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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Sonnet

The sonnet is perhaps the most widely known, read, and written poetic form. It conjures images of love from Petrarch to Shakespeare to Browning to Whitman to the 20th Century. Sonnet comes from the Latin meaning sound, little song. The sonnet is a song. It follows a prescribed rhyme scheme, a prescribed rhythm, a prescribed cadence. They are fourteen lines long. We learn the rules of the sonnet first and then we find examples of poets who break the form and eventually create variations on the theme like Whitman. The sonnet is a favorite of teachers, especially around Valentine's Day because two of the most famous sonnets are Love sonnets.

Today I will speak about Shakespeare's Sonnet 1, the first of his 154 sonnets. Tomorrow I will speak about the two classic Love sonnets.

Shakespeare's Sonnet One.
From fairest creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauty's rose might never die,
But as the riper should by time decease,
His tender heir might bear his memory:
But thou contracted to thine own bright eyes,
Feed'st thy light's flame with self-substantial fuel,
Making a famine where abundance lies,
Thy self thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel:
Thou that art now the world's fresh ornament,
And only herald to the gaudy spring,
Within thine own bud buriest thy content,
And tender churl mak'st waste in niggarding:
Pity the world, or else this glutton be,
To eat the world's due, by the grave and thee.
This sonnet is Number One and it is often referred to as the first of the sixteen procreation sonnets. It is written for his patron. I'm not concerned with the discussion of his sonnets at tis time. What I want to do is analyze this sonnet by itself as a model for his other sonnets. Then one day the scholars might be interested in Shakespeare's entire collection. First we need to examine one sonnet in isolation, so why not Sonnet #1.

As I said earlier the sonnet is a prescribed poem. One of the first parts I explore is the meter. Shakespeare uses Iambic Pentameter, because he deemed it the one closest to natural speech. There are many meters to a line of poetry and each meter, in this case Iambic, is called a foot. The Iambic foot is an unaccented syllable followed by an accented one. In a Shakespeare line of poetry he uses five feet of Iambic, hence the pentameter, penta being five. He creates a ten syllable line. This is important because when he breaks this rule once, rarely twice in a sonnet, pay attention because he is bringing attention to that line. He will break most often by subtracting a syllable rather than adding one. Go here for more on meter. Here is what the first four lines of this sonnet would look like with its meter.

Now I just showed you the first four lines. That is important, too. Shakespeare's sonnets of 14 lines are divided in what we call 3 quatrains (four lines) and a rhyming couplet (two lines). Three groups of four lines followed by a rhyming couplet is a Shakespearean sonnet. In the next image see the rhyme scheme. Lines 1 &3, 2&4, 5&7, 6&8, 9&11, 10&12, 13&14 rhyme. Lines 1-4, 5-8, 9-12 indicate the three quatrains while 13 & 14 represent the rhyming couplet.

The purpose of deconstructing the sonnet this way helps the reader in finding the meaning. Shakespeare uses each quatrain to say the same thing three different ways, to make the point. He uses the couplet to sum it all up. Now we have looked at the physical structure of the poem to start our analysis. Now we must turn to the text of the poem. We want to find key words, those repeated words, those words with similar meanings and other information like alliteration, similes, metaphors and other uses of literary terms.

Let's look at the rhyme scheme ABABCDCDEFEFGG. This rhyme scheme is simple. The first rhyme is labeled "A." The next word is labeled "B" because it does not rhyme with the first line. However, since the word in line three rhymes with line one we label it "A." The pattern continues for line four which rhymes with line two, so we label it "B." This pattern holds for the entire sonnet. ABABCDCDEFEFGG is the classic Shakespearen rhyme scheme. The "A" words are opposites. The "B" words are cause and effect, we die and become a memory. Explore the relationship of the rest of the rhyme scheme to discern a pattern. The rhyme scheme can be a map. Now let's look at the words highlighted. Notice the alliteration of the letter "s." The sound of a snake and the classic allusion is of course the serpent in the Garden of Eden. This allusion is connected to knowledge and Shakespeare uses the sound of the snake to make that connection. He personifies "time" a key element of the sonnet. As the sonnet implies the person in the sonnet doesn't have much time left or is wasting it. Shakespeare then attacks the person of the sonnet with the overuse of "thy" and its derivatives. The person is wasting hir beauty. I've always been intrigued by "the gaudy spring" image that creates good discussion in class. We have fun exploring these parts and find great power in the final rhyming words: "be thee."

Another fun part of deconstructing is to view the word phrases of the sonnet. Who are "fairest creatures"? What does "desire increase" mean? That first line is loaded. The entire first quatrain is suggesting that the person of the sonnet should procreate. We need a copy of you, you need an heir to remind us of you, when you die. The second quatrain is scolding in how the person seems to keep to self and not procreate. The third quatrain says this again while the rhyming couplet provides the result of the selfish behavior.

The sonnet is a neat little package. When we deconstruct it in a logical way as outlined here we come to a better understanding of the sonnet. This is a pattern one should follow with all Shakespeare sonnets and perhaps others as well. Now that we have deconstructed it, let's put is back together for one final read.

Here is the lesson I use for Sonnet One.

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