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Volta Poetry

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English Literature

Although you might think the term 'volta' is associated with science and electricity (with its volts and voltages), it is in fact a poetic device. Many poets use the volta in their work, but what is this literary device? Why would a writer or poet decide to use it? What does the volta have to do with sonnets in particular? Let's find out.

What is the meaning of volta in poetry?

A volta is the turning point in the argument of a poem.

The word 'volta' in Italian literally means 'turn', a good mnemonic device to remember its meaning in poetry as a turning point in the poem. A volta can be identified in any type of poem and can be found anywhere, though it is most typically at the end (we will go into detail on where they are placed specifically later). However, it is important to note that not every poem has a volta.

Voltas are also known by other names such as 'fulcrum' and 'turning point'.

What are some examples of voltas in poetry?

Voltas can occur in almost any line of a poem. Let's have a look at some excerpts of poems to try and locate the voltas.

U.A. Fanthorpe’s poem follows an individual with a chronic illness and their commentary on the role society forces them to play. The poem is filled with theatrical images to further highlight the theme of social roles. These lines are taken from the final two stanzas

“And who would want it? I jettison the spear,

The servant’s try, the terrible drone of Chorus:

Yet to my thinking this act was ill advised

It would have been better to die*. No it wouldn’t!

I am here to make you believe in life.”

- Chorus from Oedipus Rex, trans E.F Watling

U. A. Fanthorpe,

'A Minor Role', lines 34-39.

The volta occurs in Fanthorpe’s poem when the speaker engages with the quote from Oedipus Rex by exclaiming, 'No it wouldn’t!' This changes the tone from melancholy to firm and adamant in the speaker's continued existence, despite the fact it will end soon.

Volta, Theatre Stage, StudySmarterImage of a theatre stage, by onkelglocke on pixabay.com

Here are the final stanzas to Tim Turnball’s 'Ode to a Grayson Perry Urn', another poem with a volta. It is written as a modernised version of John Keats’s 'Ode to a Grecian Urn'. It describes contemporary artist Grayson Perry's artwork depicting a late 20th-century scene of youth and chaos and drinking.

“Now see who comes to line the sparse grass verge,

to toast them in Buckfast and Diamond White:

rat-boys and corn-rowed cheerleaders who urge

them on to pull more burn-outs or to write

their donut Os, as signature, upon

the bleached tarmac of dead suburban streets.

There dogs set up a row and curtains twitch

as pensioners and parents telephone

the cops to plead for quiet, sue for peace -

tranquility, though, is for the rich.

And so, millennia hence, you garish crock,

when all context is lost, galleries razed

to level dust and we're long in the box,

will future poets look on you amazed,

speculate how children might have lived when

you were fired, lives so free and bountiful

and there, beneath a sun a little colder,

declare

How happy were those creatures then,

who knew the truth was all negotiable

and beauty in the gift of the beholder”

Tim Turnball, 'Ode to a Grayson Perry Urn', lines 40-59.

The volta is in the final stanza, at the instance when Turnball's speaker contemplates the impact the urn will have on the future’s imagination of the past. He concludes the poem with the realization that truth and beauty are in the beholder’s eyes and despite his critical perception of the urn as being 'kitschy', the future might perceive it as an example of 'beauty.'

Simon Armitage’s poem, 'Remains', also uses a volta. Armitage uses it to explore the impact war has on individuals. His volta is partway through the poem, after describing what the speaker was commanded to do with looters and what happened.

One of my mates goes by
and tosses his guts back into his body.
Then he’s carted off in the back of a lorry.
End of story, except not really.
His blood-shadow stays on the street, and out on patrol
I walk right over it week after week.

Simon Armitage, 'Remains', lines 14-20

The volta in Armitage's poem occurs when the speaker realises that the memory of what happened will never leave him. The poem continues for several stanzas to describe how the story hasn't really reached the "end" as the poem's voice is left traumatised and mentally scarred by the experience.

Volta in poetry: sonnets

Although voltas aren’t always placed in specific parts of poems, they are in certain types of poems. Most sonnets have a volta, but depending on the type of sonnet the poem is, the volta will be placed differently. Here we will go into a few examples of sonnets and look at where the voltas are placed.

Petrarchan volta

Petrarchan voltas are found in Petrarchan and Italian sonnets. These voltas occur after the octave (a stanza of 8 lines) and at the start of the sestet (a stanza of 6 lines).

John Milton’s 'Sonnet 19: When I consider how my light is spent' illustrates this sort of volta. The poem describes the thoughts of Milton as he contemplates his blindness in relation to God, but realises in a revelation that he doesn’t need sight to love God.

When I consider how my light is spent,

Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,

And that one Talent which is death to hide

Lodged with me useless, though my Soul more bent

To serve therewith my Maker, and present

My true account, lest he returning chide;

“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”

I fondly ask. But patience, to prevent

That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need

Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best

Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state

Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed

And post o’er Land and Ocean without rest:

They also serve who only stand and wait.”

John Milton, 'Sonnet 19', lines 1-14

Shakespearean volta

Shakespearean voltas occur in Shakespearean sonnets. The voltas are usually found in either the final rhyming couplet or in lines 8-9.

'Sonnet 20' exemplifies a volta in line 9, when the speaker mourns how the love interest was by nature made a man for women, despite his feminine features. This turns the tone of the speaker from admiration to sadness as the pair cannot be together in Tudor society.

A woman’s face, with nature’s own hand painted,

Hast thou, the master-mistress of my passion;

A woman’s gentle heart, but not acquainted

With shifting change, as is false women’s fashion;

An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling,

Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth;

A man in hue, all hues in his controlling,

Which steals men’s eyes and women’s souls amazeth.

And for a woman wert thou first created,

Till nature as she wrought thee fell a-doting,

And by addition me of thee defeated,

By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.

   But since she pricked thee out for women’s pleasure,

   Mine be thy love, and thy love’s use their treasure.

Shakespeare, 'Sonnet 20', lines 1-14

Other types of voltas

It can also be argued that a haiku traditionally has a volta, as it undergoes a transition and juxtaposition from one idea into another. The break of this transition is marked by what is called a kireji, a word that acts as the interaction between something older and something more transient.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to mark where this would occur in traditional haikus because they have to be translated into English, which alters other structures haikus have, such as syllables.

Here's Matsuo Basho’s famous haiku (in the West, at least): 'Old Pond and Frog'.

An ancient pond/ a frog jumps in/ the sound of water.

(Furu ike ya/ kawazu tobikomu/ mizu no oto)

In this example, the action of jumping resonates in the pond and acts as the kireji. The old pond is no longer still and stationary, but is suddenly disturbed and turned into a moving surface by the frog.

How can you spot a volta in poetry?

Voltas can be made easier to find in a poem when you know what to investigate. Signposts may appear in structure, tonal change, or specific words that are used in a volta.

Investigation tools, by Mediamodifier on pixabay.com

Word signposts

In many cases, you might be notified of the presence of a volta through transition words, whether they indicate:

  • A transition in argument, for example 'but', 'yet', 'except' or 'still'.

  • A change of time, for example 'then', 'next' or 'now'.

For example, Shakespeare’s 'Sonnet 130' uses 'yet' as a transition in argument from him initially criticising the lover’s appearance in comparison to stereotypical beauty standards to admitting that his love helps him redefine beauty.

And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare

As any she belied with false compare.

Shakespeare, 'Sonnet 130', lines 13-14.

Similarly, Seamus Heaney in his 'Death of a Naturalist' conveys a transition of time through the word 'then' that highlights how the boy’s perception of the frogs suddenly changes as he and they grow older. They appear to grow more hostile towards the speaker as they move from frogspawn and tadpoles to aggressive frogs.

Then one hot day when fields were rank

With cow dung in the grass the angry frogs

Invaded the flax-dam; I ducked through hedges

To a coarse croaking that I had not heard

Before. The air was thick with a bass chorus.

Right down the dam gross-bellied frogs were cocked

On sods; their loose necks pulsed like sails. Some hopped:

The slap and plop were obscene threats. Some sat

Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting.

I sickened, turned, and ran. The great slime kings

Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew

That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.

Seamus Heaney, 'Death of a Naturalist', lines 22-33.

Image of a frog, by fietzfotos on pixabay.com

However, these words cannot be our sole indicator for a volta, as they may be used without actually signaling the presence of one. As we cannot be dependent solely on this, we might also look out for other features.

Tonal signposts

Perhaps most significant as a notifier of a volta’s presence is the shift in tone that a poem undergoes. If there is a transition of emotion, for example, there is almost certainly a volta.

Take Milton’s poem again, where the semantic field begins as hopeless and isolated with words such as 'dark', 'useless', 'bent', 'chide', 'death', and 'hide'. The passages later change to being more hopeful as the voice finds hope in knowing that God still loves him.

Similarly, Shakespeare’s 'Sonnet 130' goes from comparing the lover's physical appearance to stereotypical perceptions of beauty. This makes the beginning of the poem seem critical of the lover until the final couplet where the narrator finally admits that their love makes the lover’s appearance the idealism of beauty.

Structural signposts

You have already learnt where voltas can be found in certain sonnets, but to find them, you must first recognise the sonnet structure. As we already know where to find the voltas in Petrarchan and Shakespearean sonnets, we will describe their structures so you can find them independently.

Petrarchan sonnet (H4)

All sonnets can be spotted easily because they have 14 lines. However, Petrarchan sonnets have a distinct rhyme scheme and form. The lines are split into certain sized stanzas, the first is an octet, rhyming as ABBAABBA, and the second a sestet, rhyming as either CDCDCD or CDECDE.

Shakespearean sonnet

Shakespearean sonnets differ from other sonnets because of their form as well. They follow the rhyme scheme of ABABCDCDEFEFGG. The physical presentation of the structure can differ, but it usually consists of three quatrains and a couplet to end. However, they can also be found in 1 stanza, or perhaps 4 stanzas of 3 with a couplet.

What is the purpose of voltas in poetry?

Voltas show a transition from one idea to another perspective of it, creating a contrast between the initial belief and the newly discovered one. This transition and change can create a resolute tone, by the end, after the initial uncertainty of their thoughts, as well as adding other tones as well, such as hope, fear, distress, or happiness.

Voltas also act as a concluding section for a poem because of the way the narrator’s thoughts shift to a new perspective. This new perspective could be:

  • Ironic - what has been discussed is suddenly changed by the narrator and undercut by them.

  • Concessional - after the narrator reveals a problem, they argue against it.

  • Elegiac - when an emotional transition occurs, either from grief to consolation, from grief to denying consolation, or from grief to different grief.

  • Emblematic/symbolic - from a description of an object or symbol to meditation on it.

  • Descriptive/meditative - a description of a scene that contemplates it, the narrator’s own contemplation of it, and then a return to the original scene with a new perspective.

  • Retrospective/ prospective - a consideration of the past that then alters the perspective of the present or the future.

Looking back at the earlier examples, can you think which effect of volta matches which poem?

Volta - Key takeaways

  • A volta is a turn in an argument or thought in a poem. It may be ironic, concessional, elegaic, symbolic, descriptive, retrospective, or prospective.
  • Sonnets are the poetic form most likely to have a volta, and they are located in specific places depending on the type. Shakespearean Sonnets have a volta in either the ninth line or the final couplet, while Petrarchan Sonnets feature them between the octet and sestet.
  • Although voltas are hard to spot in poetry, you can find them through a combination of signpost words, a change of tone, and the structure.
  • Voltas create a sense of a conclusion to a poem because of the way they narrow the narrative down to a final idea.

Volta Poetry

A volta signals a change in an argument or thought within a poem. 

Shakespeare’s sonnet 130 displays an example of a volta, when the narrator reverses his previously critical depictions of his lover to admit that he finds her beautiful regardless.

A volta allows a change to occur within a poem. This might have a number of impacts on a narrative, but often humanises a narrator as they are shown to be able to evolve and adapt their thoughts, like the poem itself. 

Voltas often indicate a conclusion to an argument or thought that a narrator has.

A volta is a rhetorical shift in a narrative, and thus is a language or rhetorical device. This said, the structure of a poem may help indicate a volta’s presence.

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