A sonnet by any other name …
Raymond Ramirez | Monday, August 28, 2017
One of the services we offer is providing quick and mostly accurate information regarding popular educational topics. In addition, I am a big fan of the ‘exception to the rule,’ especially when the exception holds a key to understanding great poetry. Accordingly, I’d like to pose and answer the question: When is a sonnet not a sonnet?
I’ve always maintained that an educated person should know one’s alliteration from one’s assonance, and similarly have at least some passing knowledge of basic poetic forms, such as the sonnet. The sonnet traditionally consists of 14 lines organized into a rhyming pattern. Some sonnets are divided into two sections: an eight-line section, the octet, and a six-line section, the sestet. Often the octet/sestet form is used to set up a premise in the octet and a resolution in the sestet. The form was used by the Italian poet, Petrarch, and is known as the Petrarchan or Italian sonnet.
Shakespeare used the sonnet form to explore complicated ideas about life and love and the fate that awaits us all. He divided the 14 lines of the Italian sonnet into three four-line sections, called quatrains, and finished it with a two-line section, called a couplet, that typically delivered the moral or punchline. This form has become known as the Shakespearean or Elizabethan sonnet. The quatrain rhyme pattern is abab cdcd efef (where the letters represent words with similar rhyming sounds) and the couplet is gg.
One other bit of poetic housekeeping: Shakespeare wrote his sonnets (and most everything else) in iambic pentameter, which means that the rhythm of speech is of an unaccented syllable followed by an accented syllable (that’s the “iambus” or the “foot”), and each line of the poem has five “feet” (that’s the pentameter). By way of example, here’s one of Shakespeare’s most famous sonnets, “Sonnet 116,” in classic Elizabethan sonnet form (e.g., three quatrains and a couplet):
Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments. Love is not love / Which alters when it alteration finds, / Or bends with the remover to remove: /
Oh, no! it is an ever-fixéd mark, / That looks on tempests and is never shaken; / It is the star to every wandering bark, / Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken. /
Love’s not time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks / Within his bending sickle’s compass come’ / Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, / But bears it out even to the edge of doom. /
If this be error and upon me proved, / I never writ, nor no man ever loved.
Shakespeare uses the first quatrain to explore the quality of true love to survive “impediments,” the second quatrain to propose love is constant in a changing world, and the third quatrain to claim that such love lasts forever. The poet “drops the mic” in the couplet by stating that if he’s wrong, then all his work was for naught, and no one ever really loved at all.
You now have enough basic information to spot the “problem” in “Sonnet 126:”
O thou, my lovely Boy who in thy power, / Dost hold Time’s fickle glass, his sickle, hour; / Who hast by waning grown, and therein showest/ Thy lovers withering, as thy sweet self growest. / If Nature, sovereign mistress over wrack, / As thou goest onwards still will pluck thee back, / She keeps thee to this purpose, that her skill /May time disgrace and wretched minutes kill. / Yet fear her, O thou minion of her pleasure! / She may detain, but not still keep, her treasure: / Her audit (though delayed) answered must be, / And her quietus is to render thee.
That’s right — it’s a sonnet in name only. This 12-line poem is six rhyming couplets, with nary a quatrain in sight. In fact, in the 1609 Quarto version of the sonnets, this sonnet is closed with two sets of blank parentheses, like so: ( ) / ( ). In typical literary criticism fashion, these two sets of parentheses have been the subject of endless debate and scholarly concern. Were they deleted as being too racy for Shakespeare’s time? Perhaps they indiscreetly revealed the identity of the youthful object of affection. I think they might just serve as placeholders for the missing two lines of the classic sonnet form and answer the proposition of the closing couplet of “Sonnet 116” in that they were “never writ.”
Why the break in poetic form? Shakespeare wrote more than 150 sonnets, and the belief of many scholars is that the first 126 seem to be addressed to a young man with whom Shakespeare was infatuated; the remaining sonnets appear to refer to a mysterious dark woman. This pivotal sonnet, which breaks with tradition and form, may well be Shakespeare’s valedictory to a love that society could not accept (“ … nor no man ever loved”), or it may be a farewell to his own ebbing youth. Nature — and the effects of time — may be delayed, but that account must eventually be settled. The continuing beauty and impact of Shakespeare’s poetry suggest that perhaps it’s only true love that can serve as our memorial.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.