The Sonnet
Or how fashioning poems
becomes a metaphor for
Early Modern English
creative life
Key terms
Blank verse
Common meter
Shaped verse
Tottel’s Miscellany
Fashioning/ SelfFashioning
Italian or Petrarchan
English or Shakespearean
Octave & Sestet
Quatrains & Couplet
Turn, Epigram
Sonnet Sequence
Focusing on lyric poetry means we pay
attention to quantitative AND
qualitative aspects of verse:
Poetic forms (e.g. elegy, sonnet, etc.) [B&Y ch. 12]
Meter (the number of syllables and the rhythm they
take) [B&Y ch. 12]
Figurative language (especially images and
metaphors) [B&Y ch. 6]
The Early Moderns are crazy about meter—
it shows their intellectual creativity
Blank verse (drama): Unrhymed, enjambed
iambic pentameter: think Shakespeare!
Common meter (hymns): A closed poetic
quatrain, rhyming A B A B, in which iambic
tetrameter alternates with iambic trimeter.
(e.g. “Amazing Grace”)
Ballad meter (popular verse): Common meter
with the rhyme scheme X A X A—
The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not
He maketh me to lie down in green
He leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul:
He leadeth me in the paths of
righteousness for His name' sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of
the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil: For thou art with me;
Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the
presence of mine enemies;
Thou annointest my head with oil;
My cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow
me all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the House of the Lord
--King James Bible, 1611
The Lord to me a shepherd is, X
Want therefore shall not I, A
He in the folds of tender grass X
Doth make me down to lie A
To waters calm he gently leads X
Restore my soul doth he B
He doth in paths of righteousness X
For his name’s sake lead me. B
Yea though in valley of death’s shade
I walk, none ill I’ll fear,
Because thou art with me, thy rod,
And staff my comfort are.
For me a table thou hast spread
In presence of my foes;
Thou dost anoint my head with oil
My cup it over-flows.
Goodness and mercy surely shall
All my days follow me;
And in the Lord’s house I shall dwell
So long as days shall be.
--Bay Psalm Book, 1640
Shaped verse: layout of text enhances content
(possible with printed texts): Herbert’s Easter Wings
George Herbert, The Altar
Poetic poses allow counterfeiting of emotion,
values, beliefs, stances. Common personae:
shepherds, lovers, scholars. Common stances:
The pastoral (Marlowe, The Passionate
Shepherd to his Love)
The witty (Raleigh, The Nymph’s Reply to the
The amorous (successful or otherwise)
(Sidney, Spenser, Shakespeare, etc.)
The spiritual (Donne, Herbert)
Their Favorite Game:
The Sonnet
We can die by it, if not live by love,
And if unfit for tomb or hearse
Our legend be, it will be fit for verse ;
And if no piece of chronicle we prove,
We'll build in sonnets pretty rooms ;
As well a well-wrought urn becomes
The greatest ashes, as half-acre tombs,
And by these hymns, all shall approve
Us canonized for love…
----John Donne, The Canonization
Why sonnets? ‘Pretty rooms’
Display of sprezzatura—art without visible effort,
creativity with self-governance
Tension of expressing an idea about love, politics, or
spirituality within a fiercely-regulated form (fourteen
lines of iambic pentameter)
Use of enjambment to fight the rhyme scheme
Lots of puns, metaphors, and signs of verbal
Intellectual puzzle as a sign of humanist learning
Art about making art (originally circulated among
courtiers; Tottel’s Miscellany (1557) is first print ed.)
The types of sonnets
Italian or Petrarchan, popularized by Wyatt
and Songs and Sonnets (a/k/a Tottel’s
English or Shakespearean, probably invented
by Surrey and popularized by guess who
Spenserian, invented by Edmund Spenser, a
combination of the two (bravura, sprezzatura)
Italian (Petrarchan) Sonnets
Only five rhyming sounds allowed (Italian has
more words ending in vowels—it’s easier!)
Structure is an octave rhyming ABBAABBA
followed by a sestet with several possible
arrangements of the C, D, & E sounds
There is a turn of thought after the octave so
that the sestet answers, completes, and/or
releases the tension of the octave
Lines are enjambed to fight the sense of
couplets: syntax vs. meter creates tension
Big names: Wyatt & Surrey
Example of Italian Sonnet
My mouth doth water, and my breast doth swell, A
My tongue doth itch, my thoughts in labor be; B
Listen then, lordings, with good ear to me, B
For of my life I must a riddle tell. A
Toward Aurora's court a nymph doth dwell, A
Rich in all beauties which man's eye can see; B
Beauties so far from reach of words that we B
Abase her praise saying she doth excel. A
Rich in the treasure of deserved renown, C
Rich in the riches of a royal heart, D
Rich in those gifts which give th' eternal crown; C
Who, though most rich in these and every part D
Which make the patents of true worldly bliss, E
Hath no misfortune but that Rich she is. E
--Sir Philip Sidney
English (Shakespearean) Sonnets
Uses seven sounds in a strict rhyming pattern:
Three quatrains and one couplet
Final couplet is usually epigrammatic (a
summing up, the sonnet’s sound bite)
Sense of build-up through the three quatrains,
then a conclusion or release in the couplet
Example of English Sonnet
A witless gallant, a young wench that wooed A
(Yet his dull spirit her not one jot could move), B
Entreated me, as e'er I wished his good A
To write him but one sonnet to his love; B
When I, as fast as e'er my pen could trot, C
Poured out what first from quick invention came, D
Nor never stood one word thereof to blot, C
Much like his wit, that was to use the same; D
But with my verses he his mistress won, E
Who doted on the dolt beyond all measure. F
But see, for you to heav'n for phrase I run, E
And ransack all Apollo's golden treasure; F
Yet by my froth this fool his love obtains, G
And I lose you for all my wit and pains. G
---Michael Drayton
Spenserian sonnets
Written by Edmund Spenser and very few
other people because they are so difficult
Only allows 5 rhymes (from Italian) but uses
quatrain/couplet structure (from English)—
interlaced stanzas
Looks like this:
Example of Spenserian Sonnet
Obscurely yet most surely called to praise, A
As sometimes summer calls us all, I said B
The hills are heavens full of branching ways A
Where star-nosed moles fly overhead the dead; B
I said the trees are mines in air, I said B
See how the sparrow burrows in the sky! C
And then I wondered why this mad instead B
Perverts our praise to uncreation, why C
Such savour's in this wrenching things awry. C
Does sense so stale that it must needs derange D
The world to know it? To a praiseful eye C
Should it not be enough of fresh and strange D
That trees grow green, and moles can course in clay, E
And sparrows sweep the ceiling of our day? E
---Richard Wilbur
Taking them to the next level
Sonnet sequences link a group of sonnets together to
tell a story, usually of a courtship
The poet may give himself and his lovers classical
psuedonyms (e.g. Astrophil and Stella), pretend they
are all shepherds or pastoral characters, and otherwise
counterfeit the relationships to each other to show off
the author’s persona (self-fashioning)
The challenge in a sequence is to use the same form
without becoming repetitive (i.e. a challenge of
fashioning) and Shakespeare’s sonnet sequence has
plots and subplots, characters, and contains 154
When reading sonnets
Read them aloud. There’s a music in the
rhythm, and part of the fun is finding the
Look for the conceits, the central ideas or
metaphors with which the writer is playing
Watch the tension of enjambment vs. rhyme as
the writer tries to cram a big idea in this very
tiny space
Shakespeare, Sonnet 73
That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see'st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death's second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consum'd with that which it was nourish'd by.
This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long
Verbal display
Whoever hath her wish, thou hast thy Will,
And Will to boot, and Will in overplus;
More than enough am I that vex thee still,
To thy sweet will making addition thus.
Wilt thou, whose will is large and spacious,
Not once vouchsafe to hide my will in thine?
Shall will in others seem right gracious,
And in my will no fair acceptance shine?
The sea all water, yet receives rain still
And in abundance addeth to his store;
So thou, being rich in Will, add to thy Will
One will of mine, to make thy large Will more.
Let no unkind, no fair beseechers kill;
Think all but one, and me in that one Will.
--Shakespeare, Sonnet 135
Sonnets Everyone Must Know…
Wyatt, “The Long Love,” p. 420
Spenser, Amoretti #75, p. 580
Donne, Holy Sonnets #10, p. 815
Shakespeare, Sonnet #18, p. 737
Shakespeare, Sonnet #60, p. 739
Shakespeare, Sonnet #73, p. 739
Shakespeare, Sonnet #130, p. 741
and…….your table’s sonnets.
So when you study your sonnet
Figure out which of the three kinds of sonnets it is
(when in doubt, look at the beginnings of lines 5, 9,
and 13)
Figure out the rhyme scheme (remember that
pronunciations have changed over 400 years—use the
Figure out the conceit the writer is playing with
Practice reading it to emphasize the enjambment—
don’t read it like Dr. Seuss!
Check the OED for help with word meanings
Above all, have fun! Writing sonnets, then
reading them aloud, was a game that people in
the Early Modern period enjoyed as a way to
show off their intellect and creativity. Just as
modern musicians want to create lyrics that
sound spontaneous but that they have worked
on for many hours, sonneteers used these
forms to express many of the same emotions
and feelings.

The Sonnet Game