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Sunday 21 September 2014

The sonnet: Shakespeare and his 'little songs'

They are no longer on the school curriculum but Pat Hunt argues that the sonnets should still be treasured ...

Published 21/11/2007 | 00:00

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For many centuries before they learned to say it with chocolates, greeting cards and flowers, a sonnet was the medium of choice for unrequited gentleman lovers.

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The Italian poet, Petrarch (1304-74), was among the first to crystallise love, passion and romance into the fourteen-line verse with a formal rhyme scheme that derives its name from the word 'sonetto', meaning a 'little song'.

Petrarch wrote some 360 sonnets dedicated to his true love, Laura, a young woman he saw but once, with whom he never had a conversation, and who died young.

Like Petrarch and Laura, the names of Dante (1265-1321) and Beatrice will be forever linked. Dante probably saw Beatrice only twice in his life, the first time when he was eight years old. He glimpsed her again, several years later. Like Dante, Beatrice married, but died when she was only 24 years old.

The Petrarchan (Italian) sonnet was divided into two sections. The octet (eight lines) typically set forth an elaborate description of love, and the sestet (six lines) applied that depiction to the poet's beloved. The octet could instead state a problem, ask a question, or express an ideal. The sestet then resolves the problem, answers the question, or applies the ideal. A change of tone or mood occurs as the reader moves from octet to sestet.

The rhyming scheme of this sonnet form followed a pattern: ABBA, ABBA, CDE, CDE or other variation such as CDCDCD.

Shakespearean Sonnet

Sir Thomas Wyatt and the Earl of Surrey introduced the sonnet form to England, but adapted it to suit the English language. The need for so many repeated rhymes made the Petrarchan sonnet less suited to English, a language that has fewer rhymes available.

The modified English sonnet form develops a single theme through three groups of four lines (quatrains) and a rhyming couplet at the end that sums up the theme, states a truth or expresses a moral. The rhyming scheme follows the pattern ABAB, CDCD, EFEF, GG, and the metre is iambic pentameter: five pairs of unstressed and stressed syllables in each line.

Sonnet writing was all the rage in England when Shakespeare turned his hand to the form in the 1590s. He became the English sonnet's most famous practitioner, so much so that most people now refer to the 'Shakespearean' sonnet.

Shakespeare's sequence of 154 sonnets was published in 1609, possibly without the bard's permission. The inscription on the flyleaf dedicates the book to THE ONLY BEGETTER, a mysterious person called only Mr. W.H. and signed by T.T. -- Thomas Thorpe, the publisher.

As ever, nothing about Shakespeare is straightforward. Literary detectives date the sonnets to the 1590s, and debates still rage as to whether the sonnets are autobiographical or simply exercises in the sonnet form, the work of a word artist learning his trade.

Some say that Sonnets 1-126 are written to a young man, and that sonnets 127-154 relate to a woman who has come to be known as 'the dark lady'.

Is Shakespeare a gay icon? There is no reliable evidence for this assertion.

Is he flattering a patron, possibly the young Earl of Southampton? But he never names his male or female muses. Time, beauty, truth, and poetry itself are among the major concerns of his sonnets.

The sonnet has since become one of the most popular and enduring forms of English verse. Poets writing in English of almost every era have dabbled in the form.



Sonnet No. 18

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?

Thou art more lovely and more temperate:

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,

And summer's lease hath all too short a date:

Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,

And often is his gold complexion dimm'd;

And every fair from fair sometime declines,

By chance or nature's changing course untrimm'd;

But thy eternal summer shall not fade

Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;

Nor shall Death brag thou wander'st in his shade,

When in eternal lines to time thou growest:

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,

So long lives this and this gives life to thee.



This sonnet is probably the most popular of all the sonnets. The author is convinced that the eternal summer of the youth will be preserved forever in the poet's lines. It's interesting that the poem plays off praise against dispraise.

The summer's day is found to be lacking in so many respects (too short, too hot, too rough, sometimes too drab), but we are left with the abiding impression that his friend is in fact like a summer's day at its best, fair, warm, sunny, temperate, one of the darling buds of May, and that all his beauty has been wonderfully highlighted by the comparison.



Sonnet No. 60

Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore,

So do our minutes hasten to their end;

Each changing place with that which goes before,

In sequent toil all forward do contend.

Nativity, once in the main of light,

Crawls to maturity, wherewith being crown'd,

Crooked eclipses 'gainst his glory fight,

And Time that gave doth now his gift confound.

Time doth transfix the flourish set on youth

And delves the parallels in beauty's brow,

Feeds on the rarities of nature's truth,

And nothing stands but for his scythe to mow:

And yet to times in hope my verse shall stand,

Praising thy worth, despite his cruel hand.



The sonnet is a meditation on mortality and on the way poetry can transcend the ravages of time. Our minutes move ever forward as inevitably and irrevocably as the waves move forward, beating ceaselessly on a beach.

A child born in an ocean ('main') of light, like the sun, is faced with eclipse. Youth's beauty is destroyed by age. All things give way to time's cruel hand as he mows down beauty with his scythe.

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