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.