Shakespearean Sonnets vs. Spenserian Sonnets

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      Spenser and Shakespeare both speak of love in their sonnets. They differ, however, in rhyme scheme that Spenser’s Amoretti sonnets were written for a woman who would not return his love until much time had passed, while Shakespeare wrote for loves that were won, though sometimes they had quarrels or obstacles. Spenser’s chronicle unrequited love that finally has a triumphant ending while Shakespeare’s chronicle moments in various requited (returned) loves. In Spenser’s Amoretti Sonnet 18, the theme is the hard heart of Spenser’s beloved that loves him not and will not let his “long entreaty soften her hard hart”. In Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18, the theme is a comparison. The beauty of nature that fades under “Rough winds (that) shake the ... buds of May” and the sun’s heat, that “too hot the eye of heaven shines” is compared to the beloved’s beauty that, in opposition to nature’s beauty, will not fade (“But thy eternal summer shall not fade”) but instead will “in eternal lines to time” grow in beauty.

      The difference in temperament between Spenser and Shakespeare is revealed in the rhyme scheme each preferred. Spenser was a poet of elegance who looked back at other poets, Chaucer especially; and who wanted his readers to know that he was writing in the grand poetic tradition - whereas Shakespeare was impishly forward looking, a Dramatist first and a Poet second, who enjoyed turning tradition and expectation on its head, surprising his readers (as all Dramatists like to do) by turning Patrar chan expectations upside down. Spenser elegantly wrote within the Petrarchan tradition and was not out to upset any apple carts. Even his choice of vocabulary, as with eek, was studiously archaic even in his own day. Spenser’s sonnet lacks the drama of Shakespeare’s. Rather than withholding the couplet until the end of the sonnet, lending a sort of climax or denouement to the form, Spencer dilutes the effect of the final couplet by introducing two internal couplets prior to the final couplet. While Spencer s syntactic and thematic development rarely emphasizes the internal couplets, they are registered by the ear and so blunt the effect of the concluding couplet. There is also less variety of rhyming in the Spenserian sonnet than in the Shakespearean sonnet. The effect is of less rigor and momentum and greater lyricism, melodiousness and grace. The rhymes elegantly intertwine not only the quatrains but the octave and sestet (brackets on left). Without being Italian (Petrarchan) the effect which the Spenserian sonnet produces is more Italian — or at minimum a sort of hybrid between Shakespeare’s English sonnet and Pertrarch’s Italian model.

      Spenser wrote all of his sonnets in iambic pentameter. He takes fewer risks than Shakespeare. He is less inclined to flex the meter the way Shakespeare does. For instance, in sonnet 145, Shakespeare is willing to have the reader treat 'heaven as a monosyllabic word (heau’n), Spencer treats heaven is disyllabic. Their different treatment of the word might reflect a difference in their own dialects. Shakespeare took a more flexible approach to meter and pronunciation — less concerned than Spenser with metrical propriety. Shakespeare, in all things, was a pragmatist, Spenser, an idealist - at least in his poetry. In respect of structure and techniques Spenser is strongly regular. It is thoroughly in keeping with 15th and 16th century poetic practice (and with Spenser especially) to pronounce words as disyllabic, such as ‘wash.ed’ and ‘wip.ed’. Spenser was a traditionalist. Figurative use of language is less in Spenser. Shakespeare was much more the intellectual. Nothing in Spenser’s sonnets compares to the brilliant rhetorical figures used by Shakespeare. Shakespeare was a virtuoso on many levels.

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