ACL 1002
Studying Poetry and Poetics

Supplement week 2
Notes on the sonnet

by Ian Syson

Sonnet is one of the more rigid poetic forms – one of the earliest forms established in English. Comes from the Italian (little sound/song)

  • In the middle ages developed by the great Italian poets including Dante and Petrarch – the latter establishing it as a major poetic form.

  • A number of English poets wrote sonnet sequences: Sidney; Spenser; Shakespeare – all very centrally about love and passion.

  • Often blazons, a poetic catalogue of a woman’s body parts.

  • E 17th century poets seemed less interested in the love theme; Donne in religious themes and Milton less specific, occasional themes.

  • Virtually extinct for a century

  • Rescuscitated in the Romantic period and again in the Victorian age

  • Contemporary poets use the sonnet but explore the boundaries of the form – often producing unrhymed poems


Set Rhyme scheme

abbaabba | cdecde (cdeded)
abab | bcbc | cdcd | ee
abab | cdcd | efef | gg

Meaning organized around the groupings:

  • octave,
  • sestet,
  • quatrains,
  • couplets
  • volta

Set Rhythm and Metre

  • Iambic pentameter most common
  • Meter refers to the number of strong beats in a line
  • Foot refers to the way these invividual beats are organised

What does this prefabrication produce? Look at some sonnets:




    Spenser: Sonnet 75

    One day I wrote her name upon the strand,
    But came the waves and washed it away:
    Agayne I wrote it with a second hand,
    But came the tyde, and made my paynes his pray.
    "Vayne man," sayd she, "that doest in vaine assay.
    A mortall thing so to immortalize,
    For I my selve shall lyke to this decay,
    and eek my name bee wyped out lykewize."
    "Not so," quod I, "let baser things devize,
    To dy in dust, but you shall live by fame:
    My verse your vertues rare shall eternize,
    And in the heavens wryte your glorious name.
    Where whenas death shall all the world subdew,
    Our love shall live, and later life renew."


Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed,
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature's changing course untrimmed:
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st,
Nor shall death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st,
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

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 ruined 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.

My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red, than her lips red:
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound:
I grant I never saw a goddess go,
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet by heaven, I think my love as rare,
As any she belied with false compare.

Holy Sonnet X: Death Be Not Proud
Death, be not proud, though some have callèd thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which yet thy pictures be,
Much pleasure, then from thee much more, must low
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones and soul's delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings and desperate men
And dost with poison, war and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell'st thou then ?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.

Beth Houston sonnets