The sonnet is normally composed of one 14-line stanza written in iambic pentameter.
The sonnet “must take advantage of the possibilities inherent in its shortness and its relative rigidity” and “is best suited to intensity of feeling and concentration of expression.” (J. Paul Hunter, ed., The Norton Introduction to Poetry; New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1986, 176). We see from these quotations that the sonnet has certain basic qualities. It is short—only 14 lines long—and has a firmly fixed form. A poet must make use of all of the possibilities of thee basic qualities. The sonnet works best for expressing strong emotion or intense feeling, firm purpose, or great seriousness. This form works best if you want to focus attention on a single thing—a particular idea, situation, emotion, problem, observation, etc.
Quote: “I firmly believe any poet who masters the sonnet will master all the forms. —Eddie Morales
This poetic form has attracted poets since the 13th century. Although many poets created their own types of sonnet, William Shakespeare (April 1564 – April 23, 1616), who wrote 154 sonnets, and Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch, July 20, 1304 – July 19, 1374), who wrote 317, created the most famous. The Shakespearean (or English) sonnet and the Petrarchan (or Italian) sonnet are the two most prevalent versions of this form today. Either of these sonnets will make readers sure that the poet who uses the form has spoken truly—the sonnet gets to its point quickly and efficiently, with beauty nd charm of form or expression.
A Shakespearean (or English) sonnet is written in one stanza composed of three rhymed quatrains (each making one point in a three-step argument), followed by a rhyming couplet that summarizes the argument. The rhyme scheme is abab cdcd efef gg.
Let’s take a look at Sonnet 130 below. Here, Shakespeare says he does not have to untruthfully glamorize a woman to appreciate her true beauty, as many poets do:
Sonnet 130 My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun; Coral is far more red than her lips' red: If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun; If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head. I have seen roses damask'd, red and white, But no such roses see I in her cheeks; And in some perfumes is there more delight Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks. I love to hear her speak, yet well I know That music hath a far more pleasing sound: I grant I never saw a goddess go,— My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground: And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare As any she belied with false compare. —William Shakespeare (1609)
In this sonnet, Shakespeare has directed our close attention to a single idea: Since no woman can live up to false comparisons or exaggerations (for example, no woman’s eyes literally shine brightly as the sun), we should not make these fictitious statements if we want to show appreciation for her beauty. Getting to the point immediately, Shakespeare provides us with eight examples of ways in which his mistress falls short of the ideas of feminine perfection of his day.
Basically, what he’s saying is this: (My interpretation)
My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun; Coral is much redder than the red of her lips. If snow is white, then her breasts are grayish-brown; If hairs are (golden) wires, black wires grow on her head. I've seen the blush of red on white cheeks, But I don't see any such color in her cheeks; And some perfumes smell more delightful Than my mistress' foul-smelling breath. I love to hear her speak, but I know very well That music has a far more pleasing sound. Granted, I've never seen a goddess walk: When my mistress walks, she treads on the ground. And yet, by heaven, I think my beloved is as special As any woman written about (by poets) with false comparisons. (Posted on my site at www.poeticon.com/sonnets_127-154.html).]
In particular, Shakespeare mentions the woman’s eyes, lips, breasts, hair, cheeks, breath, voice, and walk. Return to the poem and locate each of these eight examples. You can see that the poet adheres to the sonnet form by concentrating on a single idea—that poetry celebrates falsely feminine beauty—and then has presented us with eight pieces of evidence that support his idea. He has effectively used this form of poetry to argue a point—he has made a claim and then proven it.
A Shakespearean sonnet will usually make a statement and then present a series of examples, or images, to prove it. If you look more closely at Sonnet 130, we can see in greater detail how the poet accomplishes this purpose. Although it has a single stanza, the Shakespearean sonnet makes its argument in three steps, each with language that evokes sensory impressions. In this sonnet, the punctuation and rhyme scheme provide clues as to where each one of these three steps begins and ends.
In the first step, Shakespeare has described four physical aspects of his mistress: her eyes, her mouth, and the color of her skin, and her hair. He has chosen to describe the things we would notice about her at a glance. Through the eyes of the poet, we see the woman as if we have just met her and are forming our first impression. The first step ends with the line “If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.”
The second step, which begins “I have seen roses . . .,” brings us closer to the woman—we are close enough to smell her breath, and we can see that her cheeks bear no resemblance to any rose. Shakespeare, favorably describing both the smell of perfume and appearance of roses, insists that neither of these pleasant items has any place in a portrayal of his mistress.
The third step begins with the line “I love to hear her speak . . . .” We are even closer now, having entered into conversation with the mistress. After speaking with us, she leaves, in the final line of this step: “My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground.” Shakespeare admits that, though he enjoys hearing the woman’s voice, the sound of music is even more enjoyable, and though he has never actually seen a goddess, he is sure that his mistress is merely human. This step of the sonnet completes the sensory impression made by meeting Shakespeare's mistress, since it mentions the senses of hearing (music and the mistress’s voice) and touch (the mistress’s feet touch the ground).
The rhyming couplet summarizes the point made by the three steps: Shakespeare’s finds his mistress as lovely as any woman who has been the subject of more flattering poetry, albeit falsely so. The rhyme scheme strengthens the structure of the three-step argument with a to-line summary.
We have seen that the structure of a Shakespearean sonnet allows a poet to make a claim and support it with examples or a series of images. It can also talk about a paradoxical or ironic situation. Even experienced readers find meaning accessible in a sonnet because of its straightforward organization and its focus on a single idea or point.
A Petrarchan (or Italian) sonnet is composed of an octet with an abbaabba thyme scheme followed by a sestet with a variable rhyme scheme (like cdecde, cdcdcd, cdcdce). The octet presents the poem’s theme or problem, while the sestet offers a change or a resolution. In its traditional form, the sonnet never ends in a couplet.
The Petrarchan sonnet offers many of the same benefits as the Shakespearean sonnet. However, because of its slightly different structure and rhyme scheme, the Petrarchan sonnet accomplishes a slightly different purpose. In the Petrarchan sonnet below, Robert Frost uses the octet to present a feeling about a certain subject, and then makes his unexpected conclusion in the sestet:
Design I found a dimpled spider, fat and white, On a white heal-all, holding up a moth Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth-- Assorted characters of death and blight Mixed ready to begin the morning right, Like the ingredients of a witches' broth-- A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth, And dead wings carried like a paper kite.
What had that flower to do with being white, The wayside blue and innocent heal-all? What brought the kindred spider to that height, Then steered the white moth thither in the night? What but design of darkness to appall?-- If design govern in a thing so small. —Robert Frost (1936)
Here is an interpretation by Wes Chapman:
Robert Frost's "Design" is a meditation on human attempts to see order in the universe—and human failures at perceiving the order that is actually present in nature. The speaker of the poem perceives what he takes to be a significant coincidence, and then speculates on what the coincidence might mean, or whether it means anything at all. However, he fails to see that there is a very good reason for the coincidence he spots, and the "design" of nature that it implies is quite different from anything he suggests.
The starting point for the speaker's thinking is what he perceives to be a coincidence: a white spider sits on a white flower holding up a white moth. The coincidence is even more striking because heal-alls are usually blue.
In Western culture, the color white usually symbolizes goodness, purity, and innocence. The language of the poem suggests these connotative links: the spider is "dimpled" as well as "fat and white," like a newborn baby. The moth's wings are like a "white piece of rigid satin cloth," like a bridal dress (or perhaps the lining of a coffin; already the speaker seems to be looking for the "darker" underside of the color white). The name "heal-all," too, suggests health, or perhaps the wisdom and beneficence of a healer.
By the end of the octet, the contrast between the positive connotations of the color white and the apparent gruesomeness of the scene before the speaker is made explicit. On the one hand, the scene is one of "death and blight," mixed like a "witch's broth" and including "dead wings." On the other hand, the spider is like a "snow-drop," suggesting purity, and the moth's wings are like a "paper kite," suggesting innocence.
In the sestet, the speaker wonders how this coincidence of a white spider and white moth on a white flower came to be, especially given the ironic tension between the positive connotations of the color symbolism and the negative connotations of the spider's killing of the moth. The speaker seems to absolve any of the three of any blame, however: the heal-all is "innocent," and so, apparently is the spider, who is "kindred" to the flower. The innocence of the moth hardly needs to be established.
In the closing couplet, the speaker offers two answers to the question of how the coincidence of the three white creatures came to be. The first possibility is that there is a force of evil at work that has created a "design of darkness to appall"--Satan, perhaps, delighting in the blasphemy of clothing a scene of destruction in the color of innocence and purity. The second is that there is no order in the universe at all, or at least none that operates on such a minute level: the "design of darkness" could exist only if "design govern in a thing so small." Since God is thought to govern everything, no matter how small, the possibility that design doesn't govern in small things immediately raises the possibility that there is no God to order the big things—such as human lives—either.
The speaker, then, has articulated the problem of how evil is possible in a universe created and watched over by a benevolent God. Given that there is evil in the world, then it appears that either God is not all-powerful, or there is no God.
There is a third alternative, however, that the speaker does not consider.
Any careful observer of nature, which Frost certainly was, can tell you that there is a perfectly logical explanation for the apparent coincidence of three white creatures appearing together. A white heal-all is unusual--the result, probably, of a recessive gene—but hardly cause for the kinds of metaphysical speculation in which the speaker engages. Given its existence, the presence of the other two creatures follows quite naturally. A white moth would be attracted to a white flower because it would offer some concealment from predators; a white spider would be attracted to a white flower because it would offer some concealment from prey. There is indeed a "design" at work, but it is not a "design of darkness"; it is simply the order of nature.
The existence of such a design leaves open the question of whether God exists. An atheist would take the explanation above as evidence that there are rational explanations for natural processes, and that there is no need to invoke the concept of God to explain how the universe works. In other writings, Frost does appear to profess belief in God (albeit belief of a complex kind). The focus of "Design," then, is not ultimately the existence or absence of God, but rather the tendency of humans to engage in what John Ruskin called the "pathetic fallacy"—the act of reading oneself into nature. The first act of responsible belief, Frost implies, is seeing nature as it is.
***** Now, let's continue:
Frost directs our attention to the striking, dramatic scene of a spider, its prey, and the flower they stand on and which they contaminate with their presence. The persona, or the “I,” has come across this display and describes it in the first eight lines (abba abba) of the sonnet, which contain three different descriptions of the same scene.
The first of these three is “I found a dimpled spider, fat and white / on a white heal-all, holding up a moth / like a white piece of rigid satin cloth.” In these descriptive lines, Frost uses neutral words (here in bold) to show that the persona has not yet reacted emotionally to what he sees.
The second description is “Assorted characters of death and blight / Mixed ready to begin the morning right, / Like the ingredients of a witches’ broth.” Frost chooses more sinister words to show that the persona has begun to interpret the tableau as negative and menacing.
In the third part, “A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth, / And dead wings carried like a paper kite,” Frost has switched to words with more positive connotations. The persona, still forming a reaction, is trying to see the scene in another light.
In the sestet, the persona questions how and why these “assorted characters of death and blight,” came together. Was it part of God’s design that a white spider has killed a white moth on a white heal-all, a flower that is usually blue? The sonnet ends surprisingly when the persona suggests that if any greater design is at work in nature (as symbolized by the scene), it seems more likely to be a “design of darkness,” or of the Devil, than God. Typically, poets associate God and nature; here, Frost associates the Devil and nature. Though the Petrarchan sonnet does not traditionally end in a couplet, we can see that Frost diverted from the strict form to emphasize his surprising conclusion in the last two lines of his poem.
Besides the beauty of its form, the sonnet offers poets a simple way to organize their feelings and thoughts. As we have seen, it serves several purposes: to make a convincing argument, to showcase a surprising situation, or to balance two sides of a question. No other poetic form lets poets accomplish these purposes quite as easily.
EXERCISE: WRITE A SONNET Now that you understand the sonnet’s formal requirements (14 lines of iambic pentameter with a specific rhyme scheme), method (a strong focus on one subject), and goals (persuasion, surprise, balance), it is time to write your own.