An Experiment in Poetry: William Shakespeare Refines the Sonnet Form

Photo by Matt Riches on  Unsplash

Photo by Matt Riches on Unsplash

An Experiment in Poetry is a weekly series here at spotlighting poets whose work points to transcendent values and encourages us to contemplate questions at the heart of the human condition.

Few literary figures are as revered (and just as often avoided) as William Shakespeare (1564-1616). Shakespeare’s name is nearly synonymous with literature, both because of the volume of creative works he produced and the thematic and stylistic intricacies of those works. The great Neoclassicist John Dryden, in recognizing Shakespeare’s genius, suggested that his lack of formal training in writing underscored his greatness since, despite that, he excelled at elevating any given subject matter. In so doing, Dryden argued, he towered over even the greatest of Renaissance playwrights, having “the largest and most comprehensive soul” with a remarkable ability to draw audiences in emotionally. Shakespeare made them feel the force of his stories, not merely watch the plot play out.

Yet before Shakespeare made his name as playwright, he produced poetry, lots and lots of poetry. In fact, it is in his poetry that Shakespeare’s literary (and social) aspirations are most clearly revealed.  In the last decade of the 16th century, when the theaters were closed to prevent the spread of the plague, Shakespeare explored other avenues for making a living. In this pursuit, he wrote two long narrative poems: Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. With these publications, Shakespeare sought out patronage, the traditional arrangement whereby an artist was supported financially by a wealthy benefactor.

William Shakespeare, image from  Wikipedia

William Shakespeare, image from Wikipedia

Alongside these lengthy poems, Shakespeare was writing sonnets, a popular pastime for those with creative sensibilities in Elizabethan England, and in 1609, a collection of 154 individual Shakespearean sonnets was published by Thomas Thorpe. In an overview of the writer’s work, Poetry Foundation identifies this publication as Shakespeare’s point of liberation from the demands of patronage; he was finally able to write as self-discovery, not primarily for financial survival. While they were not as commercially successful as his longer narrative poems, these sonnets have provided future generations of critics plenty of fodder for better understanding the literary sensibilities and, especially, the biographical background of this often-enigmatic author.

Given that Shakespeare has left little personal historical record, particularly in light of his outsized influence on the literary world, it’s understandable that the details of his poems would evoke speculation: just who is the “dark lady” of sonnets 127-152; and who is this “young man” named in the first 126? What do these poems, and especially their subjects, tell us of Shakespeare’s loves and losses, his desires and struggles? Although there’s little outside historical record to confirm or disprove interpretive conclusions on these scores, the conjecture is almost too delectable to pass up. Often overlooked in such critical studies, however, is much concern with the aesthetic and thematic qualities of the poems themselves. And that’s a shame because the combination of Shakespeare’s linguistic dexterity and his emotional insights with the precise and well-structured sonnet form make such an examination eminently worthwhile.   

Developed in the 13th century, the sonnet was originally an Italian form, consisting of fourteen strictly regulated lines, with both rhythm and rhyme adhering to rigid patterns; however, this traditional structure and rhyme scheme, later poets realized, could easily be adapted to suit the specific artist’s purposes. Petrarch, for example, both elevated the form and extended its reach. In the 16th century, the sonnet became popular in England, but Shakespeare’s productions subverted typical expectations even further. First, Shakespeare challenged Petrarch’s tendency to idealize the object of his poems; instead, he often ironized his subjects, sometimes seemingly mocking the person supposedly being honored by the poem, as in Sonnet 130.

In a typical sonnet, the beloved would be romanticized, her beauty transcending the sullied world the writer and readers inhabit. Sonnet 130 turns this trope on its head; from its opening shocking line the speaker proclaims his mistress to be nothing like the sun or roses or snow. Rather she is pale and malodorous, with a plain voice and mundane demeanor. In an ingenious move, however, the speaker upends both the Petrarchan romanticism and the readers’ confusion; the sonnet’s punchline asserts that this more realistic comparison does the subject and the speaker’s love more justice:

   And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
   As any she belied with false compare.

This final twist is characteristic of Shakespeare’s subversion of Petrarch’s sonnet form (in addition to his tone and overall approach). Rather than the traditional octave (8 lines) and sestet (6 lines) structure of the Italian sonnet, Shakespeare crafted three quatrains (4 lines) punctuated by a couplet (2 lines). The different sections of the poem are delineated by both rhyme scheme and subject matter. The sonnet, students of verse will find, nicely organizes the poet’s content, allowing readers to easily find their way through what often amounts to an argument, a worldview in miniature if you will. Shakespeare’s sonnets blend the intellectual and aesthetic to offer readers a poetic puzzle to solve.

Common to many of Shakespeare’s sonnets are vivid, striking comparisons made between the commonplace and the philosophical. In such metaphorical expressions, we see an incisive mind at work, re-enchanting the world with signs of elemental realities: life and death, love and loss, imagination and futility. In this way, Shakespeare encourages readers to turn their own gaze to the forces undergirding the activities and objects of this physical world. These physical elements matter, of course, but not on their own; something else that lies behind gives them purchase. Sonnet 73 brilliantly illustrates Shakespeare’s ability to reveal that connection and offer a charge for readers in light of this revelation.

The poem relies on a comparison between autumn and human mortality, specifically the speaker’s. As the trees lose their leaves and the winter cold approaches, so, too, is the speaker facing his own demise. The sonnet is filled with images of sparseness and ruin, and coinciding with the coming winter is the setting of the sun. All is passing, though not yet fully past, and the speaker asks the reader to attend to that loss. That attentiveness, the poem suggests, should elicit awareness of the depth of the loss. The speaker’s death, any human death, is a grievous thing.  

In these sonnets, an often repeated theme is the enduring value of art, especially literature. In Sonnet 55, for example, the speaker contrasts the degradation of time with the endurance of the poetic word. The poem’s addressee’s will, inevitably, be ravaged by change, age, and eventually death. But the poet’s imagination enables a more lasting memorial than anything material can provide. In that way, it gestures toward the possibility of permanence, the human longing and need for transcendence. Shakespeare’s claims to art offering this pathway, of course, are overblown, risking idolization of art and the human imagination. But at their best what these poems do is whet our appetite for the work only God himself can effect.

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? Poetry is at the heart of music in a lot of ways, from obvious connections like lyrics to deeper points like their shared love of rhythms, so I thought we could take a look at Shakespeare's favorite kind of poem, the Sonnet!

Links for This Week’s Featured Poems:

Sonnet 130 by William Shakespeare

Sonnet 73 by William Shakespeare

Sonnet 55 by William Shakespeare

Sonnet 29 by William Shakespeare

Sonnet 116 by William Shakespeare