The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

Formal designs

Did you solve last week’s crocodile mystery? It’s a sonnet! A visual representation of the phonetic structures of Shakespeare’s Sonnet No. XXIX, to be precise (rotated sideways to be extra-mysterious).

The pattern was created by Marjory Bates Pratt in 1940, as one of her Formal designs for ten Shakespeare sonnets (Sh.Misc. 1128). In Pratt’s own words, “The designs in this book were constructed by means of a method intended to represent visually the basic sound-patterns of poetry. The method is my own but the shapes taken by the individual designs were wholly determined by the phonetic structure of the sonnets themselves… Any other designer, using the same method, would have produced substantially the same results.”1

Sonnet XXIX - design & text

The above image is of Sonnet XXIX, side-by-side with its formal design. Pratt did not provide a discussion of her method, but each “phonetic structure” is represented by a square in a 10 x 14 grid (10 = the number of syllables in line and 14 = the number of lines in a typical Shakespearean sonnet). It’s easiest to begin deciphering her designs by starting with the ending rhymes. In Sonnet XXIX, you can see that the “ate” rhyme, outlined in red above, appears four times in the sonnet—“state”/ “fate”, and then “state”/ “gate”—and is represented by a square with the upper left quadrant inked. However, it seems that Pratt is focusing on the vowel as the salient unit of the syllable, and disregarding its surrounding consonants for simplicity’s sake. This hypothesis is borne out by the “brings”/ “kings” rhyme in the final couplet, represented by a square with the right triangle above a central diagonal inked, and outlined in yellow; the same square design represents “with,” so we can tell that that design actually represents a short “I” 2 rather than the “ings” rhyme.

Pratt was trained as a psychologist in the 1910s and 20s, and in her later life she became an accomplished haiku writer and calligrapher as well. She had no formal training as a Shakespearean (or as a linguist), and doesn’t appear to have published anything else Shakespeare-related during her lifetime. However, this is far from unusual in the Folger collection; a not-insignificant portion of our Shakespeare materials were published by people who were not primarily Shakespeare scholars. Some authors were academics from other areas exploring Shakespeare studies, while others pursued a different career entirely and turned to Shakespeare for recreation.

Even further, many of the names we associate most closely with Shakespeare studies today were not considered professional scholars in their time. Frederick J. Furnivall and J. O. Halliwell-Phillipps were both considered dilettantes by some of their contemporaries, though they were ultimately successful in their attempt to be seen as serious scholars: their dedication to studying and editing Shakespeare helped contribute to the professionalization of Shakespeare scholarship in the late 19th century.

Pratt’s book of formal designs is also at home in another field, that of visual analytics: using visual interfaces or images to draw conclusions or insights. Visual representation and literary study have long been friendly disciplines, for analysis, education (consider the sentence diagram’s long reign in classrooms!), and art. Thanks to Shakespeare’s large output, he is a particularly rich subject for visual study, especially so in the present day, as his body of work is readily available online. Like Shakespeare scholarship itself, visual representations lend themselves well to both casual students and full-time scholars—whether you are a professional or an amateur, you could apply Pratt’s formal design method and produce “substantially the same results.”

Of course, you have to figure out her method first! How many rules can you determine from Sonnet LXIV, below?

Sonnet LXIV (designed by Marjorie Bates Pratt)
Sonnet LXIV (designed by Marjorie Bates Pratt)
  1. Pratt, Marjory Bates. Formal designs for ten Shakespeare sonnets (Comet Press, 1940), preface.
  2. Or, a near-close near-front unrounded vowel. Linguists, please forgive my colloquial terminology!

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