Shakespeare’s Sonnets

“What majesty flows from his pen
His poetry soars like a sweet violin”
                    – Nigel Bottom, Something Rotten

Shakespeare’s sonnets are not really my area of expertise, though having said that Shakespeare isn’t my area of expertise either, but I love it therefore I am flooding my blog with it for the month of April. However! I do love looking up all this stuff about the Bard and his work and discovering new things I didn’t know, especially regarding the sonnets. My only real knowledge of the sonnets before now was Sonnet 18, Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day, and the fact he mentions a ‘dark lady’ a lot in them which I learnt from Doctor Who.

Writing, Quill, Books, Transparent Background, Vector

Some say Shakespeare’s sonnets are his most popular work, I thought his plays were but considering I knew about Sonnet 18 as a kid without knowing the title or that it was by Shakespeare maybe that’s the evidence there, I don’t know. But with 154 sonnets a fair few were going to enter the general population and become incredibly well known.

Along with his 37 plays, Shakespeare also wrote 2 long poem narratives, as well as the 154 sonnets. His first piece was the narrative poem Venus and Adonis which was written and published in 1593 when Shakespeare was 29 years old. The sonnets themselves were likely composed over an extended period from 1592 to 1598. Shakespeare’s sonnets are much more numerous than his plays so I will not be including a full list here. I’ve included a few links below that let you read them; many include commentary and annotations as well.

Edit: I discovered that the reason Shakespeare started his sonnets was because an outbreak of the plague in Europe resulted in all theatres being closed between 1592 and 1594. During this time no one wanted to see plays so Shakespeare started working on his sonnets instead.

Shakespeare Online has a wonderful break down of the content and reoccurring subjects of each sonnet; many seem to be grouped together with running stories or subjects, similar themes and tones such as the passage of time, love, beauty, and mortality. Many of them are considered the most romantic poems ever written and judging how popular and well known they are to this day it is hard to dispute.

The sonnets are written predominately in iambic pentameter, a rhyming scheme in which each line consists of ten syllables. These syllables are divided into five pairs called iambs or iambic feet. An iamb is made up of one unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable. Shakespeare Online provides an excellent example:

A line of iambic pentameter flows like this:
baBOOM / baBOOM / baBOOM / baBOOM / baBOOM.

Shall I / com PARE/ thee TO / a SUM / mer’s DAY?
Thou ART / more LOVE / ly AND / more TEM / per ATE (Sonnet 18)

Each sonnet is made up of 14 lines and only three of the 154 don’t follow this rule: Sonnet 99 (with 15 lines), Sonnet 126 (12 lines), and Sonnet 145 (written in iambic tetrameter). Many of Shakespeare’s plays are also written in iambic pentameter but the lines do not rhyme nor are they grouped into stanzas. Iambic pentameter that doesn’t rhyme is known as blank verse.

Sonnets1609titlepageIn 1609 there was a possible breach of copyright as Shakespeare’s sonnets were published by Thomas Thorpe without his permission under the title: SHAKE-SPEARES SONNETS. Never before Imprinted. (despite sonnets 138 and 144 being previously published in 1599). There is debate about whether Thorpe actually published without Shakespeare’s permission; he may have used an authorised manuscript from Shakespeare or an unauthorised copy.

It’s argued that Shakespeare’s Sonnets is a prototype of new ‘modern’ love poetry. While not that popular in 18th century England, Shakespeare’s sonnets grew in popularity in the 19th century alongside the renewed interest in his original works as part of the Romantic era.

Sonnet 1

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.

Sonnet 18

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed,
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course untrimmed:
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st,
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Sonnet 33

Full many a glorious morning have I seen
Flatter the mountain tops with sovereign eye,
Kissing with golden face the meadows green,
Gilding pale streams with heavenly alchemy;
Anon permit the basest clouds to ride
With ugly rack on his celestial face,
And from the forlorn world his visage hide,
Stealing unseen to west with this disgrace:
Even so my sun one early morn did shine,
With all triumphant splendour on my brow;
But out, alack, he was but one hour mine,
The region cloud hath mask’d him from me now.
Yet him for this my love no whit disdaineth;
Suns of the world may stain when heaven’s sun staineth.

Edit: Musician Paul Kelly had turned some of Shakespeare’s Sonnets in songs. You can watch the video of him discussing it here or find out more on his website.

Links and Bits

Shakespeare’s sonnets

Shakespeare’s Sonnets

Famous sonnets

Theories about the sonnets

Outline of sonnet content

Sonnet structure and style

Listen to famous sonnets being read

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