Shakespearean Sonnets: Definition, Structure and Example

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      While introducing sonnet in English, Elizabethan poets Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542) and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (1516-1547) were deeply dependent upon the Italian sonnets of Petrarch, French sonnet of Ronsard and few others. Their sonnets were some translations of the Petrarch et al. While Wyatt introduced the sonnet into English, it was Surrey who developed the rhyme scheme - ABAB.CDCD.EFEF.GG - which now characterizes the English sonnet. The sonnets composed by Wyatt and Surrey were first published in Richard Tottel’s Songes and Sonnets, better known as Tottel’s Miscellany (1557).

      It was, however, Sir Philip Sidney’s (1554-86) sequence Astrophel and Stella (1591) that started the English vogue for sonnet sequences. The next two decades saw sonnet sequences by William Shakespeare (1564-1616), Edmund Spenser (152-99), Michael Drayton (1563-1631), Samuel Daniel (1562-1619), Fulke Greville (1554-1628), William Drummond of Hawthornden (1585-1649), and many others. John Donne (1572-1631) had little patience for the conventions of secular love; he wrote with equal passion of romantic love and religious faith and employed the sonnet accordingly, with intensity and wit. The religious sonnets of George Herbert (1593-1633), like those of Donne, come as a refreshing break from Elizabethan convention and subject matter. These sonnets were all essentially inspired by the Petrarchan tradition, and generally treat of the poet’s love for some woman, with the exception of Shakespeare’s sequence of 154 sonnets.

      Among all the sonneteers, Shakespeare has practiced and popularized English sonnets in such manner that no other sonneteers in English literature can be compared to him especially in respect of groundbreaking subjects, themes, structures and even the quantity of sonnets. The form is often named after Shakespeare, not because he was the first to write in this form but because he became its most famous practitioner. The form consists of fourteen lines structured as three quatrains and a couplet. The third quatrain generally introduces an unexpected sharp thematic or imagistic ‘turn’, the volta. In Shakespeare’s sonnets, however, the volta usually comes in the couplet, and usually summarizes the theme of the poem or introduces a fresh new look at the theme. Among three quatrains (four lines in a group) and a concluding couplet (two rhymed lines), the problem is usually developed in the first three quatrains, each quatrain with a new idea growing out of the previous one. Sometimes the first two quatrains are devoted to the same thought, resembling to the octave of the Petrarchan sonnet, and followed by a similar volta. Most strikingly unlike the Petrarchan version, the Shakespearean sonnet is brought to a punchy resolution in the epigrammatic final couplet. With only a rare exception, the meter is iambic pentameter. To instantiate an English sonnet, we can refer to a sonnet written by Shakespeare:

Sonnet 116

Let me not to the marriage of true minds (A)
Admit impediments, love is not love (B)
Which alters when it alteration finds, (A)
Or bends with the remover to remove. (B)
O no, it is an ever fixed mark (C)
That looks on tempests and is never shaken; (D)
It is the star to every wand’ring bark, (C)
Whose worth’s unknown although his height be taken. (D)
Love’s not time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks (E)
Within his bending sickle’s compass come, (F)
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, (E)
But bears it out even to the edge of doom: (F)
If this be error and upon me proved, (G)
I never writ, nor no man ever loved. (G)

      Shakespeare has composed 154 sonnets, among which the first 126 sonnets are addressed to a young man addressed as “Fair Youth”; the last 28 to a woman addressed as “Dark Lady”. In 1609, a collection of Shakespearean sonnets was printed by Thomas Thorpe, who dedicated the volume to a certain “Mr. W.H.” as being “the onlie begetter” of the sonnets (Albert 1999: 96). It is presumed that “Mr. W.H.” was William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke. Although, sonnets No. 1-126 are addressed to a young man called the “Fair Youth” but broadly speaking, there are branches of theories concerning the identity of “Mr. W.H.”: those that take him to be identical to the youth, and those that assert him to be a separate person as Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton. William Herbert (the Earl of Pembroke) is seen by many as the most likely candidate, since he was also the dedicatee of the First folio of Shakespeare’s works. However, Thorpe might have unlikely addressed a lord as “Mr”, and thus “Mr. W.H.”. On the other hand, about Henry Wriothesley (the Earl of Southampton) many have argued that “W.H.” is Southampton’s initials reversed, and that he is a likely candidate as he was the dedicatee of Shakespeare’s poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. Southampton was also known for his good looks, and has often been argued to be the Fair Youth of the sonnets; however, the same reservations about “Mr” also apply here.

      About the identity of the dedicatee of the second folio (sonnet 127- 154), it is assumed that the “Dark Lady” may be Mary Fitton, who was very fair; but she probably did not exist at all. Because numerous sonneteers intentionally used to apostrophize a lovely and fickle mistress, as a rule quite imaginary and it may be that Shakespeare was also following the custom of the period. The Dark Lady sequence (sonnets 127-154) distinguishes itself from the Fair Youth sequence by being overtly sexual in its passion. Among these, sonnet 151 has been characterized as “bawdy” and is used to illustrate the difference between the spiritual love for the Fair Youth and the sexual love for the Dark Lady. The distinction is commonly made in the introduction to modern editions of the sonnets. The Dark Lady is so called because the poems make it clear that she has black hair and dun-colored skin. As with the Fair Youth, there have been many attempts to identify her with a real historical individual. Lucy Negro, Mary Fitton, Emilia Lanier, Elizabeth Wriothesley, and others have been suggested.

      The Rival Poet’s identity also remains a mystery. They are supposed to be Christopher Marlowe, George Chapman, or an amalgamation of several contemporaries. However, there is no hard evidence that the character had a real-life counterpart. The speaker sees the Rival as competition for fame, coin and patronage. The sonnets most commonly identified as the Rival Poet group exist within the Fair Youth sequence in sonnets 78-86. However, in addition to Shakespeare’s monumental sequence, the Astrophel and Stella sequence by Sir Philip Sydney stands as one of the most important sonnet sequences of this period in English literature. Sonnets were also written during the height of classical English verse, by Dryden and Pope, among others, and written again during the heyday of English Romanticism, when Wordsworth, Shelley, and particularly John Keats created wonderful sonnets. Today, the sonnet remains the most influential and important verse form in the history of English poetry.

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