A Guide to Poetry #2: Verse Forms #4: Shakespearean sonnet

The Story So Far

1. Foot, Metrics, Prosody and Scansion

1.1 General Overview

1.2 Anglophonic metrics

1.3 Romance languages

1.4 Classical languages

2. Verse Forms

2.1 Sestina

2.2 Villanelle

2.3 Pantoum

This was going to be a post about rondelets, a Medieval French lyrical style, but considering my disillusionment with our cousins across the channel after Le Pen’s success in the elections, I was overcome with a sudden St George’s Day burst of patriotism and decided to celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday by jumping ahead to the English sonnet.

The sonnet, at its most basic, is a 14 line poem. There are two main versions, the English (Shakespearean) and the Italian (Petrarchan), with a more esoteric Russian variation by Alexander Pushkin called the Onegin Stanza.

There is also the Occitan stanza, a single poem by Paolo Lanfranchi da Pistoia, employing the rhyme scheme abab, abab, cdccdc; and the Spenserian, in which the rhyme scheme is abab, bcbc, cdcd, ee. The latter differs from, say, the Petrarchan in that it does not seem to require the octave set up a problem to be answered by the sestet, but instead the form is treated as three quatrains connected by an interlocking rhyme scheme followed by a couplet, not dissimilar from a terza rima.

A sonnet sequence is a number of sonnets on the same theme, creating a longer work, like Dante’s La Vita Nuova. A crown of sonnets, or a sonnet corona, is a sequence of sonnets, usually addressed to one person, and/or connected by a single theme, where the last line of the first sonnet is the first line of the succeeding sonnet, and the first line of the first sonnet is the final line of the final sonnet. The sonnet redoublé is more complex still, the 15th (there is no set amount in a normal sonnet corona) and final sonnet being made up of all of the first lines of the preceding 14.

English Sonnet

The English sonnet must be four stanzas, the first being three quatrains and the last a couplet. The rhyme scheme for the first three is A-B-A-B and the final couplet rhymes.

Although it is not specified by the form, most English sonnets, and indeed most English poetry, are written in iambic pentameter. It’s unsurprising that Shakespeare, the most celebrated sonneteer in English, would provide an example:

Let me not the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments, love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no, it is an ever fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand’ring bark,
Whose worth’s unknown although his height be taken.
Love’s not time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come,
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom:
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.
Sonnet 16


Let’s give it a go!

The sleep of cats, so unlike the slumber
That men enjoy, or suffer silently;
Against storms, inside your psychic thunder
We make our love, and make it violently

As I, a dreamer without cause to dream
Listen as you purr, as the weather purrs;
Wonder what I, when I say love, can mean:
What weighs man next to marble claws, black furs,

A hunter’s teeth, borne in your lover’s growl?
Your passion shreds sheets as lightning shreds skies.
Had I your passion, you would hear my howl
But powerless, I run from feline eyes

A cat would envy, a landscape so deep

My thoughts it kills, and haunts me when I sleep.

Laurence Thompson, 16th December 2011

Closing thoughts

I’m quite pleased with this sonnet, as it’s the first I’ve attempted since high school. Some of the lines appear tawdry and predictable to me, though (5 year olds know that ‘silent’ rhymes with ‘violent’, for god’s sake) – hopefully that will translate into a necessary flow in the eyes of a reader.

I didn’t have much difficulty with the pentameter, as I quickly realised the key was the second foot in the line. As long as that is recognisably iambic, so is the line, so I gave myself the freedom to piss about a bit.

As you can see, I divided up the stanzas for the sake of keeping my place. In the final version I’ve reformatted it, and I’ve called it “The Sleep of Cats.” I’m not sure whether sonnets typically have titles – perhaps I can number them once I have more of them. I also changed the last line to “It hunts my thoughts, and haunts me when I sleep.” I like the idea of a landscape hunting, rather than the other way around, and it recalls the first line of the third stanza. The predatory nature of the narrator’s lover’s beauty should seem relentless. This also works better than, say, “It haunts my thoughts, and hunts me when I sleep,” because that would set up an awkward near-rhyme between haunt and thought, and make the final clause too literal an image: imagine a dream where you’re being chased by a giant pair of cats eyes or something. Daft.

The relationship between man and nature was probably inspired by the Ted Hughes I’ve been reading lately. I hope it doesn’t sound dodgy that the poem is probably a synthesis of me thinking about a woman and my house-mate’s cat constantly waking me up. The weather is a current obsession all my own, however. Probably because, adjoined to my bedroom, there is a glass conservatory upon which the rain and snow and sleet likes to beat.

Happy St George’s Day! And, incidentally, Cervantes’ death day (depending on whether you’re using the Gregorian or Julian calendars). I think I’ll now go and kick off on Bidston windmill in his honour.


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Laurence Thompson

Laurence Thompson is an English writer. He is almost certainly drunk.

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