Shakespearean Sonnet

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To understand poetry is to understand the figurative and the literal, the imaginative and the formal. The form into which a poet puts his words is always something of which the reader must make a conscious note. When a poet chooses to work within a strict form, the form and its structure creates part of what the poet is attempting to say. There are many forms of poetry with which a poet could convey his words to the world. One of the most well known of all the verse forms is the sonnet.

A sonnet is a fourteen line poem in iambic pentameter with a carefully patterned rhyme scheme. There are certain important qualities common to the sonnet form which should be noted. Its defined restrictions make it a challenge to the poet and demand a certain amount of technical skill. A musical tone is created by the set rhyme patterns occurring regularly within the short space of fourteen lines, having a pleasant effect on the ear of the reader.

Because of these rhythmic effects, sonnets have been considered the poems of music and love. As with most poetry, when creating a sonnet poets often place emphasis on exactness and perfection of expression. This is not to say that rules are written in stone. The octave and sestet division is not always kept; the rhyme-scheme is often varied. The poet of course has complete reign of artistic expression. Rules are molded and changed, but within limits. No Italian sonnet for example allows more than five rhymes.

The sonnet as a form was developed in Italy in the thirteenth century. It is thought to have been invented around the year 1200 by the poet Giacomo da Lentino. The word sonnet derives from the Italian word for a little song, sonetto. The Italian sonnet is often named for the Italian poet Francesco Petrarch who lived from 1304 ? 1374. In the fourteenth century, Petrarch wrote numerous sonnets and worked with the sonnet form. His work with the sonnet helped create the form we have today. The fourteen lines of a sonnet are broken into an octave, or octet, and a sestet. The octet usually rhymes abbaabba, abbacddc or although rarely, abababab. The sestet may rhyme xyzxyz or xyxyxy, or one of the many variations possible using only two or three rhyming sounds. The octet of the Italian sonnet is usually used to create and develop a subject or character. The sonnet then executes a turn at the beginning of the sestet, meaning that the sestet must in some way release the tension created in the octave (Bugeja, 281). On this division of the Italian sonnet Charles Gayley wrote: "The octave bears the burden; a doubt, a problem, a reflection, a query, an historical statement, a cry of indignation or desire, a vision of the idea. The sestet eases the load, resolves the problem or doubt, answers the query, solaces the yearning, realizes the vision." (Levin, lxxiii) Therefore it might be said that the octave presents the narrative, states the proposition or raises a question; the sestet drives home the narrative by making an abstract comment, applies the proposition, or solves the problem (Fuller, xxxi).

In the English court of Henry VIII, a group of poets arose who would make significant contributions to the development of English literature (Levin, lxi). The sonnet was introduced into English poetry in the early 16th century by Sir Thomas Wyatt who lived from 1503 to 1542. He translated Petrarchan sonnets from Italian into English. Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey was an associate of Wyatt and shares with him the credit for introducing the sonnet form to England. Both Wyatt and Howard were important as early modifiers of the Italian form. Gradually the Italian sonnet pattern was changed and since Shakespeare attained fame for the greatest poems of this modified type his name has often been given to the English form (Bugeja, 283). Thus the Shakespearean sonnet emerged.

Instead of being divided into the octave and sestet, this sonnet characteristically has four divisions: three quatrains, each with a rhyme-scheme of its own, and a rhymed couplet to close the poem. Thus the typical rhyme-scheme for the Shakespearean sonnet is abab cdcd efef gg. The Shakespearean sonnet has a wider range of possible variables than the Italian sonnet. The most common pattern introduces an idea in the first quatrain, complicates it in the second, complicates it further in the third, and resolves the entire idea in the final couplet.

Among the most famous sonneteers in England have been Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, and D. G. Rossetti. With their interest peeked in this poetic form, certain poets have written a series of linked sonnets dealing with some unified subject. Such series are called sonnet sequences. Some of the most famous sonnet sequences in English literature are those by Shakespeare who wrote 154 sonnets to make up his sequence.

It is apparent that this form would attract writers of great technical skill who are fascinated with intellectual puzzles. Poets of the sonnet seem especially intrigued by the complexity of human emotions, which become tangled when dealing with the sonnet's traditional subjects, love and faith. The couplet at the end is usually a commentary on the previous, a short and concise close. Although its rules of order and arrangement might seem limiting, the Shakespearean sonnet was actually a challenging "proving ground" for poets as they tested their poetic capabilities before branching off into other forms (Levin, lxvi). It required the sort of discipline that prepared them for more creative, original works. In polishing their own writing and technique, they also proved English to be a fit language for poetry (Levin, lxii).

Although the Shakespearean and the Italian types of sonnet may seem quite different, in actual practice they are frequently hard to tell apart. Both forms break between lines eight and nine; the octave in the Italian can often be broken into two quatrains, like the English; and its sestet frequently ends in a final couplet. In addition, many Shakespearean sonnets seem to have a turn at line nine and another at the final couplet; and if a couplet closes an Italian sonnet, it is usually because the poet wanted the succinct effect more characteristic of the Shakespearean form (Fuller, xxxii). It is important for the reader to pay close attention to punctuation at the end of the lines, especially at lines four, eight, and twelve, and to connective words like and, or, but, as, so, if, then, when, or which at the beginnings of lines, especially lines five, nine, and thirteen (Bugeja, 282). Edmund Spencer wrote a sonnet sequence entitled Amoretti. The following is the end of the first quatrain and the entire second quatrain from one of these poems.

[. . .] But harder grows the more I her entreat? Or how comes it that my exceeding heat Is not delayed by her heart-frozen cold; But that I burn much more in boiling sweat, And feel my flames augmented manifold? [. . .] In this sonnet and all others, the punctuation is important in deciphering the true meaning and form of the work portrayed by the poet.

Each type of sonnet was designed to help convey a certain topic or situation from the poet to the audience, using rhyme scheme and structure to enhance the message. The form of the writing creates a foundation for the poet?s own creative expression. In this way literature is linked throughout the ages and countries. By deciphering the formal qualities of a poem, the reader can catch a glimpse of what the poet attempted to portray when writing his work.

Works Cited Bugeja, Michael J. The Art and Craft of Poetry. Ohio:Writer?s Digest Books, 2001.

Fuller, John. Sonnets. Spain: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Levin, Phillis. The Penguin Book of the Sonnet: 500 Years of a Classical Tradition in English. New York: Penguin Books, 2001.