Sonnet As Modern Poetry Sayanti Mondal

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Sayanti Mondal Article

Sayanti Mondal

Sayanti Mondal is a research scholar, JNU (Jawahar Lal Nehru University). Her areas of interest are tribal and folk Literature, Indian writing in English, and sociology. She also loves reading contemporary poetry.



Sonnets are fourteen lined poems with a set rhyme pattern and stanzaic divisions. But with the advent of the Hungryalist Movement there was a gradual dissent in the manner literature was treated. Writers started experimenting with new forms and ideas leaving behind the elegance of the previous Romantic era. Buddhadev Basu, one of the activists of the movement is said to be the torchbearer of modern poetry. His sonnets: “Sonnet for Winter, 48” and “Sonnet, 3 A.M.” experiment with the form. This paper with these two sonnets as the primary text questions and contests the form in this context. Whether they should be called “sonnets” or pieces of modern poetry is to be discussed in the paper.

Keywords: distrust, Hungryalist Movement, modern poetry, self-introspection, sonnets.



Sonnet, one of the earliest verse forms in English poetry has rendered itself as a fairly flexible form, thereby undergoing a considerable change in its structural pattern negating the strict Octave-Sestet format of the earlier Italian sonnets. The Italian poet Giacomo de Lentino has been credited with the invention of the form with the term deriving its name from an Italian word ‘sonetto’ meaning ‘a little song to be sung’. This form of fourteen lines attained its highest acclaim with the hands of Dante and Petrarch. The regular Italian sonnet divides itself into an Octave and Sestet of eight and six lines each which can be further subdivided into two quatrains and two tercets each having a particular rhyming scheme. The quatrains, known as basi (or base of the form) mainly follow the abba abba scheme or the alternate rhyming pattern of abab abab. The sestet, also known as the Volta or the ‘turning’, on the other hand, shows its flexibility by either employing ‘interlocked’(cde dce) or ‘interlaced’ (cde cde) or alternate rhymes (cde ced). Each of these quatrains and tercets have a specific purpose which are not to be intermixed with each other, like the Greek choral ode where the first two quatrains resemble the strophe and antistrophe, and the tercets the epode and antepode. The regular Italian sonnet expresses only one idea or thought and the first quatrain is an initiation of that particular mood only to be explained in the following quatrain. The tercet aims at directing towards the conclusion which gets clearly stated in the final tercet. As Charles Tomlinson puts it:

 “In short, the quatrains should contain the proposition and proof; the tercets its confirmation and conclusion.”(Tomlinson:28)

Ron Padgett adds to it in The Handbook of Poetic Forms that the sonnet involves:

 “a certain way of thinking: the setting up or development of a thought or idea which is brought to a conclusion at the end of the poem” (Padgett: 189).

The English Shakespearean sonnet on the other hand, digressed from the Italian rulebook of sonnets and has emerged as a form with a new structure of three quatrains and a couplet with its traditional rhyming pattern abab cdcd efef gg. It follows the iambic pentameter – ten syllable line where the unstressed accent precedes the accented one. Like the Italian sonnet, the English sonnet too posed a problem in its quatrains and in the final couplet the poet projected his deciding thought on the subject. The form then passed through the hands of various poets like Thomas Gray, William Wordsworth, Elizabeth Barrette Browning, William Dunbar, Seamus Heaney, G.M. Hopkins and has now its modern contemporary practitioners like Vikram Seth who showcased his mastery over the form in The Golden Gate (1986).

 The section below would discuss the form during the Hungryalist movement in Bengal- the poet’s engagement with the form and its gradual development in the course of time. The paper would examine two sonnets by Buddhadev Basu (an activist of the movement) to show how the form deviates from its standard rules as mentioned earlier in this section, hence contesting the form itself. The probable reasons for such a shift will also be looked into.

Sonnets and the Hungryalist Movement:
In India, the form was appropriated by various regional poets (mainly) of Bangla, Marathi and Gujrathi language. Indo-English poets like Henry Derozio, Kashiprasad Ghose, Michael Madhusudan Dutt, Ramesh Chunder Dutt, Toru Dutt composed sonnets with great dexterity, precision and clarity in their handling of the subject and the images used. The form evolved in India with the treatment of various themes. 1960, in Bengal marked an important era with the advent of Hungryalist movement and its treatment of poetry by a certain group of poets who believed in avante garde and western philosophy. The movement became instantaneously popular through the TIME Magazine. The Hungryalists were very discontented and felt the dissociation of their dream of reviving the post-colonial India due to the persistence of the corruption of the bureaucrats and politicians with the constant pushing of the Nation towards an obscure darkness after the Bengal partition. They shared Oswald Spengler’s concept of how

 “cultures go through a self-contained process of growing, going through their seasons, and perishing. There were no historically intelligible laws to this process.” (Mitra: 2008)

Prof. S. Mudgal resonates Spengler’s idea of history in her article on Hungry Movement, that

“an ailing culture feeds on cultural elements brought from outside. These writers felt that Bengali culture had reached its zenith and was now living on alien food.” (Mitra: 2008)

According to Alden the Beat generation and the Second World War together did not leave the Indian writer unperturbed. By then they had developed a new and matured attitude towards society and living. The poets of Bengal gradually started moving away from the Romanticism and elegance of the early 20th century poetry, landing up in a new individualized space. Poets started experimenting with new forms, drawing inspiration from Apollinaire, Rimbaud and Baudelaire. It was believed that this kind of “new poetry” took recourse to ugliness and led to the destruction of the human soul in contrast to the persistent pursuit of “beauty” seen previously. (Aldan: 398). The movement became quite popular among college students with leaders like Malay Roychowdhury, Subimal Basak, Debi Roy, Buddhadev Basu to name a few.

Buddhadev Basu (1908-1974) an important eminent and prolific poet, also extended his literary expertise as an essayist, playwright and critic. He acted as one of the prime driving factors in the Hungryalist movement regarding the change in 20th century poetry. He also translated his works into English in order to facilitate a wider dissemination of his works. Being a deeply passionate poet, he had instilled a complete distrust in his contemporary society. He was the pioneer of what is now called as the post-Tagore modernist (or adhunik) generation. According to Clifford he was a major poet who showed an exemplary shift from the then predominant romanticism and idealism of Tagore to more metropolitan and secular themes. Basu was highly influenced by Western literature, predominantly with Pasternak, Baudelaire and Holderlin. Around 1963 to 1965, after he returned from the United States to India, he became actively involved with the Hungryalist Movement in Bengali poetics, a movement that followed a pattern analogous to the American Beat poetry movement.

Kolkata, then called Calcutta was in a tumultuous situation undergoing changes at a fast pace. To echo Clifford, the partition of Bengal in 1947 followed a considerable inflow of displaced people/refugees into the city which changed the topographical and cultural framework of the bordering towns and the city. The general discontent filled the atmosphere. A group of angry young men felt the restlessness prevalent at the time. This was yet aggravated by the indifference and nonchalance of the ruling party and the ‘intellectuals’ of the city. Certain pessimism and despondency marked the era and perhaps this cynicism and gloom was evident in the poems of the Hungryalist generation, as the one discussed below. The following poem by Buddhadev Basu has been translated by himself in English.

“SONNET FOR WINTER, 48” (1958)

There is nothing out there; draw the curtain close. 
Those are only to lull you — grass, dirt, puddle, sky. 
Not that your potted plant, pet songster are any less false. 
Fall into yourself, sink into your own black hole. 

Objects are decoys, safer to be deaf as stone, 
No Tao can teach you what you don‘t already know. 
As Sinbad with his load of old man of the sea 
Get used to this daylong donkey’s toil of crafting rhyme. 

Winter casts its anchor; what need to wait for more? 
Coast and seaport come to life on an once immaculate wall; 
Hours, gongs, bells, changes merge into one. 

Flinging away its cloak of light and moonlight, 
The earth slips into obscurity so that you can create
Your own unmoving sun and earth and moon on the page.

 Taking into consideration the characteristics of sonnet mentioned earlier, we find a lack of proper rhyming pattern in this poem. The meter used is not iambic pentameter, but mainly trochaic hexameter with variations in it. Also the stanzaic divisions are neither Petrarchan nor English. It is divided into two quatrains and two triplets. Content wise, the poem wrestles with the idea of the creation of art, which extends itself in the triplets as a method of self-analysis. It does not maintain the problem-solution divide in the form. Structurally, the poem defies most of the standard norms of the form sonnet. A similar pattern is also noted in Basu’s another poem “Still Life”.

The first quatrain of the poem insists the reader to introspect into her inner self and search the truth within, instead of looking for it in the external, physical, tangible objects. These objects are referred to as ‘decoys’ by the poet in the next quatrain. An allusion to Plato’s Republic: Book VII (514a-521d) can be drawn here. The ‘black hole’ can be interpreted as the cave and the line ‘objects are decoys, safer to be deaf as stone’ may allude to objects as deceptions like the reflections encountered by the prisoners in the cave. The poet warns against such delusions. He adds that the art of writing poetry cannot be conditioned and inculcated manually. That can only leave one to grapple with the act of “crafting rhyme”. It is rather the self-analysis and self-absorption that can lead oneself to enlightenment and it is this self-introspection that is the prime essential for composing poetry.

The poet at this point makes an abrupt shift in subject in the triplet and the images of the onset of winter start floating in. The Volta thus figures in the beginning of the first triplet, the ninth line. This sudden switch to the winter setting is well expressed through the use of the metaphor of an anchored ship when time comes to a standstill and this prevalent solitude can be utilized the most for writing literature. The winter season is expected to bring stability/ “anchor” in life. But in the next triplet yet another shift in tone is noted and it extends the previous metaphor of the frost to connect it to the former theme of creating one’s own art. The attained isolation or stagnation puts off its “cloak of light and moonlight” and enters into an “obscure” expanse of darkness. The concentration of the intended reader at this stage shifts from the ephemeral, short-lived physical beauty of his surroundings to his inner self which is rather permanent than transient. The unknown, unidentified ambience adds to this process of self-introspection. This enlightened self then becomes capable of creating his own “sun and earth and moon” on the blank page which becomes his own and lasts indefinitely.

Here the volta appears in the middle of the poem and in a different way extends the earlier idea of knowing oneself introspectively and utilizing this experience to craft poetry. This volta acts as a suggestion to the problem of inefficiency in creating good art. The poet sees the winter season as being congenial to this act of writing. The biting cold would facilitate in dissuading one from getting lured by the world outside. Time freezes at this point (both for the world and the reader) and this act of cocooning oneself assists in one’s self-discovery. But nowhere does he mention how to attain a finish in creating this art or how the “obscurity” can lead to the light of knowledge. The poet does not clarify how to negate the lure of objects- the essential prerequisite for self-absorption. The structure of a classical sonnet of posing a problem and introducing a solution at the end, thus does not work in this poem. It is rather an extended problem posed in the last few lines or perhaps an imagined mere suggestion, but not a conclusive solution.

 Basu’s idea of a world with fleeting changes (especially of seasons) can also be sensed in his another sonnet “To The Season” where he overcomes every mood that each season brings in and he realizes at his “heart’s evening the void, the null, the absolute zero” and how it “no longer prey to the whimsy of the seasons” (line3). This poem like the one mentioned above emphasizes on the transient quality of the outside world where the fast-altering hues of life stand in stark contrast to the dark, dull, emptiness of the self within, a feature that stands permanent.

Another poem with a similar line of thought placed for detailed study is “Sonnet, 3 A.M.’ by Buddhadev Basu which is translated to English by the author himself.

SONNET, 3 A.M. (1958) 

Only the private is holy; the soft light
On the yellowing page of a book, the print
Legible as stars on the open page of the sky
Or the languid letter you write at midnight to a faraway

Friend, stern only to timorous sleep. Do you think 
Jesus was director of a philanthropic foundation? 
Or Buddha the babbling, balding, amiable president of an NGO? 
Beyond the incense and flywhisks of those 

Gaunt keepers of salvation, their Lofty Holinesses, the Most Ancient and Supreme Guardians of the Truth, 

They have escaped their disciples, cool
as clouds. 
There is more in half an hour’s indolence 
Than in galloping away after the grail.

This poem too neglects the formal characteristics of a standard sonnet. The lines do not rhyme and are not composed in iambic pentameter. It is mainly written in trochaic hexameter with many enjambments where the reader eagerly and restlessly searches for the 3 A.M. images in the poem only to render his efforts futile. The ninth line “Gaunt keepers of Salvation, their Lofty Holiness, the most Ancient and Supreme Guardians” is the longest line in the poem which compensates for the short, trisyllabic tenth line that follows it.

The most interesting experiment with the form sonnet can be noticed in the structure of the poem where the piece is divided into two quatrains, a couplet, followed by again a quatrain. This arrangement of stanzas neither corresponds to the Petrarchan style nor to the English. Also the last line of the first two quatrains and the couplet are run-over lines which carries forth its prevalent idea to the next stanza. The poet in the opening stanza talks about how the “private is holy”, how one’s own thoughts are more welcoming and comforting than religious ideas. How writing an indolent letter to a distant friend is more reassuring than conversing about Jesus or Buddha. The poet sarcastically calls Jesus as the ‘director of a philanthropic foundation’ and Buddha the amiable, garrulous ‘President of a NGO. The poet then furthers this idea in the following couplet with his cheeky comment about the Divine nature of these lanky “Guardians of Truth” who have helped themselves rise above the common folk. Basu is absolutely dismissive about the celestial, miraculous powers of these figures who have leveled themselves above the general folk. He advises the readers in his last two lines about the futile pursuit of the “grail”. Man should instead try to find some time out for self-indulgence. This would prove more comforting than a grueling chase. The sudden shift in subject that is noted in the last two lines of the poem is the volta. But as discussed in the earlier section, volta is not only a change in subject, but is also an attempt to answer the problem that is introduced earlier. In this light the poem “Sonnet, 3 A.M.” does not seem to raise a question to which the volta could be a possible solution. It is a simple shift in topic. The presence of the volta does not suffice to the traditional need of it, instead it serves as a piece of advice on behalf of the poet for its intended readers that emphasizes on the idea of self-introspection. Something interesting to note is the title of the poem- “Sonnet, 3 A.M.”, which hardly contains any image or reference associated with this ominous hour. Instead there is reference to Jesus and Buddha- the holy forces which stand in stark contrast to this witching hour. In fact, the presence of the word “holy” in the very first line is an attempt to negate any of the malevolent forces of this time-slot. Perhaps the poem was so titled keeping in mind the dark hour the human self might slip into if the mad religious chase is not curtailed.

The two poems discussed above do not confirm to all the formal characteristics of a standard sonnet. They neither follow a set rhyme pattern, a proper structure, nor a resolvable volta. Though each of these titles carry the word ‘Sonnet’ in them, yet having only fourteen lines and a volta does not conform to the form Sonnet. Rather, the pieces can more rightly be called as ‘modern’ pieces of poetry. Both these poems were published in Je-Andhar Alor Adhik (The Darkness that is Greater Than Light) 1958, a time, which according to Ketaki Kushari Dyson was

the very heart of the twentieth century with all its turmoils, two World Wars and the inter-war years, the Great Depression, the rise of fascism, the decay of the British Empire, the different freedom struggles in India, violent and non-violent, for Bengalis the famine of 1943, the Great Calcutta Killing of 1946, the Partition, of course, with its aftermath, and the subsequent effort to rebuild shattered lives.” (Dyson: 2008)

To echo Dyson’s lecture on how Basu recollects at his mature age about this time, he says:

 generation had to arrive at some kind of negotiation with Tagore: ‘a negotiation – that is to say, an arrangement, or it might be called, from our point of view, an act of getting ready, so that we did not remain forever trapped in his vast net, so that he could become bearable and usable for us.” (Dyson: 2008)

Keeping in mind this disjunction of the generation of his prolific writing it was usual for him to use free verse and fragmented thoughts to showcase his pessimism and skepticism in the society. The negation of the material objects and the need for self-analysis has been a theme recurrent in his various poems. Such a motif highlighted the air of the age- people distrusting themselves and hankering for wealth. There had been a general disruption in the schema of the community which gets exhibited in the disarrangement of the form sonnet. One can read this as an effort made by the poet to show the structural disbalance of the society in the deliberate disordering of the form. Professor Sibnarayan Ray has summed up the confrontation between the generations very appropriately saying:


“Against his [that is to say, Tagore’s] intuitive apprehension of cosmic and personal harmony the accent now was increasingly on the inevitability, even the desirability, of conflict and disorder; to his joy of existence were opposed passionate feelings of frustration, anguish and anger; his aesthetic gracefulness was challenged by underlining the social reality of violence, exploitation and squalor; and the mystic-religious dimension which related his love lyrics, especially of the middle period of his career, to the tradition of the Vaishnavas, Bauls and Sufis, was rejected in favour of a more overtly sex-oriented, secular and tormented eroticism.” (Dutta: 2015)


 Traits of modern poetry are evident in Basu’s poems, be it the technique used to convey certain ideas or the words used. The idea of self-being of prime importance has been well catered to through the use of a variety of images or references. Various random images have been used to convey the dynamic paradigm of the world surrounding you. The words used like ‘director’, ‘foundation’, ‘president’ and ‘NGO’, ‘curtain’, ‘potted plant’, ‘pet songster’ in the poems clearly indicate the influence of modernity on the poems. These words are a product of the metropolis or urban spaces and these words had then inhabited the literary space of an old poetic form. The treatment of the poems is very contemporary which is also indicative of how the form itself was on an ongoing process of development.

In these sonnets, Basu has effectively engaged the form with his ideas in a modern manner. His treatment was cerebral in its appeal, fraught with images, allusions and is private in nature. He has introduced his volta in his own style and the stanzaic divisions are also authentic, thereby discarding the traditional attributes of a sonnet. As Robert Frost rightly said, “Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought its words” (Dutta: 2015), Basu skinned his thoughts with words and penned them down on paper in a very different style. He cloaks his thoughts with unconventional metaphors like the winter to an anchored ship in and the letters on a yellowing page to the stars on sky. Whether to call the poems discussed above as “sonnets”, keeping in mind the formal structure of a standard sonnet, or a simple piece of modern poetry is arguable. But one cannot deny the ongoing process of development of such literary forms. It shapes itself in accordance to the prevalent conditions of the society and so has Basu’s poems. Instead of adhering to the question solution format, he has incorporated the dominant strains of cynicism and distrust to show how literature mirrors society. He calls it a “Sonnet” owing to its fourteen lined pattern with the volta, but he deliberately experiments with the form to show how times were changing- including the ideas and modernist traits which were replacing the former idealistic ones. Also, as an activist of the Hungryalist movement it was clear why he used a traditional poetic form to shelter his ideas of disbelief and suspect. It is an instance of negotiation between the old and the new. It can be read as a protest of sorts against the usage of idealistic, embroidered thoughts in literature when the world wreaked havoc and disorder. He thus introduced his own style for writing a “sonnet”, thereby proving the pen to be mightier than sword. These poems can rather be called Modern Sonnets.

 To conclude, Pat Clifford has rightly said:

“He (Basu) distrusted the ‘poetry of the moment’ and longed for a verse that was ‘conceived in the soul’. His poetics valued a perfection of craft and intentionality…” (Clifford: 2008)

Not only did Buddhadev Basu envision literature in a renewed outlook, he also introduced the Bengali academia to adhunik ideas. Henceforth a number of experiments with literary forms have been seen in Bengali poetics, but the Hungry movement brought in the onset of such an altered way of radical thinking. He has proved to be a versatile writer who has helped the Bengali generation to view and experience a new kind of poetry with his western influences, particularly in modern poetry.





Aldan, Daisy.1966. “Indian Poetry Today”.Books Abroad . Vol 40, No. 4. Jstor. Web. Accessed on September 02,2015.


Basu, Buddhadev. “To the Seasons” , Web, Accessed on September 20, 2015.


Clifford, Pat. 2008. ‘An Introduction to the poetry of Buddhadev Bose’, Bose.html. Google Book. Web. Accessed on August 06, 2015.

Dutta, Sibaprasad. 2015. ‘Introduction’ The Shadow of Light: An Album of Poems. Google Books. Web. Accessed on September 15, 2015.


Dyson, Ketaki Kushari . Lectured on December 11, 2008. “Remembering Buddhadeva Bose, ‘The Complete Writer’”. New Delhi: Sahitya Academi., Web. Accessed on September 21, 2015.


Mitra, Tridib, Alo Mitra. May 09, 2008. “Hungryalist Influence” Web. Accessed on August12, 2015.

—June 30, 2008. “Hungry Generation” Web. Accessed on August 08, 2015.

Padgett, Ron.1985. The Handbook of Poetic Forms. New York: Teachers and Writers Collaborative. Google Books. Web. Accessed onAugust 05,2015.


Tomlinson, Charles. 1874. The Sonnet: Its Origin, Structure and Place in Poetry. London: John Murray. Google Books. Web. Accessed on August 04, 2015.



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