Friday, 20 April 2012

Where is The Volta in Shakespearean Sonnets?

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Shakespeare's Sonnets
What is a volta, what purpose does it serve and where can it be found in a Shakespearean sonnet?

As you may (or may not) know, Shakespearean sonnets, although named after Shakespeare, were not actually ‘invented’ by the Bard of Avon. So, you may also see this sonnet form referred to as the English sonnet (more on that here). 

But regardless of what we call it, the influence is still the same: the Petrarchan sonnet, which came from Italy and spread like wild fire across the rest of Europe.

So, when looking at what the volta is, what it does and where to find it, it’s a good idea to start with the example set by Petrarch and his posse. 


What is a Volta?

Volta can be used in reference to any type of poetry, but is most frequently used in regard to sonnets. It comes from Italian, and quite literally means ‘turn’, which is why you might hear it referred to as ‘the turn’ or the ‘turning point’.

And that’s pretty much all it means. It is just a line (a thought expressed in the poem), which in some way alters its meaning.

In other words, we think the sonnet is about one thing…but, no, wait, it’s actually saying something else. Or, in less dramatic circumstances, it just denotes a change in tone.

The really good news is that the volta is often, but not always, signposted.

What do I mean? Well, unsurprisingly, as the volta poses a “BUT”, you will often find the volta does, indeed, begin with a ‘but’ a ‘yet’ or an ‘and yet’.

Where is The Volta in a Petrarchan Sonnet?

Francesco Petrarca The Man We Have to
Thank for Petrarchan Sonnets

Finding the volta in a Petrarchan sonnet is a fairly straightforward affair.

Usually, a Petrarchan sonnet can be divided in two: an octet, which is the first eight lines. And a sestet, which is the remaining six lines.

The volta is most frequently found at the beginning of the sestet. Or, put more simply, the turning point of the sonnet often occurs in line 9.

Another good pointer is that the volta sometimes comes with a change in rhyme scheme.

Let’s use good ol’ Woodsworth, and one of his sonnets, to illustrate:

'London, 1802'

Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour:
England hath need of thee: she is a fen
Of stagnant waters: altar, sword, and pen,
Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower,
Have forfeited their ancient English dower
Of inward happiness. We are selfish men;
Oh! raise us up, return to us again;
And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power.
Thy soul was like a Star, and dwelt apart;
Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea:
Pure as the naked heavens, majestic, free,
So didst thou travel on life's common way,
In cheerful godliness; and yet thy heart
The lowliest duties on herself did lay.

There is no ‘but’ or ‘and’ or ‘yet’ here, but there is a clear division. The octet gives a very bleak view of humanity - Lord knows what Wordsworth would make of London now, but I digress - and the sestet shifts the mood, by referring to all the fine qualities that Milton possessed.

As for the rhyme scheme, in Petrarchan sonnets the first eight lines typically follow this pattern: ABBAABBA.

The final six lines, however, can vary. In Wordsworth’s ‘London, 1802’. we have: CDDECE. There are no real rules to a Petrarchan sonnet’s sestet…except that it cannot end in a rhyming couplet.

Where is The Volta in a Shakespearean Sonnet

Henry Howard The Man We Have to
Thank for English/Shakespearean Sonnets

And the ‘no rhyming couplet ending rule’ is something that the English sonnets, and our friend Shakespeare, throw right out of the window.

Shakespearean sonnets, unlike their Italian cousins, are divided into three quatrains (groups of four lines) and a closing couplet (two lines).

In addition, among the many things Shakespeare messes with when marking the sonnet form with his very own brand, the volta is not to be found in just one place.

There are times when Shakespeare does indeed follow the old Petrarchan way, and places his ‘turn’ on line 9. However, more often than not, Shakespeare’s voltas are found in the closing couplet.

Examples, you cry? Well, here we go then. This is Shakespeare’s Sonnet 23:

As an unperfect actor on the stage,
Who with his fear is put besides his part,
Or some fierce thing replete with too much rage,
Whose strength’s abundance weakens his own heart;
So I, for fear of trust, forget to say
The perfect ceremony of love’s rite,
And in mine own love’s strength seem to decay,
O’ercharged with burden of mine own love’s might.
O let my books be then the eloquence
And dumb presagers of my speaking breast,
Who plead for love and look for recompense
More than that tongue that more hath more expressed.
O learn to read what silent love hath writ!
To hear with eyes belongs to love’s fine wit.

In the first eight lines, he is bemoaning the fact that he’s inarticulate when it comes to expressing his heart. In line 9 (in Shakespeare’s case, the beginning of the third quatrain), however, he says, ‘never mind, let my writing tell you how I feel’.

So how about a volta in the couplet, you say? Despite the fact that that sounds like a euphemism, let’s take a look at one of those, too. Here is Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130:

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun,
Coral is far more red, than her lips red,
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun:
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head:
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks,
And in some perfumes is there more delight,
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know,
That music hath a far more pleasing sound:
I grant I never saw a goddess go,
My mistress when she walks treads on the ground.
And yet by heaven I think my love as rare,
As any she belied with false compare.

Just to prove I’m not making it up, there is an example of the volta being signposted loudly and proudly with an “And yet…”

The entirety of the three quatrains (first 12 lines) is spent pointing out all of the things in nature that are more attractive than the poet’s love. However, in the couplet, he says, ‘that’s okay, because I love her anyway and all that Petrarchan sonnet crap is just fanciful rubbish that the poets spout to get laid’…or words to that effect.

So, hopefully, you’ll now have no trouble finding a volta in a Shakespearean sonnet (or any other sonnet for that matter).

However, if you've found this most unhelpful and you’re more confused than ever, drop me a line.

And if you’d like further help with your Shakespeare studies, or you’re just curious to know more about the world’s most famous playwright, check out: What’s It All About, Shakespeare? An Introduction to The Bard of Avon at, or any of the other Amazon outlets.


  1. Thoroughly enlightening. I thought voltas are only found in sonnets. How used in literature?

    1. Hi there. Thanks very much for popping by. It would have been more accurate to say, it's used in all kinds of poetry (I've altered the post to that effect). For instance, a haiku will contain a pivot word around which the poem's comparison/contrast moves - and that could be called a 'volta'.

  2. I just wanted to thank you for this well written, beautiful, and helpful website. I'm trying my hand at writing a sonnet, and the information here is very helpful.

    1. How kind of you, Laurel! Thank you. I wish you the very best of luck with your sonnet-writing.

  3. Slaying the faves at Machu Picchu

  4. Hello. Very informative.thanks.needed your help. Actually I have written a sonnet but l took the liberty in rhyme scheme its aabb ccdd eeff gg. And although every line has 10 syllables and Volta at L9 the syllabus are not in iambic pentameter. So, can this be categorized as indefinable sonnet.

    1. Hello Sumita,

      Thank you for your kind words. I'm glad the post was useful to you.

      I don't think a traditional sonnet has to be iambic pentameter necessarily. It's the most common, no doubt. But there are some English/Shakespearean sonnets in tetrameter and hexameter. If you've got ten syllables, though, I wonder what kind of rhythm you're using rather than iambic. Trochee, maybe?

      It's interesting that you've chosen that particular rhyme scheme, too. I think 'indefinable' might be a good label for it. It certainly doesn't fit neatly into any specific sonnet form. But there's nothing wrong with that. Once upon a time, Shakespeare's didn't, either. Blaze that trail, Sumita, blaze that trail!

      Best wishes,

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  6. Thank you so much friend! You really motivated me. I feel sometimes it is necessary to go beyond the rules. After all rules are made to break! If I will try to follow all the rules, my original ideas which naturaly came to my mind will have to be modified & they will lose their originality.Another peculiar reason is that I simply don't know how to write in iambic pentameter and that's why I followed the rule incompletely i.e. 10 syllables. Meter is a complicated thing to get hold of. At least for me. I never been able to learn.

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    1. America, I am so sorry for removing the content of your comment. It was entirely unintentional. And your question was a really good one!

      The answer is, yes, a shift in emotion would absolutely count as a volta, because it's a twist in the subject. Shakespeare doesn't do exactly what you described (listing the things you love about a person and then the things you hate - a sort of reverse Miley Cyrus 7 Things), but he does write similar themes of love/hate in the Dark Lady sonnets (127-154).

      Again, please accept my apologies for my clumsy clicking!

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  9. Hello! I have am not sure if the extreme end of the emotion is considered a Volta? From moderate extremity of that emotion to extreme.

    1. Hello Adeena.

      Please accept my apologies for the long time it's taken me to get back to you.

      I don't think you could say a shift from moderate to extreme of the same emotion is a volta. Almost always, it's a shift to a different (and often opposite) emotion.

      Hope that helps.