A turn of thought or argument in poetry is called the volta. It is a rhetorical shift. In some ways, it is a dramatic change in emotions or thoughts that the poet is expressing in the poem. Different poets and critics have named it differently. Some call ‘volta’ as ‘turn’ to maintain simple terminology. A critic John Ciardi calls it ‘fulcrum’ and another calls it ‘the center.’ It has various other names such as ‘swerve’ or ‘focus’ or ‘emotional pitch’.
There are several types of ‘volta’. It could be ironic as it reverses the meanings. It could be emblematic (symbolic), concessional, retrospective or argumentative. It mostly occurs in haikus, sijos, and sonnets.
Major Types of Volta
There are two major types of volta. The first is the Petrarchan volta that occurs in Petrarchan sonnets. The Italian poet Petrarch has used this type of volta in his sonnets. As a poet projects the subject of the sonnet in the first quatrain, he makes it complicated in the second and completes it at the start of the second part of the sonnet. It is here that the turn or volta is inserted to resolve that problem.
The second major type is used by Shakespeare and is called the Shakespearean volta. It happens in quatrains instead of at the end of the sestet. In other words, the octave-sestet combination has been broken by the use of three equal quatrains. It happens by the third quatrain and gives a concise judgment or terseness of the issue discussed in the poem. It is also called “coda” that can present the preceding argument in many ways, such as the summary or extension of it.
Examples in Literature
London, 1802 by William Wordsworth
Milton! Thou shouldst be living at this hour:
England hath need of thee: she is a fen
Of stagnant waters: altar, sword, and pen,
Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower,
Have forfeited their ancient English dower
Of inward happiness. We are selfish men;
Oh! Raise us up, return to us again;
And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power.
Thy soul was like a Star, and dwelt apart;
Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea:
Pure as the naked heavens, majestic, free,
So didst thou travel on life’s common way,
In cheerful godliness; and yet thy heart
The lowliest duties on herself did lay.
Here, William Wordsworth is calling Milton to come and see his times when English people and landscape are changing fast. However, after the sestet volta or turn is used when Wordsworth says, “Thy soul was like a Star, and dwelt apart.” This turns the theme away from the English landscape and people to the former poet, Milton. This is how the shift takes place in this sonnet.
Shakespeare’s 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.
The sonnet praises the beloved of the poet who has beautiful eyes, red lips, and rosy cheeks. The whole sestet and octave continue with the praise of the poet’s beloved. However, the volta comes in the second last line when Shakespeare says, “And yet by heaven I think my love as rare.” This volta comes at the end as it shows the poet has taken a turn to show his sincerity instead of showering praise on his beloved.
Dusk by Rae Armantrout
Spider on the cold expanse
of glass, three stories high
and so purely alone.
I’m not like that!
This short poem by Rae Armantrout shows that volta has played an important role in clarifying its meanings. It is “and so purely alone,” which has struck a rare note about the poet that he is not alone or lonely like the spider. This is an ironic turn or volta.
Shell by Harriet Brown
I found it in the wash, the orange
shell I picked up on the beach
that last time. One of my girls—
the one named after you—
must have found it in my room
and wanted it. Clean calcareous
curve, a palm open to nothing,
reeking of sunshine
and your death. For years
I didn’t know what to do with it.
You would have liked
this story: how a child
slips grief into a careless pocket.
Breaks it to pieces. Lets it go
The poem shows how the poet handles the grief of his dead daughter with the help of a shell. He states where he found that shell. It made it to his table in his room, and one of his girls liked it. However, she breathed her last. One day the poet recalls his dead daughter saying, ‘You would have liked it’ telling the readers the whole story. This verse has shown the shift in the poem that suddenly awakens the readers from his stupor of reading such a heart touching story.
Functions of Volta
As a volta is a turn or ‘turning’. It means an abrupt or sudden turn in thoughts or arguments. It makes the readers aware of the main thoughts and its likely conclusion in the sonnet or the poem. It makes the readers awakened from the main story and pay attention to the conclusion. It also works as a sudden awakening for the readers.