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Shakespeares Sonnets

And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries William Shakespeare

What is a sonnet?
The sonnet is a fourteen-line lyric poem in predominantly iambic pentameter, with a formal rhyme
scheme. Although there can be considerable variation in rhyme scheme, most English sonnets are
written in either the Italian (Petrarchan) style or the English (Shakespearean) style. A third sonnet
form, the Spenserian sonnet, is also well-known, but far less commonly used than either the
Petrarchan or the Shakespearean sonnet. (
Shakespeare did not invent the English sonnet form, but he is recognized as its greatest practitioner;
therefore, the English sonnet is commonly called the Shakespearean sonnet.
The Shakespearean sonnet consists of three quatrains (four-line stanzas), rhyming abab cdcd efef, and
a couplet (a two-line stanza), rhyming gg. Because each new stanza introduces a new set of rhyming
sounds, the Shakespearean sonnet is well-suited to English, which is less richly endowed than Italian
with rhyming words.
As with the structure of the Petrarchan sonnet, that of the Shakespearean sonnet influences the kinds
of ideas that will be developed in it. For example, the three quatrains may be used to present three
parallel images, with the couplet used to tie them together or to interpret their significance. Or the
quatrains can offer three points in an argument, with the couplet serving to drive home the
conclusion. (


The sonnet, along with other Italian forms, was introduced to England in the sixteenth century by Sir
Thomas Wyatt and his younger contemporary Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey. Both poets translated
several of Petrarch's sonnets--often the same ones--as well as composing their own.
The new poetic form seems to have inspired the flowering of English lyric poetry in subsequent
decades, reaching its peak during the reign of Elizabeth I. During the Elizabethan period the sonnet
often appeared as part of a sequence of love poems, in the manner of Petrarch's "Canzonieri." The
Elizabethans were particularly attracted to the complexity of a sequence in which each sonnet was
both an independent poem and part of an ongoing narrative development. Many poets employed
conventional images and patterns of thought in their sonnets, but the most skilled managed to create
tension and complexity by playing against the conventions even as they made use of them.

Among notable Elizabethan sonnet sequences (Sir Philip Sidney's "Astrophel and Stella"; Samuel
Daniel's "Delia"; Edmund Spenser's Amoretti") Shakespeare's sequence of one hundred twenty
sonnets addressed to a "dark lady" and a "fair young man" is considered to be the greatest.
In the seventeenth century John Donne's "Holy Sonnets" used the sonnet sequence as a vehicle for
religious themes. John Milton wrote sonnets on religious and political themes, as well as on such
personal subjects as his own blindness.
In the nineteenth century the love sonnet sequence was revived in Elizabeth Barrett Browning's
"Sonnets from the Portuguese" (1850) and in Dante Gabriel Rosetti's "The House of Life" (1876).
Even after five centuries the sonnet still attracts the attention of serious poets, partly because of the
challenge provided by the rigorous constraints of its fixed form, and partly because of its long
tradition of use by most of the important poets in the English language.

What is Iambic Pentameter?

Iambic Pentameter has:

Ten syllables in each line

Five pairs of alternating unstressed and stressed syllables
The rhythm in each line sounds like:
ba-BUM / ba-BUM / ba-BUM / ba-BUM / ba-BUM

Most of Shakespeares famous quotations fit into this rhythm. For example:
If mu- / -sic be / the food / of love, / play on
Is this / a dag- / -ger I / see be- / fore me?
Each pair of syllables is called an iambus. Youll notice that each iambus is made up of one
unstressed and one stressed beat (ba-BUM).

Rhythmic Variations
In his plays, Shakespeare didnt always stick to ten syllables. He often played around with iambic
pentameter to give color and feeling to his characters speeches.


Sonnet CIV (104) Francesco Petrarch

{Beginning of Octave}
I find no peace and bear no arms for war,
I fear, I hope; I burn yet shake with chill;
I fly the Heavens, huddle to earths floor,
Embrace the world, yet all I grasp is nil.
Love opens not nor shuts my prisons door
Nor claims me his nor leaves me to my will;
He slays me not yet holds me evermore,
Would have me lifeless yet bound to my ill. {End of octave}
{Beginning of Sestet}
Eyeless I see and tongueless I protest.
And long to perish while I succor seek;
Myself I hate and would another woo.
I feed on grief, I laugh with sob-racked breast
And death and life alike to me are bleak:
My lady, thus I am because of you.{End of sestet}

Sonnet - Billy Collins

All we need is fourteen lines, well, thirteen now,
and after this one just a dozen
to launch a little ship on love's storm-tossed seas,
then only ten more left like rows of beans.
How easily it goes unless you get Elizabethan

and insist the iambic bongos must be played

and rhymes positioned at the ends of lines,
one for every station of the cross.
But hang on here wile we make the turn (volta)
into the final six where all will be resolved,
where longing and heartache will find an end,
where Laura will tell Petrarch to put down his pen,
take off those crazy medieval tights,
blow out the lights, and come at last to bed.

Turn your love song (choose from the ones weve heard) into a sonnet. Work in a group of no
more than four people. Write a sonnet14 lines, rhyme scheme abababab cdecde. Use the
octave/sestet model, not the quatrain couplet model. Make sure you have a volta, a shift in
the poem.