Loretta Barnard

Intro-verse: The Sonnet

“Shall I compare thee to a warm Saturday?” … that’s how it went, right? In the latest edition of Intro-verse, we get particular with bard-ed mash note that is the sonnet. 


Ah, Shakespeare. Can’t get enough of him! He’s going to be our teacher today as we discuss sonnets. He wrote 154 of them, and they’re pretty hard to beat.

Here is one of the most famous sonnets ever written:

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 dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimmed;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wand’rest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to Time thou grow’st.
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Listen to David Tennant read it:

A sonnet is a 14-line poem following a particular rhyme scheme and is written in iambic pentameter. Sounds complicated – and it is – but it’s easily understandable, so let’s get cracking.

First off, what’s an iambic pentameter? Easy. An iamb is a metrical foot made up of two syllables, the first short (or unstressed), the second long (or stressed). Penta means five, so there are five pairs of iambs, making a total of ten syllables per line, for example:

Shall I/com pare/thee to/a sum/mer’s day?

This creates a regular rhythm that’s sustained throughout the poem.

Rhyme scheme is another critical element of the sonnet. There are two major rhyme schemes: the Petrarchan, named for the Italian poet Petrarch (1304-1374) and the Shakespearian, named for our friend William (1564-1616). There are other recognized sonnet variations, but we’ve started with Shakespeare, so we’ll stick to him for today.

His sonnets usually follow the pattern ABAB, CDCD, EFEF, GG. Nothing to stress over – it’s really straightforward.

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In our chosen sonnet, the last word in the first and third lines rhyme – “day”/“May”. This is the A. The last word in the second and fourth lines rhyme – “temperate”/“date”. This is the B. The last word in the fifth and seventh lines rhyme – “shines”/“declines”: C; the last word in the sixth and eighth lines rhyme – “dimmed”/“untrimmed”: D; and so on.

Now, before we go any further, it should be pointed out that this sonnet is about a young man, but don’t go all “I told you so” on me. Reams have been written about this, but scholars agree that in the 17 sonnets before this one, Shakespeare is urging his handsome young friend to marry and have children so that his beauty will continue through the generations. In this particular sonnet, Shakespeare is not so bothered by his friend’s failure to procreate. We could go on here, but the young man is not what we’re looking at today.

Back to the poem.

A sonnet usually examines two contrasting but closely related notions. The first eight lines have one theme – in this case, how the young man compares to a summer’s day: he is lovelier and more constant than the summer, which can be too hot or sometimes a bit cool. We’re also told that beauty usually fades with time (damn it!).

The next four lines move onto a different yet closely related theme: how the young man differs from a summer’s day. Here, Shakespeare tells us that although summer must come to an end, the youth will always be beautiful: “Thy eternal summer shall not fade.”

The couplet at the end of the sonnet with the GG pattern rounds it all off. In this case, we’re told that not even death will take away his beauty, because the poem has given him immortality.

Sonnet 18 is plain sailing as far as analysis goes, but it’s enlightening to see how much work the poet has to do. The tight strictures of the sonnet form mean that the poet must exercise enormous skill. To adhere to the limitations of the structure while also creating a thing of beauty is no mean feat.

I’m an unabashed Shakespeare fangirl, but there are lots of other worthy sonnet writers to investigate; and it’s worth doing to see the variations in rhyme scheme and approach. Check out poets like John Donne, Edmund Spenser, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Robert Frost, Dylan Thomas, and Seamus Heaney.

The structure of the sonnet under your belt, you’ll derive even more enjoyment from reading them. And always keep in mind that they’re only fourteen lines long. Piece of cake.


Loretta Barnard

Loretta Barnard is an Australian freelance writer and editor who, in a long career, has done almost everything possible in the book publishing industry. These days she actively pursues her love of music, literature and theatre, and is something of wannabe roving ambassador for the creative and performing arts.

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