Sunday Sonnet – 25 September 2016


For today’s reading, I’ve taken a suggestion from my former college Shakespeare professor (thank you, Dr. Sommer) to talk a little bit about the form of the Sonnet. Don’t worry–I’ve tried to keep it simple and very, very basic, even though the sonnet form is crazy intricate. My little chat misses a thousand things, just scratching the surface.

I’d like to make one comment before letting my video do my work for me. The intricacies of the Elizabethan sonnet were more than just for fun, more than a Sudoku puzzle, more than just the pleasure of, say, solving the Sunday New York Times Crossword. All the crazy rules of the sonnet form together–and Shakespeare’s mastery over all those elements–have combined together to make Shakespeare’s sonnets so enduring.

Find a few brief section headers from my chat below.

Cathedral of the Written Word

Wherein I rant a bit why I’m so obsessed with Shakespeare’s sonnets.

14 lines with a specific rhyme scheme

A bit about the very specific rhyme scheme.


3 Quatrains, the Turn and a Couplet

The basic organization of the sonnet, which helps make each sonnet an ‘argument.’


Iambic Pentameter

This is all metered verse. Here I don’t even scratch the surface. But trust me, metered verse adds to its lyricism, and especially comes to play when this poetry is spoken aloud.


Thank you to everyone today who watched my mini lecture.



Sunday Sonnet – 14 June 2015

Sonnet 1

Sonnet 1, the first verse of one of the most astonishing collections of poems ever published in Western Literature by one Poet, opens with the form and function of the rigidly controlled format of the ‘Elizabethan Sonnet’: fourteen lines, iambic pentameter, a dovetailing rhyme scheme, with the content’s central argument controlled by three quatrains and couplet. And yet, the content: it was revolutionary:


From fairest creatures we desire increase, 
That thereby beauty’s rose might never die, 
But as the riper should by time decease, 
His tender heir might bear his memory:
But thou, contracted to thine own bright eyes,
Feed’st thy light’s flame with self-substantial fuel,
Making a famine where abundance lies, 
Thyself thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel.
Thou that art now the world’s fresh ornament 
And only herald to the gaudy spring, 
Within thine own bud buriest thy content 
And, tender churl, makest waste in niggarding. 
    Pity the world, or else this glutton be, 
    To eat the world’s due, by the grave and thee.

Was this sonnet a romantic verse penned by a male Elizabethan Poet to a beautiful and chaste mistress? Hardly. It’s penned by an older Poet to a younger man (though the identity of the recipient’s gender isn’t revealed till later sonnets, this business goes on for 126 sonnets!). Does it regale in the recipient’s beauty? Yes. However… Does the Poet beg for his recipient’s love? No! Rather, he begs the Young Man to breed, so this his beauty might be carried on. Very odd. Later, as more sonnets go on, a kind of narrative begins to reveal itself. For about the first 17 sonnets the Poet entreats the Young Man to preserve his beauty through marriage and procreation. But that begins to evolve into something else–into something that was illegal and very dangerous in Elizabethan England.

Despite the unusual and risqué subtext of this verse, its imagery and language are as sumptuous and profound as anything written in Elizabethan England (or, of course, even today):

‘Feed’st thy light’s flame with self-substantial fuel.’   My favorite line.

Does anyone write as beautifully in today’s world?

The image comes from a scan of the first publication of the Sonnets in 1609, taken, published and released without Shakespeare’s permission.

Sunday Sonnet – 01 February 2015

Mary Fitton

What makes the Elizabethan Sonnet form so great? Why do modern readers have to care, and why do modern students have to suffer through them? Well, simply put, as one of my friends quipped, ‘The sonnet is the cathedral of the written word.’ Just as cathedrals–in terms of architecture–are supreme examples of that art, so too sonnets. For example, let’s look at one of my favorites. I’ve inserted spaces between each ‘quatrain’ and the final ‘couplet’: 


When my love swears that she is made of truth
I do believe her, though I know she lies,
That she might think me some untutor’d youth,
Unlearned in the world’s false subtleties.
Thus vainly thinking that she thinks me young,
Although she knows my days are past the best,
Simply I credit her false speaking tongue:
On both sides thus is simple truth suppress’d.
But wherefore says she not she is unjust?
And wherefore say not I that I am old?
O, love’s best habit is in seeming trust,
And age in love loves not to have years told:
Therefore I lie with her and she with me,
And in our faults by lies we flatter’d be.

This is one of Will Shakespeare’s Dark Lady sonnets, and he uses this sonnet–and its intricate construction–to illustrate the complicated and paradoxical love/hate relationship he has with the Dark Lady. Let’s look at the quatrains–each section of four lines. I’m summarizing what each quatrain pretty much says, stripping out the lovely poetics (which, I know, is a crime):

First quatrain: When my mistress claims she’s truthful, I only pretend to believe her. 

Second quatrain: She pretends I’m a young man, but we both know I’m past my prime 

Third quatrain: So why doesn’t she say I’m old, and why don’t I say she’s a liar? Because it’s easiest to love someone who seems trustworthy. 

Final couplet: So we have sex with each other, and continue lying to each other. And these two points are tied together with a pun on the word ‘lying.’ 

So the basic structure of the Elizabethan sonnet is 14 lines, three quatrains and a couplet. The first two quatrains set out the argument. And then the third quatrain typically presents ‘a turn’ or flip in the argument. And then the couplet is either a resolution or conclusion–often couched in a really clever verbal construction (in this case, the pun on ‘lying’). 

This basic structure is married into rhymed and metered lines. Iambic pentameter: ten syllables with a syllabic rhythm. And the fourteen lines are rhymed like this:

















It’s hard as hell to write a sonnet that 1) follows these rules; 2) makes the rules work toward the final goal of the sonnet and 3) actually sounds and reads beautifully. Shakespeare did it 154 times.

And this sonnet? Don’t you recognize it? It’s what so many of us have experienced in our own lives, at one time or another, in a relationship we’d rather forget.   Most of Shakespeare’s sonnets–angry and happy alike–speak to things we still experience today, 400 years later. So, so many reasons to cherish these great poems. Not only for their incredible intricacy, but for their universal appeal–four centuries later.  

The image is a painting of Mary Fitton, one of several reputed candidates for Shakespeare’s never-identified Dark Lady. The evidence is scant at best, and we’ll never know.