Louisa Newlin taught high school English for more than 40 years. She wrote "Nice Guys Finish Dead: Teaching Henry IV, Part I in High School" for the Shakespeare Set Free series. She leads workshops on sonnets for teachers.
Gigi Bradford, former director of the NEA Literature Program and Folger Poetry Series, currently teaches the Folger's "Shakespeare's Sisters" seminar.
What My Lips Have Kissed, And Where And Why," a modern sonnet by Edna St. Vincent Millay as illustrative example.
What's On for Today and Why
Possible Prequel: a lesson on iambic pentameter. See Living Pentameter on the Folger YouTube channel.
Modern sonnets can be more accessible than Shakespeare’s to most students, and one of Millay’s can be a good introduction to both a classic form of the sonnet and to one of its most recurrent and popular themes, lost love. Examining her techniques prepares the way for reading sonnets by writers of the past.
This lesson will take 1 forty-five minute class period.
What You Need
Copies of the poem for everyone, double spaced, so that students can mark it up.
A photo of Millay, wisely accessible on Millay’s website. (Link) and elsewhere on the web.
Some information about Millay’s bohemian youth.Other modern sonnets as alternatives:
•Robert Frost, The Oven Bird: explores loss in Frost’s accessible language;
•Robert Hayden, Those Winter Sundays ,African American son begins to understand the extent of his father’s daily, quiet sacrifice;
•Seamus Heaney, The Forge ,gorgeous language by Nobel Prize-winning poet in an allegory about work and life;
•Claude McKay, If We must Die: searing and powerful cry for humanity written from the point of view of a slave in America;
•Edna St. Vincent Millay, I Shall Forget You: turning the tables on male love poetry
•Howard Nemerov, A Primer for the Daily Round clever and fun alphabet game within a sonnet.
What To Do
1. Ask students to free-write in journals for a few minutes on the kinds of emotions lost love evokes. Have they ever “loved and lost”? How do they feel about the possibility of loving again after a failed relationship? (Why the journal? It can serve as a source book for more formal essays and poems; furthermore, writing before discussion tends to encourage more thoughtful oral responses.)
2. Pass out copies of Millay’s sonnet double-spaced. Ask students to “read around” with each person reading one line.
3. Ask students to read the poem aloud, chorally. Discuss the poem’s tone. Is Millay wistful, revengeful, coy or angry? Which words and images support students’ opinions about the writer’s state of mind? Can they relate to a poem in which the poet seems to be older than they are and thinking back to a time when she had former loves?
4. Ask one student to read the first four lines, another the next four, a third the next three and a fourth student the final three lines. This will illustrate Millay’s rhyme scheme, a pattern more typical of the Petrarchan sonnet but with an internal logic more similar to Shakespeare’s.
5. Have one student read the first eight lines and another the final six. Here you illustrate the dialectical nature of a sonnet: not the rhyme scheme per se, but the turn, the volta, the change in thought, direction and emotion.
5. As a class, collectively paraphrase the poem. Have students write reactions to the poem for 2-3 minutes and share responses. How does the poet share her emotions with the reader? What is the role of the rain and tree and bird imagery?
6. If time permits, project the sonnet on a “smart board” and number the lines. With the class, mark the end rhymes (abba, abba, cde, dce) and elicit or explain that this uses an Italian, or Petrarchan, rhyme scheme, with a slight variation in the sestet. They will note that “one” and “gone” are slanted rhymes; ask “Does this make the reader notice “gone”? Mark stressed and unstressed syllables, asking for input from the students; there will be disagreement. For example, in the first line, are the words “my” and “lips” equally stressed? If so, what effect has this?
How Did It Go?
In discussions, did students demonstrate an understanding of the basic sonnet form and how it can vary?
Did students respond to the poem? Were they moved by it?
Did they participate actively in the choral reading and in the writing?
Suggested Homework for Next Lesson: Bring in the lyrics and/or music for a contemporary song about the pain of love—losing a boyfriend/girlfriend or longing after someone you can’t have. Remind students that the lyrics should be acceptable for a school setting.
If you used this lesson, we would like to hear how it went and about any adaptations you made to suit the needs of YOUR students.
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