The sonnet is one of the most popular forms in English poetry. Written in iambic pentameter (every other syllable stressed, five stresses per line), a sonnet’s theme is usually, but not always, centered on love. Other common themes include friendship (as in most of Shakespeare’s sonnets), death (for example, John Donne’s “Death Be Not Proud,” which he actually writes to Death personified), and religious themes. Really any subject matter may be present (consider Shelly’s “Ozymandias”); love is simply the most common.
The structure of the sonnet may be organized according to either of two forms: the English/Shakespearian sonnet, and the Italian/Petrarchan. The Petrarchan sonnet is divided into two sections: an octet (8 lines) and an answering sestet (6 lines). Meanwhile the English sonnet is composed of three quatrains followed by a summary couplet. Historically, the English sonnet has been used for a greater variety of themes, while the Petrarchan is mostly reserved for romantic love. Additionally, English sonnets are sometimes also grouped into cycles (generally five sonnets long), wherein each new sonnet is an exposition of the couplet that concluded the previous one. “On Desire” is an example of such a cycle.
Here are a few examples of the English sonnet, by Samuel Daniel (1562-1619):
From Delia, Sonnet 33
When men shall find thy flower, thy glory pass,
And thou, with careful brow sitting alone,
Receivèd hast this message from thy glass,
That tells thee truth, and says that all is gone.
Fresh shalt thou see in me the wounds thou madest,
Though spent thy flame, in me the heat remaining:
I that have loved thee thus before thou fadest,
My faith shall wax, when thou art in thy waning.
The world shall find this miracle in me,
That fire can burn when all the matter’s spent;
Then what my faith hath been thyself shall see,
And that thou wast unkind thou mayst repent.
. Thou mayst repent that thou hast scorned my tears,
. When winter snows upon thy golden hairs.
From Delia, Sonnet 45
Care-charmer Sleep, son of the sable night,
Brother to death, in silent darkness born,
Relieve my anguish, and restore my light;
With dark forgetting of my care return.
And let the day be time enough to morn
The shipwreck of my ill-adventured youth:
Let waking eyes suffice to wail their scorn,
Without the torment of the night’s untruth.
Cease, dreams, the images of day-desires,
To model forth the passions of the morrow;
Never let rising sun approve you liars,
To add more grief to aggravate my sorrow:
. Still let me sleep, embracing clouds in vain,
. And never wake to feel the sun’s disdain.
And here is an example of a Petrarchan (here the poet isn’t writing a love poem exactly, but is using the Petrarchan form to invoke the context for this little character drama):
(note: this poem features some enjambment; remember not to stop at the end of a line if there is no punctuation there!)
by John Crowe Ransom (1888-1974)
—I am a gentleman in a dustcoat trying
To make you hear. Your ears are soft and small
And listen to an old man not at all,
They want the young men’s whispering and sighing.
But see the roses on your trellis dying
And hear the spectral singing of the moon;
For I must have my lovely lady soon,
I am a gentleman in a dustcoat trying.
—I am a lady young in beauty waiting
Until my truelove comes, and then we kiss.
But what grey man among the vines is this
Whose words are dry and faint as in a dream?
Back from my trellis, Sir, before I scream!
I am a lady young in beauty waiting.
And here you can read some other good romantic sonnets by Edmund Spenser or Sir Phillip Sydney (mind, that link will take you to four poems, but only three of them are sonnets), or some holy sonnets by John Milton or Christina Rossetti. Also, there’s last week’s post featuring Edward Arlington Robinson.