In this assignment, you will use what Dr. Sean McDowell has called a poetic “scaffold” to create your own sonnet. As we will discuss, scaffolds are useful because they look at the rhetorical and/or conversational “moves” made by a poem rather than hyper-focusing on form. What this means is that instead of trying to create fourteen lines of carefully calibrated, rhymed iambic pentameter, you will be free to decide whether you try to use meter or rhyme in your poem. What you *will* need to stick to is the fourteen-line format and a sequence of “moves” suggested by the sonnet providing the scaffold. To summarize, your sonnet must include the following:

  • fourteen lines
  • a “volta” or turn
  • use of one of the “scaffolds” provided in this handout (OR another scaffold you have developed in consultation with me.

You are very welcome to play with rhyme and/or meter if you are so inclined, but you won’t be graded on how successfully you do that.

Scaffold Options:


Option 1: based on Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30 (“When to the sessions of sweet silent thought”)


  • In lines 1-2 of your sonnet, identify a recurrent situation beginning with the words “When I”
  • In lines 3-12 list the things you do, think, or say in that situation.
  • In lines 13-14, use a transition of contrast (“But…”, “Yet…”) to introduce a surprising or important exception, contrast, or antidote to the situation, thoughts, feelings, and actions you have described in lines 1-12. (If you feel adventurous, you might consider making these last two lines rhyme to invoke the Shakespearean final couplet.)

Possible variation based on Sonnet 29: Instead of putting the volta at line 13, put the “But”/”Yet” statement at line 9 and use lines 9-12 to describe the exception, contrast, or antidote and its effects on you and your mental state. Then use lines 13-14 to craft a pithy “Because” (or “For” or “Since”) statement that explains why this exception has such an effect.

Option 2: based on Wyatt’s “The Long Love, That in My Thought Doth Harbor”

  • In line 1 use the formula “The _(concept)___ that __(does x)___” or “__(concept)____, which__(does x)___” to identify an emotion or abstract concept that preoccupies you and attribute to it some action or behavior. [Alternative: you can identify something you do relative to the concept in a phrase like “The (concept) that I (verb).”] You are personifying the concept, making it act like a person or creature.
  • In lines 2-4 develop a fanciful image for the actions of that concept (or your interactions with it), continuing and finishing the same statement about what that (personified) concept does.
  • In line 5, refer to a person (or potentially an institution etc) who has some important relevance to the concept you’ve been personifying. (Perhaps they in some way precipitate or cause your preoccupation with the concept.) You can use the formulation “She/he/they who __(do/does x)___.”
  • In lines 6-8 describe what that person(s) or entity does in response to the behavior of the concept you described in lines 1-4.
  • In lines 8-11, imagine how the concept reacts.
  • In lines 12-14, ask and then answer a question about how you should cope with or react to this imagined scenario.

In this case, you can be flexible about which lines are assigned to each of these steps, provided that you include the “moves” and end up with 14 lines!

Option 3: based on William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 (“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun”)

  • In line 1, identify a significant person in your like with the phrase “My _____” and assert that something about them is entirely unlike some poetic topos or metaphor to which it could be compared.
  • In lines 2-12, develop a series of comparisons that enumerate all the ways this person is unlike some stereotype or ideal.
  • In lines 13-14, use a transition of contrast “And yet,” “But,” “Still,” “Nonetheless” (etc) to strongly assert the person’s significance to you.

Here again, you could change the placement of the volta from line 13 to a bit earlier in your poem if that makes more sense to you.

NOTE: While looking at the scaffold next to the original poem will probably help the scaffold make sense, it is very important that once you have chosen your poetic scaffold you ignore the original poem so it won’t hamper your ability to see all the creative possibilities open to you!

Your poem should go through more than one draft, and you may want to freewrite about possible images, topics, or concepts before you begin to draft based on the scaffold. You may find yourself moving away from some elements of the scaffold a little bit, and that is ok if it becomes necessary for the integrity of your poem.

When your poem is in a relatively polished state that you’re reasonably happy with, you will look back at the original poem and compare your poem to Donne’s. Then, you will write a 1.5-2 page (MLA-formatted, double-spaced 12pt Times New Roman) reflection in which you do the following:

  • Address briefly what the process of working on the poem was like for you. How did you approach the project, what were your challenges and breakthroughs, enjoyments and frustrations? (minimum 200 words)
  • Identify how you think your poem relates to or is in conversation with the original poem despite the fact that you were not looking at the original when you were working with the scaffold to create your own poem. Does anything surprise or intrigue you about what the two poems have to say to each other? (minimum 150 words)
  • Reflect on what you feel you have learned about the renaissance sonnet or sonnets in general by completing this exercise. How have your ideas about the sonnet changed? Are there ways in which you felt that following a scaffold based on one of the poets we’ve studied helped you to understand or think about their poetry differently? (minimum 150 words)

This assignment is due on Tuesday 9/14 before our class as a submission to Canvas. You are very welcome to seek out my advice as you work on your reflection.

Very helpful tips from Prof. McDowell:

  • 􏰀 Jonson, Yeats, and many others write prose drafts of poems first. Do a little freewriting before following the scaffold.
  • 􏰀 While writing your poem, do not look at the original poem upon which a scaffold was based. Steer clear of the syntax and wording of the original. Find your subject in your own voice.
  • 􏰀 Thought should always govern line, not vice versa. For this reason, rhyme is often dangerous. Unless you can fully control your rhyming words, don’t use rhyme in your first draft. Otherwise you might steer toward it when you shouldn’t
  • 􏰀 Any scaffold is simply a frame for your material. It is not an end unto itself.
  • 􏰀 You may well discover that after the first draft or the second or third or the fourth, etc., the poem grows up enough to move away from the original frame. When that happens, you’ll know.
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