The Sonnet, Sappho, and Phaon

Mary Robinson’s “Sappho and Phaon” is a series of sonnets, in order of a story that chronicles Sappho’s love and poetic voice for Phaon. Each focuses on a different aspect of Sappho’s thought process, rather accurately depicting the ups, downs, and complications of being in love. Each sonnet bleeds into the other a bit for the purpose of continuing the story and depicting the changing mental state and racing thoughts of someone in love despite each sonnet being separately titled. Additionally, more opportunity arises within each sonnet to depict racing trains of thought since each sonnet allows for a turn, or volta, within them, where the subject changes slightly (such as in a shift of feelings, thoughts, style, or otherwise). For example, in Sonnet IV (or “Sappho Discovers Her Passion), the volta signals a slight shift in subject from Sappho, the poetic voice, realizing and thinking through her romantic feelings and desires. In the beginning octave, the sonnet begins with “Why, when I gaze on Phaon’s beauteous eyes, / …each thought in wild disorder stray?”. This initial questioning of why her thoughts become disorganized and messy when she sees Phaon’s beauty is answered by the end of the octave, when she states that “stung with hopeless passion,—Sappho dies!”. After the octave comes the sestet, as is typical for Petrarchan sonnets; the volta also commonly occurs here. In Sonnet IV, this is the case: in the following sestet builds upon the dramatic exclamation that Sappho’s passion and love is so strong that she feels she must die, beginning to describe a hypothetical scene of her death. 

If the sonnets were Shakespearian in their format, I believe that the compilation of sonnets wouldn’t have the same natural flow that they have as Petrarchan sonnets. Shakespearian sonnets consist of three quatrains and then one rhyming couplet as the final stanza, giving a clear sense of finality. The stark contrast between the repeated quatrains and a tiny conclusion of two lines, both containing rhymes one after the other, often gives a sense of the poem being well-contained within itself. Petrarchan sonnets, on the other hand, do not have as drastic a contrast between their two rhyme schemes, the octave and sestet, which both endure for more equal amounts of time despite the sestet still being shorter by two lines. Additionally, in Shakespearian sonnets, the volta occurs closer to the end, often right before the final couplet. “Sonnet IV,” by being Petrarchan, affords itself much more time to play with the aftermath of the volta, exploring each turn and twist in thought fully—before concluding not with a couplet, but with a slightly more open line that follows the rhyme scheme of the lines above it. Not only does the volta have more time to be explored in this sonnet, “Sonnet IV” flows more easily into another sonnet of the compilation, starting up again as if it were yet another volta, simply starting off with the next octave. The transition between sonnets IV and V reads as such:

“And, as the soft vibrations float on air,

Let pity waft my spirit to the blest,

To mock the barb’rous triumphs of despair!”


“O! How can Love exulting Reason quell!

How fades each nobler passion from his gaze!

E’en Fame, that cherishes the Poet’s lays,

That fame, ill-fated Sappho lov’d so well” …

2 thoughts on “The Sonnet, Sappho, and Phaon”

  1. The form of the sonnets definitely reflects Sappho’s all-encompassing love for Phaon, as she goes in circles around her passionate feelings. I agree that the couplet form would have been too final and that in order to have a cohesive group of sonnets, there needed to be a flow of ideas between them. I feel that the titles of the sonnets also contribute to this feeling, as they sort of announce what is going to happen next, keeping the reader interested in the narrative.

    1. The way you draw out the effects of the form are really interesting. In an expanded work I would love to see you analyze the transition from sonnet to sonnet, showing what is so important about the from allowing sonnets to bleed together. It also might be interesting to look at moments in the sequence that don’t follow this form. If there is a stark shift from one sonnet to the next, what does that mean in the context of the Petrarchan sonnet?

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