The Sonnet Form

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Most people know the word “sonnet” but few know what a sonnet actually is, and the word often seems to mean no more than “love poem.”  We even find it appearing in songs such as Irving Berlin’s “Easter Parade” (1933) in which the young man sings that he could “write a sonnet about your Easter bonnet.”  (This is appropriate, in a way, since the word, “sonnet,” means “little song.”)  Nonetheless, the sonnet is a particular kind of poem—even though there are variations on the form—and although early sonnets are about love, most of the later ones are not.  As definitions become relaxed they say less and less about more and more, so I am going to be fairly restrictive:  a sonnet is a fourteen-line poem, typically with eleven syllables per line in Italian, twelve in French, and ten in English.  They are almost always self-contained, and almost always have a topic/comment structure in which a subject is developed at the beginning and commented on in some way at the end.  According to this point of view, poems such as Hopkins’s “God’s Grandeur” and “The Windhover,” which have the topic/comment structure but fewer or more lines, are not sonnets but poems modeled after them.


The sonnet originated in Sicily in the 13th century and attained the present Italian Sonnet form in the poems of Guitone d’Arezzo.  This is the form used by Petrarch and Dante, and it is often misleadingly called a “Petrarchan sonnet” because Petrarch did so much to make it famous.  If you assign a new letter to each rhyming sound at the ends of the fourteen lines you will produce a rhyme scheme.  The Italian sonnet’s rhyme scheme is [abba abba cde cde], the first eight lines being called the octave [oct-eight] and the last six lines being called the sestet [ses-six].  The octave can be seen as being made up of two quatrains [quatr-four], groups of four lines [abba] [abba], just as the sestet can be seen as being made up of two tercets [ter-thrice] groups of three lines [cde] [cde].  (The sestet is sometimes varied, [cdc] [dcd] being a common pattern, but in the classic form it never ends in a couplet, a pair of rhyming lines [ee, for example].


This form of sonnet was introduced into England in the 1530’s by Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503?-1542).  Wyatt had learned the form in Italy and he imitated some of Petrarch’s sonnets in English.  His friend, Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey, picked up the form from him, and with it he also picked up many of the artificial, Italian “courtly love” conventions that, unfortunately, dominated sonnet writing for a hundred years.  In this Petrarchan guise, the sonnet was a complaint to (or about) a lady (probably fictitious) who is lovely but cold and uncaring, which is a formula that can grow very tedious if it is not handled with great wit or deep feeling—and when hundreds of such poems are written, wit and feeling are in short supply.  Just to let you see how the form began, I will give you one of Wyatt’s translations of Petrarch.  You have to remember that this is Early Modern English and not always easy to read.  An even greater problem lies in the apparent awkwardness with which Wyatt handles the rhythms—Saintsbury talks about “wrenched accents”—and this means that our analysis is also something of a salvage operation.  I said “apparent” awkwardness because I think that the result is vigorous and effective.  Nonetheless, this may be the most difficult prosodic analysis you will ever have to participate in.  (Just compare Wyatt’s use of the language with that of his near-contemporaries, Davies and Spenser, whose poems are discussed next.)  And there is one more important point.  We have to find a reading appropriate to our time; in other words, we want to avoid pronunciations such as “harbór,” “campéth,” “bannér,” etc.


a             The long Love that in my thought I harbor,             I harbor/I keep

b             And in my heart doth keep His residence,

b             Into my face presseth with bold pretense

a             And there campeth, displaying His banner.

a             She that me learns to love and to suffer,                    me learns/teaches me

b             And wills that my trust and lust’s negligence             wills/insists

b             Be reined by reason, shame, and reverence,

a             With His hardiness takes displeasure.                          hardiness/persistence

c              Wherewith Love to the heart’s forest He fleeth,

d             Leaving His enterprise with pain and cry,

c              And there Him hideth, and not appeareth.               him hideth/he hides

c              What may I do when My Master feareth,

d             But in the field with Him to live and die?             the field/the field of battle

d              For good is the life ending faithfully.


I’ve taken some slight liberties with this to make it easier to understand.  Love is personified here as the Greek or Roman god of love, Amor or Cupid, so I have capitalized the references to him to remind you to treat him as a personage instead of the abstract idea.  What’s more, he is a personage engaged in a war for a woman’s heart.  Love’s banner is displayed in the lover’s face (he blushes).  But the woman who has taught the lover both love and suffering insists that he be reined in, and Love gives up, fleeing to hide in a forest (which is the lover’s heart).  But, if the lover is devoted to Love (his master), what is he to do but to take the field (of battle) and die?  After all, it is a soldier’s virtue to die being faithful.  (The Elizabethan use of “die” as a euphemism for sex is probably irrelevant, here.)


This is clearly an Italian sonnet, but it is hard to appreciate the rhymes; in part because the pronunciation of English has changed in the last 500 years.  Let’s look at a few of them.  An idealized representation of the rhymes of the octave is [-uhr, -ense, -ense, -uhr]: [ABBA], and this is repeated in both quatrains.  The idealized rhymes for the sestet are [-eth, -eye, -eth, -eth, -eye, -eye]: [cdccdd].  It is exactly like the Petrarchan model except for the couplet at the end:  Petrarch’s sestet rhymed [cdccdc].  The poem has a sort of topic/comment structure since the sestet marks a shift (volta) in the action of the poem: the commander of the army flees into the woods leaving the soldier with a quandary to face.


Now, we need to say a word or two about the poem’s prosodic construction.  (Prosody, the study of the mechanics of poetry, is also called metrics.)  There are, in general, ten syllables to the line, and these are grouped into pairs called iambic feet.  An iamb is a weakly stressed syllable followed by a more strongly stressed one so it has the rhythm: [dihDAH].  Since there are five iambic feet to the line, this is iambic pentameter [penta-five, meter-measure].


[and IN] [my HEART] [doth KEEP] [his RES] [-i-DENCE]


[be REINED] [by REA] [-son SHAME] [and REV] [-er-ENCE]


[but IN] [the FIELD] [with HIM] [to LIVE] [and DIE]


When you look at the other lines, it is clear that you can’t read them mechanically, as if they are rigidly constructed on the pattern, above.


George Saintsbury, a great student of metrics, believes that Wyatt is generally quite regular, and he accepts the first line, which he reads as [the LONG] [love THAT] [in MY] [thought I] [har-BOR], as evidence of that.  This is iambic pentameter, but there are other options that do less violence to the sense and feeling of the poem.  “Love” is a key-word:  why isn’t it stressed—and why is “my” given more importance than “thought.”?  These concerns aren’t 21st century concerns set against 16th century concerns.  They are fundamental concerns about the meaning of the lines and the means of expressing it.


Most great poetry shows variety in the use of the forms:  only the mediocre poet gives you a clock tick-tocking its way through the course of a poem.  Let’s see what a reading based upon the iambic pentameter framework might be like—and once again, we are not trying to resuscitate Wyatt’s use of the form in a scholarly way, nor trying to determine how 16th century poets understood their own metrical practice.   Our analysis should show us how the framework contributes to a reading that allows us to perform the poem effectively today.  This involves three things: understanding what is being said; responding to the feeling that is being expressed; and knowing how the poetic form works.  (Other choices are possible in some places, but very often there are no reasonable options.)  Read this aloud several times, slowly at first, paying attention to the marked stresses and the sense.


  • [the LONG] [LOVE] [that IN] [my THOUGHT] [i HAR–bor],
  • [and IN] [my HEART] [doth KEEP] [his RES] [-i-DENCE],
  • [IN-to] [my FACE] [PRESS-eth] [with BOLD] [pre-TENSE]
  • [AND] [THERE CAMP] [-eth dis] [PLAY-ing] [his BAN-ner].
  • [SHE that] [ ME LEARNS] [to LOVE] [and to] [SUF-fer]
  • [and WILLS] [that my TRUST] [AND] [ lust’s NEG] [-li-GENCE]
  • [be REINED] [by REA] [-son SHAME] and REV] [er-ENCE],
  • [WITH ] [HIS HARD] [-in-NESS] [TAKES dis] [-PLEAS-ure].
  • [WHERE-with] [LOVE] [ to the HEART’S] [FOR-est] [he FLEE-eth],
  • [LEAVE-ing] [his ENT] [-er-PRISE] [with PAIN] [and CRY],
  • [AND THERE] [him HID-eth] [AND] [NOT ap-] [PEAR-eth]:
  • [WHAT] [may i DO] [when MY] [MAS-ter] [FEAR-eth]
  • [BUT] [in the FIELD] [with HIM] [to LIVE] [and DIE]?
  • [for GOOD] [is the LIFE] [END-ing] [FAITH] [-ful-LEE].


In traditional English verse, any foot can be substituted for another as long as it harmonizes with the rhythmic pattern that has been established, and we have to remember that the lines are measured out by the feet. This analysis is a much greater hodge-podge of feet than one usually sees, but Wyatt’s flexibility with the form leaves us with problems to face in making an account of what is happening.  Let’s look at some of the substitutions.  In the first line, the second foot [LOVE] is a monosyllabic foot.  Such feet are always stressed.  It is clear that we shouldn’t read this line [the LONG] [love THAT] [in MY] [thought I] [har-BOR], so the question is:  what can we do early in the line to create an acceptable rhythm at the end?  Since “love” is a key-word, it makes perfect sense to stress it, and once it is stressed the other rhythms fall into place.   The last foot in the line is an amphibrach [dihDAHdih].  The second line is, as we have seen, unaltered iambic pentameter, but notice that it places emphasis on “in,” and this is another reason for preferring the reading I have given for the first line.  Now the two statements are in parallel:  [IN] my thoughts, and [IN] my heart.  This pattern is continued into line three where we have “Into my face.”  [IN-to] and [PRESS-eth] are trochaic feet (trochees) with the rhythm [DAHdih].


There are two new feet in line four, the spondee [DAHDAH], [THERE CAMP], and the pyrrhic [dihdih], [-eth dis].  While the spondee is used occasionally, the pyrrhic should be rare if you are analyzing the poem correctly.  We don’t have an option here.  Line six introduces a new foot, the anapaest [dihdihDAH]:  [that my TRUST].  Ordinarily, the function words (a, an, thee, in, of, and, or, etc.) do not bear a stress, but we do put a stress on them when speaking in a certain way.  In lines three and four love does two things to the lover:  he presses into his face and he camps.  And in line six the woman wants to rein in two things:  trust and negligence.  In each case we can stress the “and” to bring out that meaning.  We might also want to avoid the chiming of [my TRUST and LUST], another reason for stressing [AND].  Notice that I said ”we can” stress the “ands.”  This is entirely a matter of judgment and feeling:  but remember that there is also lack of feeling and bad judgment!  In line nine we need a definite pause before the anapaest [to the HEARTS] in order to make the line work well, and we gain it by stressing “love.”


The most difficult lines to deal with are actually eleven and twelve.  Eleven wants to break down into a trochee followed by an ampibrach, [DAHdih] [dihDAHdih], and this is repeated to give us just four feet to the line:  [AND there] [ him HID-eth ] [AND not] [a-PEAR-eth].  Line twelve wants to break down into two dactyls followed by two trochees.  A dactyl is a foot with the rhythm [DAHdihdih], so this gives us:  [WHAT may i] [DO when my] [MAS-ter] [FEAR-eth].  We solve the problem in line eleven by stressing “there,” the place that Love is hiding—not an unreasonable thing to do.  We must also stress the second [AND] as well as the first.  We solve the problem in line twelve by stressing, “my,” which makes sense since it is almost part of a title:  “My Master.”  Of course, we could choose to read these lines, leaving these issues unresolved, and we can even rationalize this choice by breaking the lines up into different feet, a pyrrhic for [not a], for example, but this is just playing games with the brackets.  I prefer to read it as shown.  The last line appears to be very awkward.  To make it rhythmic we have to remember that [END-ing] one’s life well is what counts and it requires a stress.  Once we have stressed it, the line falls into place.


You will have noticed that I don’t recommend that you pronounce “faithfully” in line fourteen as “faithful-lie.”  You may sometimes find a poem in which you do have to keep what  you take to be the original pronunciation in order to preserve the sense of form, but it isn’t necessary at all here.  “Lie” and “lee” are slant rhymes, as are “played” and “plead,” “hid” and “had,” the vowel sounds being similar but not identical.  The use of such rhymes can be effective and shouldn’t be objected to out-of-hand.  The general rule, I think, should be to avoid doing anything that is outlandish in terms of modern pronunciation.  To do so is to put a barrier between ourselves and the poem.  (An important exception is the “–ed” ending, which must sometimes be stressed to preserve the rhythm.  Our own modern practice is highly varied for linguistic reasons:  “confid-ed,” “insist-ed,” and  “want-ed,” but not “call-ed” or “mov-ed.”)


Wyatt’s friend Surrey (1517-1547) adopted the sonnet form, but he developed a different rhyme scheme [abab cdcd efef gg] and so established the pattern of the English sonnet.  (In some ways this is more similar to the earliest form of the Italian sonnet, in which the octave alternated [a] and [b] rhymes.)  Just as the Italian sonnet misleadingly came to be called the Petrarchan sonnet, the English sonnet misleadingly came to be called the Shakespearean sonnet.  It became so popular that the Italian sonnet almost disappeared in England until being revived by Milton.  We will look at Shakespeare’s sonnets in a moment, but just to illustrate the English sonnet’s form—and to show that there were some who eventually rebelled against the Italianate courtly love tradition—I have chosen one of the Gulling Sonnets by Sir John Davies (1569-1626).  (A “gull” was both a trick and the dupe of a trick.)


1)   The sacred muse that first made Love divine         muse/goddess of inspiration,

2)   Hath made him naked and without attire;               attire/clothing

3)   But I will clothe Him with this pen of mine,

4)   That all the world His fashion shall admire:             that/so that

5)   His hat of hope, his band of beauty fine,                     band/collar or ruff

6)   His cloak of craft, his doublet of desire,                      doublet/a body garment

7)   Grief, for a girdle, shall about Him twine,             points/laces for attaching

.                                                                                                  the hose to the doublet

8)   His points of pride, His eyelet holes of ire,                 through eyelets

9)   His hose of hate, His codpiece of conceit,            codpiece/a genital pouch

10)  His stockings of stern strife, His shirt of shame,

11)  His garters of vainglory gay and slight,             vainglory/unwarranted glory

12)  His pantofles of passion I will frame;                         pantofles/shoes

13)  Pumps of presumption shall adorn his feet,

14)  And socks of sullenness exceeding sweet.


To really enjoy this poem you must think of the clothing you have seen in portraits of Henry VIII, and of the garb worn in movies with a sixteenth century setting.  It is cleverly done, dressing Love from head to toe in a way that epitomizes the complaining lover.  Each item of clothing is matched with an attribute that appears in the lover’s poem or characterizes it:  hope for the hat (head); beauty for the exaggerated ruff (a matter of fashion); etc.  Conceit for the codpiece is particularly telling!  (The hose were laced to the doublet, but there was—of necessity—an opening which was covered by a flap or pouch, the codpiece.  This was usually ornamented conspicuously, and was often much larger than needful.)  Throughout, alliteration is used to heighten the effect.  Alliteration is the similarity of consonant sounds, usually at the beginnings of words.  I have put it in parentheses below.  Thus, we have his “(c)loak of (c)raft” and his “(s)ocks of (s)ullenne(ss) ex(c)eeding (s)weet.”


The poem is extremely regular with only a few substitutions:  a monosyllabic foot and an anapaest at the beginning of the seventh line and a trochee at the beginning of the thirteenth.  Look at these and notice that they can both be described in the same metrical terms (as either a monosyllabic foot and an anapaest, or as a trochee and an iamb, though I think the monosyllabic foot is best).  “Pantofles” is pronounced rather like “pant-off-fulls.”  The “topic” is the first quatrain, the rest being the “comment,” which is really more of an enumeration than anything else.  (Notice how easy it is to read this poem compared with preceding one, and ask yourself what caused the difficulties we faced there.)


We have looked at two types of sonnets used by English poets.  Another is the Spenserian sonnet developed by Edmund Spenser (1552-1599).  It has the rhyme scheme [abab bcbc cdcd ee].  As you can see, this sacrifices one of the advantages of the English sonnet—the fact that you have seven different rhymes to work with instead of being limited to five.  That makes a difference because English—unlike Italian—doesn’t have the grammatical endings that are a part of the words–endings that unify the sounds and also make rhymes easier to come by.  (For example, Italian nouns and adjectives end in “o” and “a” in the singular, and “i” and “e” in the plural.)  The Spenserian sonnet is also like the Italian sonnet in that the quatrains are “intertwined,” linked by the ending and beginning rhymes of each of the quatrains.


Men call you fair, and you do credit it,              credit/believe

For that your self ye daily such do see:               for that/because; such do see/see it

But the true fair, that is the gentle wit                true fair/ having beautiful qualities

And virtuous mind, is much more praised of me.

For all the rest, however fair it be,

Shall turn to naught and lose that glorious hue:         naught/nothing

But only that is permanent and free                               that/the truly fair

From frail corruption, that doth flesh ensue.                flesh ensue/occur to the flesh

That is true beauty:  that doth argue you

To be divine, and born of heavenly seed,

Derived from that fair Spirit, from whom all true

And perfect beauty did at first proceed.

He only fair, and what he fair hath made;       fair hath made/has made truly fair

All other fair, like flowers, untimely fade.


The only real difficulty in this poem is in the syntax, which I have tried to sort out for you in the marginal notes.  It differs markedly from the other sonnets we have looked at in one important respect—the imagery is Christian rather than pagan—and in keeping with this it praises qualities of mind rather than physical beauty (although, of course, it agrees that she is beautiful).  There has always been a connection between the religious and the erotic; consider Bernini’s statue, St. Therese in Ecstasy, and the saying, “God is love,” which has frequently been exploited by poets.  (The tradition of courtly love made very deliberate use of this, and some scholars even believe that some Provençal love poetry was really about a religious “heresy” forced into hiding:  the religious masquerading as the erotic.)


You will notice that each quatrain can stand by itself, as can the final couplet.  However, the couplet works with the final quatrain so well—both being concerned with the divine—that we can regard the poem as having an octave and a sestet.  This sestet draws a conclusion from the matter related in the quatrains.  Consequently, the sonnet has a clear topic/comment structure, much more so than the Davies poem.


Now let’s look at Shakespeare’s Sonnets.  The collection of that name includes 154 poems, of which eleven or so, are memorable, and at least four of these are great.  You shouldn’t think it heresy to regard 143 of Shakespeare’s sonnets as being little better than the best work of most fine poets, if that: some, in fact, are mediocre.  To have written a handful of great sonnets puts one with the greatest of poets, and Shakespeare’s complete works leave no doubt that he falls into that category.  (It is a sad fact that many fine poets have never written even one great poem.)  At risk of opening myself to attack, I will give you my list of the best eleven, beginning with the one I like the most:  73, 18, 29, 71, 30, 97, 116, 55, 130, 33, 129.  (I think that most thoughtful readers will generally agree with me, perhaps shuffling the order a little here and there, and possibly raising up a poem I haven’t listed.)  In this article, however, I am most interested in talking about the form, so we will only look at 130, 73, 29, 97, and 98, together with a sonnet that actually occurs in the text of Romeo and Juliet:  the “Holy Palmers’ Kiss” sonnet.  (Only 98 and the “Holy Palmers Kiss” are not in the list given above.)



My mistress’s eyes are nothing like the sun;

Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;

If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;             dun/dusky, grayish brown

If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head:

I have seen roses damask’d, red and white,                       damasked/of rosy hue

But no such roses see I in her cheeks;

And in some perfumes there is more delight

Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks:

I love to hear her speak, yet well I know

That music hath a far more pleasing sound;

I grant I never saw a goddess go;

My mistress when she walks treads on the ground.

And yet by heaven I think my love as rare

As any she belied with false compare.


This is another poem that comments satirically on the courtly love tradition, particularly on the exaggerated comparisons (“false compare”) of the features of the loved one with coral, roses, snow, etc.  (When I was eight or ten, we had our own version of this sort of thing:  “your eyes are like pools—cess pools,” “your eyes are like stars—they come out at night,” etc.)  Shakespeare ironically turns the very falseness of such comparisons to his own ends, moving right back into the love poem tradition in the couplet; he thinks his loved one is as beautiful as any of those who are praised so extravagantly.  This is the comment of the topic/comment structure.  (It is interesting to note that Shakespeare is inverting the procedure used by Davies, who made a comment and followed it by a list—Shakespeare makes a list and follows it by a comment.)


Prosodically, there are no difficulties.  The second foot in the first line is an anapaest [-ress’s EYES].  The first foot of the second line is a trochee [COR-al], as is the first foot of the fifth [I have].  The fourth foot in line nine may well be a spondee [YET WELL].  And the second foot of the thirteenth line is an amphibrach [by HEAV-en].  (One could also say that third foot in the thirteenth line is an anapaest [-en i THINK], but that doesn’t really describe the rhythm as well.)  The main point I want to make about this poem is rhetorical rather than prosodic.  It is organized into single lines and pairs of lines.  The quatrains are there, but they barely function as quatrains.  Each line of the first quatrain functions by itself, which is why modern editors put colons and periods after them.  (The 1609 quarto edition punctuates the lines of the octave this way:  [comma, comma, colon, colon] [comma, comma, comma, period], and it is difficult for readers to get much help from that.)  The next two quatrains function in paired lines, and of course, the couplet functions that way.  In isolation, a pair of lines such as [I love to hear her speak yet well I know] [That music hath a far more pleasing sound] could be two lines of blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter).  The first quatrain is made of independent lines, and the others are made of independent couplets.



That time of year thou may’st in me behold

When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang

Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,

Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.

In me thou see’st the twilight of such day

As after sunset fadeth in the West,

Which by and by, black night doth take away,

Death’s second self that seals up all in rest.

In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire,

That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,

As the death-bed, whereon it must expire,

Consumed with that which it was nourished by.

This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong

To love that well, which thou must leave ere long.


The choirs are actually the part of the church itself which is appropriated to the singers.  “Bare ruined choirs,” of course, evokes the ruined churches that are scattered across England, destroyed by Henry VIII because they were Catholic.  The main point I want to make about this poem is that, unlike the preceding example, it functions as three quatrains and a couplet.  (The periods at the ends of these parts are the only periods in the 1609 quarto version.  Modern editors often prefer colons, treating these points just as pauses in the progression of the poem.)  Each of the quatrains develops a different image to make the same point.  The first two stem from the ancient comparison of the stages of human life, the first with the progress of the seasons and the second with the progress of the times of day.  We see the first in Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus when the Sphinx asks Oedipus the riddle:  “what is it that walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three legs in the evening.  The answer is a human being—who crawls as a child, walks upright in middle life, and uses a staff or cane in old age.  Night (and sleep) is “Death’s second self”:  blackness, stillness, cessation, and forgetting.  The third image makes the same point:  I am growing old, like the last embers of a fire which once was blazing.  The flames both nourished the fire and consumed the substance from which it was made.  Once again, the couplet is the comment in the topic/comment structure.



When in disgrace with Fortune and men’s eyes,   Fortune/Fortuna, goddess of fate

I all alone beweep my outcast state,

And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,       bootless/unprofitable

And look upon myself and curse my fate—

Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,

Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,

Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,            art/skill, scope/range of ability

With what I most enjoy contented least—

Yet in these thoughts my self almost despising,

Haply I think on thee, and then my state,                   haply/perchance

Like to the lark at break of day arising                         like to/is like

From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate:              sullen/dismal,                                                                                                                     heaven’s gate/the sky

For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings

That then I scorn to change my state with kings.


The punctuation in the 1609 Quarto is very chaotic.  The most significant changes I have made are to remove parentheses from around the eleventh line and to put a comma between “earth” and “sings.”  (Of course, the lack of genuine authority for the original punctuation and spelling leaves such matters to conjecture:  Shakespeare almost certainly had nothing to do with the preparation of the Quarto, which was a pirated edition.)  The lark is the skylark, a bird beloved by English poets, which flies up into the sky singing a beautiful song.


There are no prosodic difficulties in this poem.  Trochees are substituted for the first iamb in several places, such as [WISH-ing] and [FEA-tured] in lines five and six—and perhaps in line one.  (The substitution of an anapaest for the second foot in the third line seems “puzzling” to Stephen Booth, but it is quite straight-forward.)  I have chosen this poem primarily to show that it has a genuine octave/sestet division for the topic and comment.  The first eight lines serve to “beweep “his “outcast state.”  The last six tell us that the remembrance of his lover’s feelings for him banishes his cares.



How like a Winter hath my absence been

From thee, the pleasure of the fleeting year!

What freezings have I felt, what dark days seen!

What old December’s bareness everywhere!

And yet this time removed was Summer’s time,

The teeming Autumn big with rich increase        teeming/pregnant, fertile

Bearing the wanton burthen of the prime,        burthen/burden;  prime/springtime

Like widowed wombs after their lord’s decease:

Yet this abundant issue seemed to me                      issue/offspring

But hope of orphans and unfathered fruit,              but hope of/no more than (?)

For Summer and his pleasures wait on thee,

And thou away, the very birds are mute:                    mute/silent

Or if they sing, ‘tis with so dull a cheer

That leaves look pale, dreading the Winter’s near.



From you I have been absent in the Spring,

When proud, pied April, dressed in all his trim,              pied/parti-colored

Hath put a spirit of youth in every thing,

That heavy Saturn laughed and leapt with him.              Saturn/ the planet

Yet not the lays of birds, nor the sweet smell                     lays/songs

Of different flowers in odor and in hue,

Could make me any Summer’s story tell,

Or from their proud lap pluck them where they grew:     lap/the earth which
                                                                                                       nurtures the flowers

Nor did I wonder at the lily’s white,

Nor praise the deep vermillion in the rose;

They were but sweet, but figures of delight,

Drawn after you, you pattern of all those.

Yet seemed it winter still, and you away,

As with your shadow I with these did play.


Neither of these poems presents great prosodic difficulties.   There are the usual trochaic substitutions in sonnet 97, notably [BEAR-ing] in line seven and [AF-ter] in line eight.  Sonnet 98 is more complex.  The second foot in the third line must be an amphibrach [a SPIR-it].  This is much better than trying to “swallow up” a syllable, a disagreeable practice which is frequently recommended.  In line 5 the fourth foot [NOR the] must be a trochee, and this is appropriate to the sense as well as the rhythm.  Notice how the comma, the pause, and the trochaic substitution function together.  In line 6 the second and third feet are anapaests:  [the DIF] [-fer-ent FLOW] [-ers in O] [-dor AND] [in HUE].  Read this line carefully, giving each syllable its place, and then try it “swallowing up” syllables:  [the DIF] [fernt FLOW] [-ersn O] [-dor AND] [in HUE].  Isn’t it much better to give them their full value—much of the rhythmic beauty of the line actually depends on it, and that is not uncommon.


At first glance, sonnet 97 is extremely difficult to follow, largely because it is hard to discern how the three quatrains are related, especially with regard to time.  The first characterizes the loved one’s (a dear male friend’s) absence as being an emotional winter.  The first line of the second quatrain identifies the time of absence (“this time removed”) as being the summer in real time.  Autumn has now reached fulfillment, but there is no promise in it, for all happiness depends on the loved one’s presence.  The imagery throughout is based on fecundity and birth, and I suspect that “bareness” in the fourth line is a misreading for “barrenness,” which would be far more fitting.  “Teeming” in line six is “fertile.”  “Big with” suggests pregnancy (compare “great with child”).  “Wanton” in line seven suggests sexual activity.  “Wombs” in line eight is explicit.  “Issue” in line nine refers to offspring (compare the legal phrase “die without issue”).  And line ten has “orphaned” and “unfathered.”


So how does all of this fit together?  Your absence—perhaps physical, and certainly emotional—this summer has been a winter for me (a nice paradox) since you provide the pleasures of the year.   By implication it was in the springtime that we were together.  The autumn came bearing the fruits of the spring (the prime), but these seemed to me to be no more than orphans, “unfathered fruit,” without you.  The joys of summer (which I missed) depend on you, and when you are away, birds don’t sing (or sing dully), and winter looks to be imminent.  Notice that the joys of springtime have borne no fruit in autumn:  this isn’t as clear as it might be, but it does work.  (Perhaps this poem was in G.M. Hopkins’ mind when he wrote “I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.”  The imagery of the beginning lines is similar in character, and Hopkins is writing about his loss of the feeling of God’s presence.)


Sonnet 98 is generally regarded as continuing the thought of 97, and it records an absence during spring.  The difficulties here come more from the poem’s clumsiness—syntactic and otherwise—than anything else.  Sonnet 97 is a fine poem with striking imagery and strong expression of feeling; sonnet 98 is a mediocre poem with conventional imagery and no sense of real emotion.  It comes across as cute rather than profound.  The planet Saturn is associated astrologically with heaviness, and melancholy.  He is made, ironically, to dance and laugh with Spring, who is personified.  But the second quatrain tells us that neither the birds’ songs nor the sight and smell of the flowers could make the voice in the poem happy (“tell a Summer’s story”) or pick the flowers from the lap of the earth on which they grew.  Nor would he wonder at, or praise, the flowers, which are just sweet-smelling representatives of ideal (Platonic) delight.  The loved one is said to be pure delight, the ideal that they represent.  Then we have another paradox:  though it is spring, it is still winter (emotional winter), and the voice in the poem plays with flowers (representations of the loved one) just as he would play with the loved one’s shadow.  (This, too, is a Platonic parallel.)


I have included these two poems to show how the sense of one sonnet can be continued into another in a series.  Each is self-contained, but also contributes to the developing thought, rather like two paragraphs in an essay, each of which elaborates on the same idea.  If one were to be omitted you might not miss it, but the experience is potentially richer when both are present.  I have also included 98 so that you can see the difference between a splendid Shakespeare sonnet such as 73 or 29 and one that is more typical of the whole collection—but 96 is not the worst.


There are a number of sonnets in Shakespeare’s plays, but the cleverest is the “Holy Palmers’ Kiss” sonnet in Romeo and Juliet.  (It is one of my favorites!)  Romeo Montague has fallen in love (at a distance) with Juliet, the daughter of Capulet.  She has sworn never to marry.  There is a potentially deadly feud between the two houses, and yet Romeo has gone to a masked ball at Capulet’s, vowing, “I’ll watch her place of stand, and, touching hers, make blessed my rude hand.”  He approaches her at the party and takes her hand, and after the following exchange of lines he kisses her, thus setting the tragedy into motion.


Romeo:    If I profane with my unworthiest hand

This holy shrine, the gentle fine is this:

My lips, two blushing pilgrims ready stand

To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.

Juliet:     Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,

Which mannerly devotion shows in this—

For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,

And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.

Romeo:   Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?

Juliet:      Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.

Romeo:   O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do,

They pray:  grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.

Juliet:     Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake.

Romeo:  Then move not while my prayer’s effect I take.


Anyone who has ever written a sonnet knows how hard it is—but for Shakespeare it appears to be effortless.  There are no prosodic problems in this poem which rhymes [abab cbcb dede ff].  Pilgrims are people who make a pilgrimage to a shrine.  Palmers are pilgrims who have been to the Holy Land and returned with a palm branch.  The saints referred to are statues of saints at shrines.  Romeo says that her hand is a shrine, and that his lips are pilgrims that will brush away the offense if his hand has profaned it.  Juliet replies that his hand has merely shown “mannerly devotion,” that pilgrim’s hands may touch the hands of saints, and furthermore, that the palmers’ “kiss” is to take hands, palm to palm—which they have already done.  He suggests that both saints and palmers have lips, and she replies that they must use them in prayer.  He asks that they let lips do what hands do:  hands pray (placed together palm to palm as in the famous Dürer drawing).  He asks that she give in for prayer’s sake.  She replies that though they grant prayers, saints do not move.  And he finishes by telling her not to move while he receives the effect of his prayers.  This is complicated, clever, and amusing.


Notice how important it is to pause at the colon [my punctuation] in line twelve:  [they PRAY]:[GRANT thou] [lest FAITH] [TURN to] [des-PAIR].  “Grant thou” belongs to the following statement.  Again, the punctuation, the pause, and the trochaic substitution work together.  The most difficult part of the poem for a reader may be to disentangle the various parts of this line, but a good actor will make the meaning clear with the inflections of his voice.  Unfortunately, few people who read the play or hear it performed are likely to notice what Shakespeare has so cleverly done in writing a poem.


One reason for looking at this sonnet is the simple fact that it is not entirely self-contained, and this takes us back to our definition of the sonnet, itself.  This poem takes its meanings, in part, from the context supplied by the play (at the very least, it needs the indications of who is speaking).  A second reason for looking at it is the fact that it doesn’t have a topic/comment structure, another aspect of our definition.  In order to find that structure in the other poems we have looked at, we have had to be very flexible (one might even say, “creative”) in our notion of what constitutes either a topic or a comment, but there isn’t much we can do here.  In fact, the poet and critic John Crowe Ransom has actually said that Shakespeare’s sonnets are “ill constructed” in that the rhyme scheme requires that couplet is the comment!  Let’s look briefly at the final English sonnet type, and then we’ll return to these questions.


The terza rima sonnet is often said to have been invented by Shelley, although the English use of terza rima, itself, goes back to Chaucer’s “Complaint to His Lady.”  The first terza rima sonnet I have found is a rather dreadful poem in Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia, “Feed on My Sheep,” which was written before 1586.


First, a definition:  terza rima [third rhyme] is a chain of tercets, groups of three lines rhyming [aba bcb cdc, etc.].  It is the poetic form used by Dante in The Divine Comedy, and is sometimes said to have been invented by him.  It is also said to have been derived from the Provençal sirventes, and even to have been based on the early Sicilian antecedents of the sonnet.  Chaucer travelled to Italy in 1373 and probably learned the form there.  He has the Clerk in the Canterbury Tales praise Petrarch, who had written the Trionfi in terza rima, and he is likely to have read Dante.  The terza rima sonnet typically rhymes [aba bcb cdc ded ee].  Like the Italian sonnet it uses only five rhyme sounds and this means that it is somewhat harder to write than the English sonnet is.  In English, it has always been uncommon for reasons that I discuss in the essay on Shelley’s “Ode on the West Wind” on this site.


Just to show what this sonnet form is like, let’s look at the first stanza of Shelley’s poem.  There are five stanzas in all, each growing from the emerging context.


O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being,

Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead

Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,

Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,

Pestilence-stricken multitudes:  O thou,

Who chariotést to their dark wintery bed

The wingéd seeds, where they lie cold and low,

Each like a corpse within its grave, until

Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow

Her clarion o’er the dreaming earth, and fill

(Driving sweet buds like flocks to feed in air)

With living hues and odors, plain and hill:

Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere;

Destroyer and preserver; hear, oh hear!


I have omitted the usual spaces used to separate the tercets, have marked the accents on “chariotést” and “wingéd,”and have added a comma between “odors” and “plain” in the twelfth line.  This quatrain tells us that the wind will fill plain and hill with the hues and odors, so it does seem that some separation is needed : “hues and odors plain and hill” makes little sense.  Since the prosody is fully discussed in the essay mentioned above I will only suggest a reading for the third line:  [are DRIV] [-en like GHOSTS] [FROM an] [en-CHANT] [-er FLEE-ing].  The tendency to say [from AN] should be resisted.


This form has a faint resemblance to the Spenserian sonnet.  Remember its rhyme scheme?  I will just put parentheses around the parts we would have to omit to make it into a shortened terza rima sonnet:  [aba(b)bcb(c)cdc(d)ee].  Now we only need to add one more tercet [ded] to bring it back to fourteen lines.  It is clear that this form can be made to be self-contained, and it can also be given a topic/comment structure, so there is no reason (except an unreasonably rigid purism) to deny that it is a new sonnet form.  But that “purism” still needs to be explored.


Is there a “functional” sense of what a sonnet is (something related to the topic/comment structure) that really defines it, so much so that a poem lacking it cannot be a sonnet?  And is it essential that a sonnet be self-contained, a complete statement by itself?  To be very specific, can we reasonably say that the “Holy Palmers’ Kiss” poem is not a sonnet?  Can we reasonably insist that sonnets 97 and 98 are not sonnets because they are parts of a growing thread of exposition?  And if that example is badly chosen, what about these:  27 and 28; 44 and 45; 50 and 51; 57 and 58; 64 and 65; 71 and 72; 78, 79, and 80; 89 and 90; 91, 92, and 93; 94, 95, and 96; 100 and 101; 109 and 110; 111 and 112; or 113 and 114?  All of these also continue the sense from poem to poem.  What do we do if we have a one-hundred line poem which has a topic/comment structure, or a two line poem that has one?  It has even been argued that the terza rima sonnet’s division into five parts rather than four somehow prevents it from being a sonnet, but we have seen so much variety in the way that the lines are organized in the English sonnet that it is difficult to see what difference this can make.


All in all, isn’t it best to stay with the definition we started out with?  In English, a sonnet is a fourteen line poem in iambic pentameter, a poem which is a variation on one of four basic types:  Italian, English, Spenserian, and Terza Rima.  It is almost always self-contained and almost always has a topic/comment structure.  We can still say that another poem is either “a sort of sonnet” (which we might say for one possessing the topic/comment structure but written in tetrameter or having sixteen lines), or that it is “a poem modeled on the sonnet” (which we might say for one possessing the topic/comment structure but written in dimeter or having twenty lines).  Wittgenstein observes that there are “family resemblances” between the members of a family, even though no two of them may have the exact same collection of features.  Bearing this in mind, we can be flexible in recognizing sonnets, but we shouldn’t foolishly make the definition useless by abusing it.



The essay on “The West Wind” is based on a paper, “Shelley’s Use of Terza Rima Sonnets in ‘Ode to the West Wind,’” which I gave at a conference in Florence, Dante and the Romantics in Italy.  That paper took up two questions raised by Drummond Bone in the Keats Shelley Memorial Bulletin:  “When is terza rima not terza rima” and “When is a sonnet not a sonnet.”  This essay is a partial answer to second question, and the “West Wind” essay is a partial answer to the first.

There are many scholarly treatments of Shakespeare’s sonnets, books that provide background and detailed notes.  My favorite is W.G. Ingram and Theodore Redpath’s, Shakespeare’s Sonnets (Hodder and Stoughton, Ltd., Dunton Green, Sevenoaks, 1978).  These authors are helpful in interesting, and sometimes surprising, ways.  John Kerrigan’s The Sonnets and A Lover’s Complaint is also a fine (and inexpensive) reference (Penguin Books, London, 1986).  The publication date is not very important in the case of books like this because new facts are unlikely to turn up.  Instead, one looks for knowledge, common sense, and insight.  Unfortunately, knowledge and common sense don’t always go together.  Stephen Booth’s Shakespeare’s Sonnets exhibits, as Kerrigan puts it, “perverse intricacy,” and Helen Vendler’s The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets carries such perversity to new heights.  No wonder she attacks Kerrigan and praises Booth!  (Her book is a monument to fantastical speculation taken to such excess that I—literally—cannot bear to read it.)

As far as prosodic or metrical analyses are concerned, there are not very many.  George Wright has written a book entitled Shakespeare’s Metrical Art, but he makes assumptions about what is going on in the poems that I find very hard to accept, and he finds pyrrhic feet everywhere.  Such books are only important to scholars.  Shakespeare didn’t count on his fingers as he wrote or consult books on metrics.  For great poets, writing verse is not much more difficult than it is for the rest of us to write our very best prose, and like the writing of prose it requires intelligence and feeling in the use of internalized forms.  (Rilke, for example, wrote 26 poems of the “Sonnets to Orpheus” in less than four days.)  When we analyze poems, we do it to see how they work, and with difficult poems, we have to do so if we are to read them well—although we can read fairly simple poems straight out without any hesitation at all if we know how poetry works.  There isn’t some scholarly key that we need to know to be able to do this, and that is all I have been concerned with here.

An anecdote about Irving Berlin and “Easter Parade” is recounted in the essay on “Reading Poetry” on this site; terza rima sonnets are discussed in the essay “Ode to the West Wind”; a Rilke sonnet and a Drayton sonnet are discussed in the essay “Translation and Poetic Form”; and Gerard Manley Hopkins’ use of “curtal” sonnets such as “God’s Grandeur” is discussed in the essay “Gerard Manley Hopkins and Sprung Rhythm.”