The Sonnet and the Golden Ratio ~ Michael Rush

Our poetic tautologies – those little sonnets and jingles of ours that seem to do no more than bite their tales – only appear redundant to those unpoetried individuals incapable of viewing the vertical axis: they see us return to the same point, but don’t see the ascension in pitch. – Don Paterson


While we created our sonnet themed issue with an open mind about how poets might approach the idea of its form, we were still delighted with the submission from Chris Macalino which approached it from a completely alternative direction. We’re big believers in the potential for art to do that; to see a form as an opportunity rather than a constraint. We never expected to be shown a link between poetry and pottery, but we were thrilled that it happened.

That set us thinking about other unexpected links to the sonnet. One of our favourite poets, Don Paterson, also has some interesting thoughts on the form. In his introduction to 101 Sonnetshe even goes so far as to cite the Golden Ratio of 8:5 as one of the reasons for the sonnet’s comforting familiarity on the ear. This mathematical phenomena is present in numerous manifestations in the natural world, as well as in the creative and practical constructs of man including the sonnet.

We can almost hear you in the background pointing out that the sonnet isn’t split into an eight and a five, because that makes thirteen lines, not fourteen. Undeterred by that Don offers a persuasive argument for why the sonnet could, and maybe should, be thirteen lines long. One and thirteen are actually the same number! Think of two significant things which are sectioned into groups of twelve; the clock and the months of the year. So the thirteenth instance of something actually brings us back to the position of the first, one rotation later. Or as Don would have it, “The thirteen line sonnet is symbolic of both transformation and unity: we’ve returned to precisely the same point as we started, but have ascended in pitch or moved forward in time” (xvii).

So, is the fourteenth line of a sonnet a wasted breath? For those who use the Shakespearean version, could they consider the heroic couplet as a singular thought and the thirteenth instance of their movement? As the form has been viewed by some as an internal debate chamber, there’s something satisfying about the idea of that debate lasting for a long time, but always returning back to the opening movement which seems familiar to us.


Paterson, Don. “Aphorisms.” Strong Words. Ed. W.N. Herbert and Matthew Hollis. Tarset: Bloodaxe, 2000. 282-86. Print.


Paterson, Don. “Introduction.” 101 Sonnets. Ed. Don Paterson. London: Faber and Faber, 1999. ix-xxiv. Print.