It’s pretty early into the system to be failing, but I’m afraid I did not memorise a sonnet last week.  The press of getting things sorted for the new school year (and having no idea what I’m really facing) meant that I did not take the time to even look at sonnet 3.

On the other hand, I did keep reciting sonnets 1 and 2.  I have found that, after a bit of a struggle, suddenly there’s some sort of click, and I then have the sonnet set in my mind.  Sonnet 2 is no longer bleeding into Robert Frost.

So this is just a minor set-back.  There are fifty-two weeks in the year, and I’ve used up one of my free weeks.  Now I just have to keep the sonnets ticking over.  I’ve made a start on sonnet 3, and will hopefully have better news next week.

(Also, I’m changing the name of this blog to “A Sonnet A Sennight”, because that’s what it should have been all along!)

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Sonnet Two: I’m getting old

Just a quick check-in this week, as I should be preparing for lessons.  I can report that I have learnt Sonnet 2, even though I did not enjoy it very much.

On the positive side, the sonnet itself is very nicely crafted.  I find that the repetition of words across the lines works really well when read aloud. They also work as memory hooks, to keep the piece together.

I did run into two problems with this one, however.  Firstly, I disagree, personally, with the message of “go forth and propagate, so you can show off how pretty / handsome you once were”.  That’s a rant for another day, but I’ve had variations of that discussion with a wide range of well-meaning people.

Problem two was that I kept slipping off the first line, “When forty winters shall besiege thy brow”, into a particular line from Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall”.  The mash-up goes like this:

When forty winters shall besiege thy brow,

and spill the upper boulders in the sun,

and dig deep trenches in thy beauty’s field,

and make gaps even two can pass abreast…

It has a certain something to it, does it not?

Now, tender churls (S.1) and other readers, how would you like me to record or prove that I am memorising these? I’m open to suggestions.

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Sonnet One : How to Learn a Sonnet

Week one is finished, and Sonnet I is duly memorised (mostly – I stumbled over a verb this morning). I’ve learnt some interesting things, and some might prove useful further down the track.

Thing 1: I don’t like reading sonnets in italics on a computer screen.  In my previous post, I linked to the Shakespeare Sonnets site, and it is a very useful site for many other things.  However, I found that reading the sonnet there made no impression on my brain.  I don’t know if it’s the computer, or the italics, but I do suspect that the font has something to do with it.  Instead, reading the sonnet in my all-you-can-eat Everyman Complete Shakespeare made much more sense to me, despite the small print.

Thing 2: Knowing what you’re saying/repeating helps the learning process. This might not appear to be new and enlightening, but often when teaching, one tells the students to learn things even if they don’t understand, and that understanding can come later.  I did not immediately understand this sonnet (see above, under Thing 1), so the first couple of times when reading it out loud, I didn’t know where to put emphasis, which in turn meant that meanings remained unclear.  This is where the Shakespeare Sonnets site proved most useful.  Figuring out what Bill was going on about meant I could make sense of the rhythm of the poem, and so it became easier to remember.

Thing 3: Breaking it down into small bits helps. If you glance at the photo below, you will see that I broke the sonnet up into four-line chunks.  Then I repeated the first quartet, then the first and second, and then the first, second, and third.  It’s no good learning the quartets separately, as you will have random lines floating around in your head, unattached.  If, however, you’ve memorised it in this way, building up, then with a good run-up, you should be able to get through the whole poem. (Iambic pentameter’s a nuisance for getting bits of “Hamlet” into “Much Ado About Nothing”.)

Thing 4: Repetition, repetition, repetition. This is another “goes without saying” point, but it’s worth being made. I failed in this, this week.  Having written the sonnet into my notebook, I didn’t re-write it, and I didn’t stick it up anywhere useful, where I’d see it regularly – until I put it on the window-sill over the sink: how to kill two birds with one stone.  I got the first quartet memorised pretty quickly, by re-reading it, and going over it in my head at night, on the first night.  Then, I left the poem in a closed notebook, which was not the right way to do things.

Thing 5: Caspian doesn’t like Shakespeare. I haven’t actually worked out what my cat’s objection is yet, but when he was on my lap, and I was reciting out loud, there was distinct displeasure.  I’m not sure if it was a) Shakespeare; b) sonnets; or c) this particular sonnet, which has some strange consonantal clusters.

Shakespeare, Sonnet One

Tune in next week, for Sonnet II, and hopefully more enlightenment!

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In which a plan is hatched.

With a notebook, a pen, and the Complete Shakespeare!

With a notebook, a pen, and the Complete Shakespeare!

Actually, I hatched this plan a while ago.  Having re-purposed my life over 2014, I will be a high-school teacher next year. In an attempt to a) retain some medieval connections, while b) providing something for my brain to do, and c) have something which could be applicable to my students, I have resolved to learn a Shakespearean sonnet a week for the next three years.  Shakespeare, very kindly, wrote 150 sonnets – or at least, someone collected 150 of his sonnets, so that works out nicely.

Memorising things is not new to me.  Over the course of my life, I have accumulated the following: Psalm 96, memorised when age 5; The Man from Snowy River, and The Brumby’s Run, by Banjo Patterson, memorised when I was about 8-10; the opening of the Lady of the Lake (Walter Scott, not Lady of Shalott, by Tennyson, oh, which I also know) memorised when I was 12; various Robert Frost poems, memorised possibly when 18ish (“Mending Wall”, “Once by the Pacific”, and “The Road Less Travelled” spring to mind); and “Behold, the Father is his daughter’s son” – Robert Southwell, the Nativity of Christ, memorised when 15ish.  This is by no means an exhaustive list, but is reasonably representative.

I will also be experimenting with different ways to memorise, as I can’t remember how I memorised all those things which rattle around in my head. For example, I have no visual memory linked to Psalm 96 – I think that was mostly memorised through oral repetition.  “The Man from Snowy River” I can remember my grandfather reciting to me, way back when I was small, but my memorisation is tied to a beautiful book of stills from the film.  Robert Frost fell into my head: there was very little effort put into memorising him, but his words and style seem to resonate easily with me.  As does Emily Dickenson. On the other hand I remember putting a lot of effort into Southwell’s Nativity, because I was to ‘read’ it at a service, and I wanted to show off. I have a couple of Old English poems memorised as well, and those are largely as a result of repetition – teaching them over the course of a couple of years.

So, starting today (Monday, 29 December), I will embark on this journey of memorising Shakespeare’s sonnets.  One of my feared pitfalls will be not remembering which sonnet is which, so I am determined to memorise the number with the sonnet. (So many of my memory verses remain in my head, but without the references…)  This morning, I acquainted myself with Sonnet 1. It is not one I had read before*, and it has some interesting tongue-twisting sounds, so reading aloud is going to be important.  I will also be writing it out repeatedly, and maybe responding to it in some creative way**, over this week. Tune in on Sunday, the 4th of January, to see if I can complete week one!

* Unfortunately, this is true for many of Shakespeare’s sonnets – that’s one of the many reasons why I’m doing this!

** Do not ask me how I’ll be responding creatively!  I’m sure it’s a good idea, but I’m fresh out of creative ideas at the moment.  Any suggestions willingly received! Does knitting about it count?


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