Introduction to Shakespearean Sonnets

    The two main forms of the sonnet are the Petrarchan (Italian) and the Shakespearean (English).  Sonnets had been glorified by Petrarch in Italy more than 200 years before English poets even knew about them. William Shakespeare's first and second years in London were spent writing in the Petrarchan style. The Petrarchan sonnet has an eight-line stanza, or octave, and six-line stanza, or sestet. The octave has two quatrains, rhyming abba, abba, but avoiding a couplet; the first quatrain gives the theme, and the second develops it. The sestet is built on two or three different rhymes; the first three lines reflect on the theme, and the last three lines bring the whole poem to an end.

It differs from the Petrarchan sonnets in that it is divided into three quatrains, each rhymed differently, with an independently rhymed couplet at the end.  The rhyme scheme of the English sonnet is abab, cdcd, efef, gg. Each quatrain takes a different appearance of the idea or develops a different image to express the theme.  All of Shakespeare's 154 sonnets were in this form except for the poems he wrote earlier in life.  The sonnets appear to extend from 1593 or 1594 until within a few years of their actual publication in 1609.  His cycle is quite unlike the other sonnet sequences of his day, notably in its idealization of a young man (rather than a sonnet lady) as the object of praise, love, and devotion and in its portrait of a dark, sensuous, and sexually promiscuous mistress (rather than the usual chaste and aloof blond beauty).  Nor are the moods confined to what the Renaissance thought were those of the despairing Petrarchan lover: they include delight, pride, melancholy, shame, disgust, and fear. Shakespeare's sequence suggests a story, although the details are vague, and there is even doubt whether the sonnets as published are in the correct order.  One hundred and one sonnets were written to a young man.  These have variety of themes, such as the beauty of the loved one; destruction of beauty; competition with a Rival Poet; despair about the absence of a loved one; and reaction toward the young man's coldness. 




So oft have I invoked thee for my Muse, (A)

And found such faire assistance in my verse, (B)

As every Alien pen hath got my use, (A)

And under thee their poesy disperse. (B)

Thine eyes, that taught the dumb on high to sing, (C)

And heavy ignorance aloft to flie, (D)

Have added feathers to the learned's wing, (C)

And given grace a double majestie. (D)

Yet be most proud of that which I compile, (E)

Whose influence is thine and born of thee, (F)

In others' works thou dost but mend the style (E)

And arts with thy sweet graces graced be. (F)

But thou art all my art, and dost advance (G)

As high as learning my rude ignorance. (G)


Sonnet 78 (above) is typical of Shakespeare's use of the English form of the sonnet with its rhyme scheme of abab cdcd efef gg. In sonnet 78, the first few lines reflect on the theme of his writings, and the last two lines bring the sonnet to a conclusion. This sonnet clearly shows that Southhamptons (another poet who later became a rival) is giving help to one or more rivals.             


Two Main Forms of Sonnets


(1) Shakespearean Sonnets

A Shakespearean sonnet has three quatrains and a couplet, and rhymes abab cdcd efef gg. A Shakespearean sonnet frequently introduces a subject in the first quatrain, expands it in the second, and once more in the third, and concludes in the couplet.


(2) Italian (or Petrarchan) sonnets

An Italian sonnet is composed of an octave, rhyming abbaabba, and a sestet, rhyming cdecde or cdcdcd, or in some variant pattern, but with no closing couplet. In both types, the content tends to follow the formal outline suggested by rhyme linkage, giving two divisions to the thought of an Italian sonnet and four to a Shakespearean one. The Italian sonnet develops and idea through eight lines and then pauses, creating a turn or volta, before the concluding six. 


In Shakespeareˇ¦s sonnets certain motifs are evident:

Sonnet 1 to 17:

Celebrates the beauty of a young man and urges him to marry so as to propagate and preserve that beauty.

Sonnet 18 to 126:

The subsequent long sequence focuses on (probably) the same ideal young man, developing as a dominant motif the transience and destructive power of time, countered only by the force of love and friendship and the permanence of poetry.

Sonnet 127 to 154:

Focus on the so-called Dark Lady as a tempting but degrading object of desire. Some sonnets (like 144) intimate a love triangle involving the speaker, the male friend, and the woman; others take note of a rival poet (sometimes identified as George Chapman or Christopher Marlowe).


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