A volta is a turn or transition in a poem’s main argument, theme, or tone. It can also be characterized by a change in opinion or even a shift from one speaker to the next. The volta separates one part of the poem from the next. In some cases, it supplies a conclusion, an answer, or an explanation to the first part of the poem. Other words associated with this literary device are “fulcrum” and “swerve”.
Types of Volta
The Shakespearean volta occurs within Shakespearean sonnets. These sonnets are marked by a specific rhyme scheme, that of ABABCDCDEFEFGG. They also can be divided into three quatrains, or sets of four lines. These can be seen through the ABAB rhyme scheme. The last two Ines of the poem are known as the couplet. It is here that the turn most often occurs. The last two lines present a conclusion to the previous twelve. Sometimes they provide a judgment or summary of what’s been said, other times they read as more of an extension of what’s already been stated. The couplet can be referred to as a “coda”.
The Petrarchan volta occurs within Petrarchan sonnets. These sonnets are marked by a specific rhyme scheme. The first part of the poem, known as the octave, is eight lines long. It follows a pattern of ABBAABBA. The second set oiliness the sestet, its rhyme varies. It could rhyme CDCDCD, CCCDDD, CDEEDC, or several other variations. Instead of before the last two lines as in the Shakespearean sonnet, the turn happens between the octave and the sestet in the Petrarchan sonnet. The sestet often solves a problem presented in the octave or completes it in some way.
Examples of Volta in Poetry
Example #1 Time does not bring relief; you all have lied by Edna St. Vincent Millay
This is a fourteen-line sonnet that is structured in the common form of a Petrarchan sonnet. This means that it can be separated into two sets of four lines or quatrains, which combine together to form an octave. There is also a final set of six lines, also known as a sestet. The first part of the poem begins with this speaker chastising her listeners for lying to her. They told her that any pain she feels, on account of a lost lover, would fade away in time. She is angry because this has not come close to happening.
Take a look at these lines from the second half of the poem:
There are a hundred places where I fear
To go,—so with his memory they brim.
And entering with relief some quiet place
Where never fell his foot or shone his face
I say, “There is no memory of him here!”
And so stand stricken, so remembering him.
Millay uses the second half of the poem, after the volta, to outline why her speaker’s emotions have made it hard for her to function in the world. The heartbroken speaker does her best to find a place where she can get some relief. This proves to be impossible though as the memories of her ex-lover are everywhere. They are more attached to her own being than they are to a physical location.
Example #2 The World by Christina Rossetti
‘The World’ is a fourteen-line sonnet that is contained within one block of text. As is traditional with Petrarchan/Italian sonnets, ‘The World’ is separated into one set of eight lines, or octave and one set of six, or sestet. The poem depicts the tempting, beautiful hours of daytime as an erotic temptation comparable to that which faced Adam and Eve.
The poem begins with the speaker stating that during the day the world “woos” her. She is taken in by the softness and fairness, or beauty, of the scenes. Then night comes and everything changes. The landscape is transformed and she is confronted with everything “Loathsome and foul.”Take a look at how Rossetti concludes the poem with the final sestet:
By day she stands a lie: by night she stands
In all the naked horror of the truth
With pushing horns and clawed and clutching hands.
Is this a friend indeed; that I should sell
My soul to her, give her my life and youth,
Till my feet, cloven too, take hold on hell?
Rossetti changes the meaning of the poem by providing additional details that alter the preceding octave. She begins by stating that the daytime is a lie. Everything that the speaker, and everyone else experiences, from the flowers to the fruits is put on. It is the night that is the truth. It is “naked” and horrible and to the speaker, much more honest. The final lines form a rhetorical question. Rossetti’s speaker is predicting what the future would look like if she gave into day’s temptations. Eventually, she’d end up with “cloven” feet like the devil, and be pulled straight into hell.