February is finally here, which means Valentine’s Day was just around the corner. In keeping with the feeling associated with this month, I will be discussing sonnets, which are typically written about love and romance. Sonnets, especially Shakespearean ones, can be intimidating to write and read. But hopefully by the end of this article you will have a greater appreciation for sonnets, and maybe even feel challenged to write one yourself!
There are multiple types of sonnets, such as the Italian sonnet, Miltonic sonnet, and Spenserian sonnet. But the two kinds I will be focusing on in this article are the Shakespearean sonnets and the Petrarchan sonnets. Shakespeare was not the first to write a sonnet, but he was the most well-known sonnet writer and used them the most often. Shakespearean sonnets are fourteen lines long, ten syllables per line. They are divided into four groups and follow the complex rhyme scheme of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. Look at this poem by Shakespeare as an example:
Sonnet 116 by William Shakespeare
Let me not to the marriage of true minds [A]
Admit impediments; love is not love [B]
Which alters when it alteration finds, [A]
Or bends with the remover to remove. [B]
O no, it is an ever-fixed mark [C]
That looks on tempests and is never shaken; [D]
It is the star to every wandering bark, [C]
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken. [D]
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks [E]
Within his bending sickle’s compass come; [F]
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, [E]
But bears it out even to the edge of doom. [F]
If this be error and upon me proved, [G]
I never writ, nor no man ever loved. [G]
Shakespeare, in this sonnet, tries to define love. He ends the poem by saying that if he has spoken incorrectly and his idea of love is proved false, then he might as well have never written anything nor has anyone ever experienced love. Basically, he is completely confident in his definition of love.
Petrarchan sonnets, alternately, (pronounced pih-trawhr-kən), also contain fourteen lines, six of them as a sestet. It generally follows the rhyme scheme ABBA ABBA for the first eight lines. However, the sestet trails a CDC DCD pattern, very occasionally breaking the rules and written as CDE CDE or CDC EFE. Below is an example of a Petrarchan Sonnet by John Milton.
Sonnet 19: When I Consider How My Light is Spent by John Milton
When I consider how my light is spent, [A]
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide, [B]
And that one Talent which is death to hide [B]
Lodged with me useless, though my Soul more bent [A]
To serve therewith my Maker, and present [A]
My true account, lest he returning chide; [B]
“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?” [B]
I fondly ask. But patience, to prevent [A]
That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need [C]
Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best [D]
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state [E]
Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed [C]
And post o’er Land and Ocean without rest: [D]
They also serve who only stand and wait.” [E]
This is a beautiful poem, and John Milton used the more uncommon form of CDE CDE in the last six lines of his poem, but it doesn’t make it any less of a Petrarchan Sonnet. Milton was blind, which makes this poem even more intriguing. He lost his sight due to an illness. While this poem, at first glance, seems metaphorical, it is really Milton pondering if God needs a blind man to serve His will.
Many people are unnerved by the strict structure Shakespearean sonnets follow. But rather than rhyming every word at the end of a line in the same way, these sonnets allow more breathing room for conveying a specific message throughout the poem. Hopefully these two brief introductions to Shakespearean Sonnets and Petrarchan Sonnets have inspired you to grab a pencil, (er, keyboard), and write your own sonnets!
StageMilk Team. “Top 15 Shakespeare Sonnets.” StageMilk. October 21, 2013. https://www.stagemilk.com/best-shakespeare-sonnets/ January 18, 2020.
“Sonnet 18.” Sparknotes. https://www.sparknotes.com/shakespeare/shakesonnets/section2/ January 18, 2020.
“Sonnet.” Literary Devices. https://literarydevices.net/sonnet/ January 18, 2020.
MasterClass. “Poetry 101: What is a Shakespearean Sonnet? Learn About Shakespearean Sonnets With Examples.” MasterClass. Updated July 2, 2019. https://www.masterclass.com/articles/poetry-101-what-is-a-shakespearean-sonnet-learn-about-shakespearean-sonnets-with-examples#quiz-0 January 18, 2020.
“Petrarchan.” Dictionary.com https://www.dictionary.com/browse/petrarchan January 26, 2020.
“Petrarchan Sonnet.” Your Dictionary. https://www.yourdictionary.com/petrarchan-sonnet January 30, 2020.
“Sonnet 19: When I Consider How My Light is Spent.” Poetry Foundation. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44750/sonnet-19-when-i-consider-how-my-light-is-spent January 30, 2020.