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The Architecture of Sonnet and Song

Let's begin by stipulating that Ira Gershwin is not William Shakespeare. However, despite the gulf that separates their talents, they share some writing techniques that are useful tools for aspiring writers. For example, Shakespeare’s sonnet, That Time of Year, and Gershwin’s song, They Can't Take That Away from Me*, are variations on a common template, the basic principles of which any writer can emulate.

We can’t all be Shakespeare or Gershwin, but we can all borrow from their tool chests and learn to write a little bit like them

The first element of these pieces is simplicity of message. Neither piece expresses profound ideas. Shakespeare gives voice to an old person who tells a young person — I’ve grown old, you can see it in me, and that makes you love your youth even more, knowing you’ll eventually grow old too. Gershwin gives voice to a lovelorn man or woman who sings — I’ve lost you, but not the memories of you, nor the dreams of you, and certainly not the way you changed my life. There's nothing deep about either work, nor should there be. “Sonnet” derives from the Italian for “little song,” which derives from Latin for “sound.” Sonnets and songs are as much about music as meaning.

The second element is simplicity of structure. Each writer constructs his piece in three quatrains and a couplet. Shakespeare’s couplet ends the sonnet. Gershwin’s couplet occurs between the second and third quatrains. Both pieces hold to strict rhyme schemes — Shakespeare (abab-cdcd-efef-gg) and Gershwin (abab-cbcb-dd-ebeb).

The third element is simplicity of sequence. In Shakespeare’s sonnet he compares old age first to the last days of a year, second to the last hours of a day, and third to the last minutes of a fire’s hour in a hearth. The beauty of this sequence is that as we grow older, the years, the days and the hours seem to fly faster and grow shorter. In Gershwin’s song, the lovelorn lover speaks first of simple memories, then haunting dreams, and finally a changed life. Gershwin’s ascending sequence is enriched in another way. The first stanza describes the lover’s hat and tea. The second stanza more personally describes the lover’s smile and voice. And the final stanza starts in its first line with the image of the way the lover holds a knife and then, in the second line, alludes not simply to the lost lover, but to both lovers. For the first time in the song, Gershwin uses the plural pronoun, “The way we danced till three,” and then continues, “The way you changed my life.” There’s emotional power in that closing.

Finally, the sonnet and song are beautifully ornamented with touches of figurative language: Shakespeare’s metaphoric use of yellowing leaves and bare branches, twilight and sunset, fire and ashes; Gershwin’s use of simple visual imagery, “wear your hat,” “sip your tea,” “hold your knife.” Stephen Sondheim used similar imagery in his song, Losing My Mind, — “The sun comes up, I think about you. The coffee cup, I think about you.” Sondheim also employed epistrophe — the repetition of words or phrases at the end of successive clauses or sentences. Gershwin used the inverse figure of speech, anaphora — the repetition of words or phrases at the beginning of successive clauses or sentences. Gershwin alternated “The way you…” and “The way your…” six times, before he hits us on the seventh,  with, “The way we…”

Gershwin also cleverly and tightly combined five rhetorical devices in his couplet**: isocolon — two clauses of equal length and parallel syntax and rhythm; antithesis — juxtaposition of contrasting or opposite ideas or words in a balanced or parallel construction;  epizeuxis, (twice) — repetition of a single word without intervening words; and both metaphor and, whether he intended it or not, allusion, with “bumpy road,” i.e., “The course of true love never did run smooth.” And the beauty of this couplet is that despite five figures of speech, the simplicity of expression and clarity of sentiment leave the rhetorical devices virtually invisible.

There is nothing profound in any of this, just the simple craft of structure, sequence, word choice, placement and variation that contribute to the emotional effect. We can’t all be Shakespeare or Gershwin, but we can all borrow from their tool chests and learn to write a little bit like them.


* They Can't Take That Away from Me
The way you wear your hat,
The way your sip your tea,
The memory of all that,
No, no, they can't take that away from me.
 
The way your smile just beams,
The way you sing off key,
The way you haunt my dreams,
No, no, they can't take that away from me.
 
**We may never, never meet again on the bumpy road to love.
Still, I'll always, always keep the memory of
 
The way you hold your knife,
The way we danced till three,
The way you changed my life,
No, no, they can't take that away from me,
No, they can't take that away from me.

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That time of year thou mayst in me behold

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How now, my love? Why is your cheek so pale?

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