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.
I did not think that I should find them there
When I came back again; but there they stood,
As in the days they dreamed of when young blood
Was in their cheeks and women called them fair.
Be sure, they met me with an ancient air,—
And yes, there was a shop-worn brotherhood
About them; but the men were just as good,
And just as human as they ever were.
And you that ache so much to be sublime,
And you that feed yourselves with your descent,
What comes of all your visions and your fears?
Poets and kings are but the clerks of Time,
Tiering the same dull webs of discontent,
Clipping the same sad alnage of the years.
Note: “alnage” is an old word referring to a measure of cloth. So why does the poet use it here? Well, Greek, Roman, and Norse mythology all feature a group of divine beings who weave Fate, spinning and weaving each person’s life and destiny. (The average reader of poetry in Robinson’s time knew that without having to consult a footnote.) And “tiering” is another old word, meaning “to arrange in layers,” or “to cascade in an overlapping sequence”–thus, weaving. So the poets and kings weave dull tapestries, the same dull images over and over again, and not any more significant than the fate of your local nobody. (Well–that sounded so much better the way Robinson said it than it did in my dry explanation, didn’t it?)
By day she woos me, soft, exceeding fair:
. But all night as the moon so changeth she;
. Loathsome and foul with hideous leprosy
And subtle serpents gliding in her hair.
By day she woos me to the outer air,
. Ripe fruits, sweet flowers, and full satiety:
. But thro’ the night, a beast she grins at me,
A very monster void of love and prayer.
By day she stands a lie: by night she stands
. In all the naked horror of the truth
With pushing horns and clawed and clutching hands.
Is this a friend indeed; that I should sell
. My soul to her, give her my life and youth,
Till my feet, cloven too, take hold on hell?
I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert… Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
When I Consider How My Light Is Spent
When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide,
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide;
“Doth God exact day-labor, light denied?”
I fondly ask; but Patience to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.”
On the Late Massacre in Piedmont
Avenge, O Lord, thy slaughtered saints, whose bones
Lie scattered on the Alpine mountains cold,
Even them who kept they truth so pure of old
When all our fathers worshipped stocks and stones,
Forget not: in thy book record their groans
Who were thy sheep and in their ancient fold
Slain by the bloody Piemontese that rolled
Mother with infant down upon the rocks. Their moans
The vales redoubled to the hills, and they
To Heaven. Their martyred blood and ashes sow
O’er all th’Italian fields where still doth sway
The triple tyrant: that from these may grow
A hundredfold, who having learnt the way
Early may fly the Babylonian woe.