills on our brand new forum. You are then invited to share your poems there, or, if you’re a little shy, to email them directly to us at firstname.lastname@example.org with Poetry Challenge in your subject title. Our favourite poems will be credited each week, and published in the next issue of The Female Spectator, due out this summer.
We loved the submissions for pace and sound week, and believe the following most worthy of laurel crowns for their efforts:
If you are still working on your Robinson impression, you can submit your poem any time before this challenge ends on 15th May.
Week 2 is sonnet week – the most technical of our challenges.
The sonnet is one of the most well-known and esteemed of common poetic forms. It follows a very rigid set of rules established in Elizabethan England and Renaissance Italy. It is usually formed of fourteen lines, written in iambic pentameter and with a structured rhyming scheme. The two most common forms of the sonnet go by two different names and rhyming schemes:
Italian (or Petrarchan) sonnet: ABBA ABBA CDE CDE
English (or Shakespearean) sonnet: ABAB CDCD EFEF GG
Sonnets are usually about a kind of love, each of the stanzas depicting a new stage of the theme the writer has chosen to go with. The themes often used are centred around jealously, beauty, affection, nature or the passage of time.
This week, we have chosen Charlotte Smith as our exemplary poet. Married at 15, Charlotte wrote Elegiac Sonnets, her first collection of poetry, while staying in debtor’s prison with her husband, an experience that Mary Robinson also shared. Writing, for Charlotte, was an act of economic necessity. After 22 years of unhappy marriage, and 12 children, Charlotte finally left her husband, but spent the rest of her life trying to support her family and protect her income from him – despite their separation, he still had a legal right to her earnings. Smith was able to translate her personal experiences into her poetry, asking her readers for sympathy for a plight that many women shared. She is credited with reintroducing the sonnet form into English poetry, which had been neglected since the 17th century, but which male Romantic poets like William Wordsworth and John Keats enthusiastically picked up. Wordsworth referred to her as ‘a lady to whom English verse is under greater obligations than are likely to be either acknowledged or remembered.’
Our rather melancholy example is taken from Charlotte Smith’s 1784 collection Elegiac Sonnets. We love the botanical detail here, the personification of Spring as a gentle mother, and the colour palette of the first eight lines, which is certainly reflected out of our windows as Spring gets underway in England.