Sonnets, ?1593-1609? MS /
1609 ed. prin.
Genre: Sonnet collection, perhaps a cycle with
dramatic coherence, but no one interpretation of a single "plot" has won general
Form: Fourteen-line iambic pentameter poems, with
lines set in three quatrains and a couplet. (The exception is #126, set in seven
rhyming couplets, perhaps as an "envoy" to the group addressing the young man
[1-126].) However, the astute reader will discover that many of these sonnets (e.g., 12,
151, 18, 19, etc.) also contain an octave/sestet rhetorical structure that contests
harmoniously with the quatrain/couplet rhyme scheme. So is a stanza a unit of rhyme
or a unit of the poem's "argument"? He also was unafraid to
creatively challenge the sonnet's meter. In this, Shakespeare was like
Sidney, who has a clear predeliction for beginning with troches instead of iambs
("Lov-ing in truth"
from A&S #1) and a willingness to dramatize surplus with hypermetrical
lines (again, A&S #1 plus #6, both all in hexameters). Compare
Shakespeare's sonnet 33, counting carefully its lines meter.
Click here for some comparisons
among evolving genres: the sonnet, the blues, "R&B," and rock and roll.
Characters: Shakespeare's speaking persona, a young male he admires/loves, a
"dark lady" who is the persona's beloved but who also competes for the love of
the young man, a rival poet (86) who threatens to steal the young man's affections, and a
host of personified abstractions (Time, Death, Beauty, Fame, etc.).
Summary: The poet's persona first (1-126) praises the young male
friend/lover's beauty, urges him to procreate, and chides him for disappointing his
friends and family. The persona also articulates the doctrine (perhaps influenced by
du Bellay and Spenser, as well as classical sources) of poetry's enduring power against
the force of "devouring Time."
For a note explaining this motif or common poetic expression and relating it to
Shakespeare's use of it, click here.
The "dark lady" sonnets (127-52) demonstrate considerably more of the poet's
struggle with the passion that inspires the poem (see Sidney). Desire can destroy or
rejuvenate the persona's capacity to make poems. The sonnets of this section often
describe the relationship in terms of disease, deception, and mortal weakness.
Because even the "dark lady" group may be an illusory artifact created by the
printer's pagination decisions, which Shakespeare may not have consented to,
we might also look
for other patterns in the sonnets' transmission and transformation of the sonnet
tradition Shakespeare inherited from Wyatt, Surrey, Sidney and Spenser.
One might find it interesting that a supremely ambitious poet like Shakespeare
did not specifically write a "sonnet cycle" with a coherent plot like Sidney and
Spenser, nor did he accept Spenser's increasingly complicated sonnet form, with
its concatenated rhyme and archaic spelling.
Issues and Research Sources:
- You will find some critics' whole careers based on the patterns found in Shakespeare's
sonnets. This is not because (pace you cynics out there) we are nit-pickers
who have nothing better to do, but because Shakespeare stood at a cultural crossroads in
European history with powers of linguistic usage, formal knowledge, human sensitivity, and
insight which enabled him to combine the rich resources thrown at him by the culture and
to reinvent them in extraordinary works. You should be able, by now, to follow his
handling of traditional poetic forms like the sonnet, and to see his indebtedness to
Wyatt, Surrey, Sidney, and Spenser. You also should be able to see his innovations,
not so much in the physical form of the poem, which he tended to leave in the
three-quatrain/couplet form Surrey founded (with the "octave/sestet" exception
types noted above), which also connects him to the tradition of Sidney and Spenser. However, he
makes maximum use of word choice (diction, usage) which stand out in particularly vivid
coinages (like Wyatt's "heart's forest") and of syntactic complexity which
deceives and then reveals sudden depths or surprising discoveries (e.g., #29 which, like
Surrey's "Soote Season," loads the poem with information trending in one logical
direction before snapping the reader into a complete reversal of the expected conclusion).
- How would you describe the challenge he confronted in the poets who preceded him, and
how would you explain, in any particular poem, how he might be said to be playing with
and/or answering his poetic ancestors?
- What kinds of poetic invention does a small poem like the sonnet encourage, and what
does a long tradition of its use do to the opportunities for that innovation?
- How does it affect your sense of Shakespeare's achievement when you know him as one
standing in a long line of poetic tradition?
- The sonnets often have been mined for evidence of a dramatic structure, and you will
find many critical studies which purport to explain "what Shakespeare had in
mind" if he wrote the sonnets as a sequence. But the poems were published
(perhaps like Sidney's Astrophil and Stella) without any sign of authorial
sanction, though the prologue appears to suggest that the poet was known to the publisher
and the relationship was not hostile. This is a long way from evidence that the
poet had a plan for all 154 sonnets, and that that plan was executed in the published
volumes which issued from the printer's press. (As a former printer, I can guarantee
the latter process is likely to mix up the order of pages, alter emphases, or even delete
works intended to be included--see note 4, 1032.)
- What kinds of patterns do you see, in the poems reproduced by the Norton, which might
give you clues to Shakespeare's "habits of mind"? That is, how does he
treat big categories of things, like gender, virtue, class, worldly goods, etc.?
- What are his patterns of making metaphors, and what are his strategies for manipulating
his reader into a position from which the poet may create a novel approach to his
- Are there places in which you feel (or think or believe) Shakespeare has entered new
poetic territory, things un-thought-of in rhyme? If so, where, when, and how has he
done it? Look closely at his predecessor poets' works before making that claim,
- Continuing this attempt to put Shakespeare's lyric poetry into the larger picture of the
English lyric's development, we could think about the cultural changes which accompanied
the end of Elizabeth's reign and the early years of James I's reign. See the Norton
(495-6 and 1209-10) for some idea of how it seemed to the English at the time.
Petrarchanism was now nearly 100 years old, and the sonnet was to them no more of a
novelty than electricity is now to Americans. Can you detect where Shakespeare
stands with respect to the Petrarchan sonneteers (Wyatt and Surrey) who used the Italian
poet's similes and metaphors (ship, fever, storm, etc.) when they still were new in
English, and the anti-Petrarchan sonneteers (Sidney, Donne, Milton) who make a point of
denying that such comparisons make good verse? In the next half of the
semester, we'll encounter the "metaphysical poets," (Donne, Herbert, Crashaw,
etc.). They might be said to "supercharge" the Petrarchan comparisons by
choosing a "vehicle" (commonplace comparator) that will shock when connected with
the "tenor" (abstract or new referent). For instance, Donne famously uses
the mingling of his blood with his lover's blood in a flea that has bitten them both as a
metaphor for the getting of children in the marriage bed (Norton 1236)! Do you see
any examples in Shakespeare's use of comparison that might approach this degree of
novelty? Think about the sonnet as the rock-and-roll song of Elizabethan
culture--where do you suppose we're headed in the later 1600s, and is Shakespeare looking
backward to Wyatt & Co. or forward to this new trend?
Shakespeare's sonnets suffer from
overexposure, or at least some of them do. When we have read or heard
a poem many times, especially if its meaning has not been explored when its
text was "performed," the poem can become aurally or visually fossilized in
our minds. Its parts no longer stand out as working elements of
meaning. To fight against this tendency, we have two choices. We
can choose sonnets that only rarely are noticed, and read them carefully as
they deserve to be read. Or, we can choose one of the fossilized
sonnets and read it even more carefully, word by word, phrase by phrase,
stanza by stanza, looking for its joints and sinews, paying attention to its
meter's distribution of rhythmic stress and its rhyme scheme's associations
of rhyming words in thematic patterns. We want to be able to observe
and explain how its meaning
unfolds like a
flower blossoming in time-lapse photography.
Our goal is to
understand a Shakespearian sonnet with such feeling and sympathy for its
construction that we could use it as
a tool to detect
other Shakespearian sonnets, or to detect Shakespeare's influence on
later sonnet writers who borrow his techniques (e.g., Donne, Herbert,
Milton, Wordsworth). In short, we want to learn the sonnet to
construct a memory device. The more personally you relate to the
sonnet you have chosen, the better your device will work.
- Though we would do well to treat skeptically any claims that any sonnet's
order among the entire 154 published in 1609 was Shakespeare's deliberate
intention, the printer and "friends" who made the manuscript poems available
may well have encountered them circulating in clustered groups of individual
leaves. For instance, the "young man's marriage" poems (1-17), the "love
for a young man" poems (18-126), and the "Dark Lady" poems (127-54) might have
been placed together by Shakespeare, or smaller groups within those clusters
might bear the author's ordering intention.
are reading an individual sonnet you like and hope to interpret, I cannot
imagine how you could resist the desire to see what sonnets precede or follow
it. You can see the complete 1609 text in the library's copy ( 826.31
1953 for the Arden edition or
1871 for the Variorum which lists all variant
readings for each word or line). You also can
use several online sites which meet scholarly standards for textual accuracy,
Editions" text based
on U. Adelaide's edition edition ,
Toronto edition, or if you want to see
a facsimile of the
actual pages from the 1609 edition, they have been digitized. For a
scholarly discussion of the sonnet-order problem, see Brents Stirling, The
Shakespeare Sonnet Order; Poems and Groups (Berkeley: U. California P.,
1968) which the library has in its collection (826.31
HsSs). If you discover more recent
scholarly work on this problem, please send me the bibliographic information
so that I can update this page.
- Helen Vendler's study of all these sonnets would be worth consulting for
anyone completing a paper on a Shakespeare sonnet, just to take advantage of
her seasoned wisdom: The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets (Cambridge, MA:
Belknap P of Harvard UP, 1997)
826.31 Sv452a .
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