Understanding the Sonnet – Rhythm and Rhyme

So this week we are the beginning of our exploration of the sonnet, considered to be the workhorse of love poetry. The sonnet originated in Italy during the 12th century. However, the Italian Renaissance poets Dante and Petrarch were the ones who really popularized this poetic form. Their work in the sonnet form inspired that of early English sonneteers, Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard  who are considered to have written the first English sonnets. In England during the 16th century, the sonnet became the most popular form of poem to write, Poets, such as Sir Phillip Sydney, Edmund Spenser, Lady Mary Wroth, wrote long sonnet sequences that would often tell the story of an unrequited lover’s desperate pleas to the object of their affections. By the time (he writes them around 1593 and publishes them in1609) Shakespeare writes his sonnets, of which there are 154, the sonnet tradition was waning. However, Shakespeare revitalizes the sonnet form, making it uniquely English. (Hence why a Shakespearean sonnet is also known as a English sonnet.) For the past nine hundred, the sonnet has become the most recognizable form of poem.

The way to understand the sonnet is by separating it into two parts: form (rhyme and rhythm) and content (what is it about).  So lets start with the form of a sonnet:

The Sonnet Form: Rhyme

I am going to use quite a few literary terms when writing about the sonnet. You might find it helpful to make a list of them for yourself. The first convention , or rule, of sonnet is that it consists of fourteen lines – this is why the sonnet is sometimes called a “fourteen liner”. There are two rhyme schemes of sonnet. The Italian, or the Petrarchan, sonnet rhyme scheme goes abbaabba cdecde(Refer to the English translation of “Upon the breeze she spread her golden hair” on pg 1090.) Petrarch divided the sonnet into two stanzas – groups of verse that are connected together through a repeating rhyme sequence. The first eight lines are known as an octave ; and the following six lines, a sestet. This rhyme scheme, an octave followed by a sestet, predominated the sonnet tradition until Shakespeare, who really went against the grain by introducing a new rhyme scheme for the sonnet: abab cdcd efef gg. Here’s what this rhyme scheme looks like divided in Shakespeare’s most famous sonnet, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” (Sonnet 18):

Shakespeare published his sonnets in 1609

Shakespeare published his sonnets in 1609

Instead of the Petrarchan sonnet of a octave followed by a sestet, Shakespeare gives us three quatrains, four lines of verse grouped together by a rhyme sequence, and a concluding couplet.

Line 9 in sonnet is a very important line. Generally, the first eight lines of a sonnet will develop some crisis or problem that the poet faces. Take a look back at Sonnet 18: in praising the beauty of the youth male (yes, Shakespeare wrote this sonnet to a young man), Shakespeare points out how all physical forms of beauty fade – a summer’s day has “too short a lease,” a May flower is subjected to harsh winds, and the Sun’s rays are often dimmed by clouds. How then will the beauty of this young man escape diminishing over time? In line 9, Shakespeare begins to give us the answer – it here that Shakespeare presents the volta, or turn. The volta is the point when the sonneteer offers a response to the first eight lines. Consider line 9 in Sonnet 18: “But thy eternal summer shall not fade.” Shakespeare presents a way for the young man to preserve his beauty for generations to come, and it is through poetry: “So long as men can breathe and eyes can see,/ So long live this and this give life to thee” (lns 13-14). The “this” that Shakespeare is referring to is the sonnet we just read. (I should point out here that sometimes Shakespeare did break this convention to present the volta in the couplet of the sonnet, such as in Sonnet 130, “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun”.)

Rhythm: Shakespeare gives us blank verse!

No only did Shakespeare introduce a new rhyme sequence to the sonnet form but also a new rhythm. Remember that the sonnet is originally Italian, and the early sonneteers mainly just copied the Italian sonnet form. It was Shakespeare who made the sonnet truly English. One of the ways he accomplished this feat was by introducing iambic pentameter lines to the sonnet. Probably the best way to understand what iambic pentameter is is by defining each word separately.

So what is an iamb? When you attempt to scan, or analyze the rhythm of a line of poetry, you will look for patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables. Generally, you can group syllables by a repeating pattern of stressed and unstressed. Here’s what the first line of Sonnet 18 looks like scanned (the stressed syllables are italicized): “Shall I com pare thee to a sum mer’s day.” Notice how the pattern repeated is unstressed followed by stressed. This grouping of syllables, also known as a foot , is known as an iamb. An iamb is the most common foot of poetry in English.

So what does pentameter mean? A line of verse poetry is defined by the number of feet it contains. Penta (Greek for five) means that the line has five feet, or five repeated patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables. Again, take a look at the first line of Sonnet 18: “(1) Shall I / (2) com pare/(3) thee to/ (4) a sum /(5) mer’s day.” This line of poetry that has five iambic feet is also known as blank verse. Here’s what Sonnet 18 looks like scanned:

Shall I com pare thee to a sum mer’s day?
Thou art more love ly and more tem per ate:
Rough winds do shake the dar ling buds of May,
And sum mer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Some time too hot the eye of hea ven shines,
And of ten is his gold com plex ion dimm‘d;
And eve ry fair from fair some time de clines,
By chance or na ture’s chang ing course un trimm’d;
But thy e ter nal sum mer shall not fade
Nor lose po ssess ion of that fair thou ow est;
Nor shall Death brag thou wan der’st in his shade,
When in e ter nal lines to time thou growest:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this and this gives life to thee.

(Try reciting the poem aloud to yourself with the proper rhythm. Remember that the stressed syllables are those in italics.)

In writing this blog post, I came across this youtube clip of a younger girl, Chloe Louise, who actually raps Sonnet 18 following the iambic rhythm. See if you can hear the iambic pentameter.

Here’s a link to a website that shows you how to scan a line poetry in 11 steps. I think you’ll find it very helpful.

Lastly, here’s a youtube clip of Bringham Young professor Gideon Burton explaining what a sonnet is:

(I would suggest skipping to 8 minutes into the clip, which is where Prof. Burton really starts explaining the sonnet form.)

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About Anthony Funari

Hi, thanks for taking time to stop by my blog, Renaissnace Matters. So here's a little bit about me . . . I am student, scholar, reader, writer, teacher, and general enthusiast about the European Renaissance, a.k.a the Early Modern period. In May 2010, I graduated with my doctorate in English Literature from Lehigh University, focusing my dissertation on the literary reaction to the Scientific Revolution. I currently have an article in the recent issue of Early English Studies (EES). Also, keep an eye out for my forthcoming book through Palgrave MacMillan, Francis Bacon and the 17th-Century Intellectual Discourse.
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