Whether you love to read formal poetry or have dabbled in different forms yourself, you’ve probably heard of the sonnet. A mainstay of anthologies and English classes, which takes its name from the Italian word “sonetto”—“a little sound or song”—the sonnet is defined as having 14 lines, following a rhythmic and smooth iambic pentameter, and adhering to one of three lilting, classic rhyme schemes. While the Petrarchan sonnet, originally written to fit the sonic qualities of Italian, fits an abba, abba, cdecde, or cdcdcd rhyme scheme, the Shakespearian sonnet fits an abab, cdcd, efef, gg rhyme scheme, and the Miltonic sonnet fits an abab, bcbc, cdcd, ee rhyme scheme, all three have a volta.
Simply put, a volta is a “turn”—its direct translation in Italian—and marks a major shift within a poem. This shift can be an answer to a question, a change in perspective, or a thematic reveal. Above all, it represents poetry’s ability to be in continuous dialogue with itself, and to take readers on a nuanced, complex journey. This emotional crux of the sonnet traditionally occurs between the eighth and ninth lines in the Petrarchan sonnets and ahead of the final couplet within the Shakespearean sonnet. Take this example, bolded in Shakespeare’s famous “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun (sonnet 130)”:
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress when she walks treads on the ground.
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.
As this example shows, the volta takes the overall theme of the poem throughout its first 10 lines—that the speaker’s mistress is ordinary—and twists it to present an alternate, juxtaposing perspective: That the speaker’s mistress is instead incomparable and irreplaceable.
Though voltas originated in sonnets and are characteristic of the form, their powerful way of creating movement, change, and structure within a poem has now made them a prominent feature even in many free verse works. Voltas in free verse poetry may not always appear in the same place within a poem, but they still play the crucial role of signifying an emotional and thematic departure.
Bonus: As a writing prompt, try penning either a sonnet or a free verse poem that incorporates a volta. Before you start, think about what subjects you might want to address using this poetic device. What are situations and themes that could benefit from a dual perspective? How might you take the reader on a trajectory in an expansive, yet succinct, 14 lines?