how to read the sonnet

How to read the sonnet

Poems aren’t easy to read, but if there’s any poetic form that grants both pleasure and closure, it’s probably the sonnet. 

What is a sonnet? 

According to the Oxford Dictionary, a sonnet is defined as: 

A poem of fourteen lines using any of a number of formal rhyme schemes, in English typically having ten syllables per line

To be exact, “ten syllables per line” based on iambic pentameter. Short of the famous first lines “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun” and “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways”, most of us aren’t always aware that a poem we’re reading is, in fact, a sonnet (or some kind of variation on a sonnet). 

homer simpson history GIF

This is because the ‘sonnet’, since its inception in the 13th century Italian court, has seen itself morph into many different forms, so much so that to say a poem is a ‘sonnet’ without specifying its type almost makes the identification meaningless. 

In general, there are 2 main sonnet types – the Petrarchan sonnet and the Shakespearean sonnet. 


What is the difference between the Petrarchan and Shakespearean sonnet? 

Petrarchan sonnet Shakespearean sonnet difference

A third sonnet type that we may come across is the Spenserian sonnet, which is basically the Shakespearean sonnet – but with the quatrains interlinked through rhyme. Instead of the ABAB CDCD EFEF GG rhyme scheme, then, in the Spenserian sonnet this becomes ABAB BCBC CDCD EE instead.

While this may seem like a minor revision in form, the impact this poses on the unity of thought and idea is significant (well, at least significant enough to merit its own category!) 


How did this ‘split’ in sonnet type come about?

Somewhat ironically, the genesis of the Shakespearean (or English) sonnet stemmed from a desire to ‘naturalise’ its Italian ancestor; specifically, to give the Italian sonnet a greater degree of freedom in both form and rhyme.

English, compared to Italian, isn’t as much of a rhyme-friendly language, which is why a strict adherence to the Petrarchan scheme would at some point curtail the poetic imagination of writers like Shakespeare, Spenser, and Donne.

As such, when the Petrarchan form made its way across the English Channel, Sir Thomas Wyatt and the Earl of Surrey anglicised it in their 1557 ‘Songes and Sonettes’ (thereafter known as Tottel’s Miscellany), which would later gain popular currency with Shakespeare’s sonnets. 

dieting season 3 GIF by Portlandia


Best way to read a sonnet…

Formal distinctions aside, one of the best ways to understand a sonnet is to see how a singular idea or thought undergoes a marked change throughout the course of the poem.

Because of the ‘volta’ (hinge), there’s always a point of pivot in the verse, where the persona gains an epiphany, comes to a realisation, or simply changes his/her mind about something. This change can be subtle or dramatic, but the sonnet always embodies change.

As such, the sonnet is the poetic crystallisation for one of the greatest truisms in life – change is the only constant.  

change the narrative GIF by Proven Innocent

I’ve written posts about the sonnet in other contexts (form vs structure, poetic rhythm, similes and metaphors etc.) But in this post, let’s focus on how the Petrarchan and the Shakespearean sonnet forms differ. 

To do this, let’s close read John Milton’s ‘When I Consider How my Light is Spent’ (1673) and Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29 ‘When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes’ (1609). 


How to read the Petrarchan sonnet – John Milton’s ‘When I Consider How my Light is Spent’ (1673) 

reading John Milton's when I consider how my light is spent
Photo credit: Lapham’s Quarterly

Towards the end of my post on blindness in King Lear, I mention that Milton, having been blind for most of his life, inserted a self-conscious remark about his blind state in Book 3 of Paradise Lost.

It is an optimistic comment about his blindness as a God-granted blessing, rather than a curse, as it has enabled him to “see and tell/Of things invisible to mortal sight”.

Years after the publication of this epic (which I close read in detail here), Milton ‘consider how his light is spent’ in darkness: 

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-labour, 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.”

This is a perfect Petrarchan sonnet, as it fits the bill by containing an octave + sestet structure, 14 iambic pentameter lines, and an ABBA ABBA CDECDE rhyme scheme.

The point at which the ‘volta’ swerves the poem’s perspective also comes right between the octave and the sestet, signalled neatly by the contrastive conjunction “But”. 

In the octave (i.e. the first eight lines), the persona (presumed here to be Milton himself) begins in a state of doubt, as he reflects somewhat morosely on whether he’s done enough to serve God, and if his constant ‘darkness’ (i.e. being blind) has hampered his potential to do more.

It’s interesting to consider a hidden parallel between the ‘ABBA ABBA’ enveloping rhyme of the octave and the image of a pair of closed – physically ‘enveloped’ – eyes; his physical limitation surfacing as a visual imprint on the form.

doth god exact day-labour, light denied? John milton

With the pivot brought about by “But patience, to prevent/That murmur”, however, the persona is reminded by his forbearance – “Patience” implicitly anthropomorphised as an angel or a sage – that what God looks for isn’t necessarily action, but obedience, as those “who best/Bear his mild yoke (i.e. God’s benign will), they serve him best”.

With this shift from self-doubt to reassured faith, the sonnet rhyme scheme ‘breaks out’ of the enveloping pattern of ABBA ABBA and spills into the repeated ‘trinity’ of the CDECDE pattern in the sestet, which bears hints of the Trinitarian formula (the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit) that’s so prevalent in Christian doctrine. 

It is also perhaps no coincidence that the final word should be “wait”, which at once echoes the pivotal word of the poem (“patience”) and encapsulates the central idea conveyed – one may not ‘see’ God’s plan (or see at all), but to the true believer, that should not matter, because blind faith, unquestioning belief and humble devotion – manifested in those who “only stand and wait” – are what God asks for. 


How to read the Shakespearean sonnet – William Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 29, When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes’ (1603) 

reading William Shakespeare's sonnet 29

By now, we will probably have noticed that much of poetry is concerned with some sort of struggle between internal vs external forces, or the self vs society (and God).

Similar to Milton’s poem, the persona in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29 starts off in a self-pitying state, as he “curses his fate” of being a disgraced outcast and laments “deaf heaven’s” disregard of his plight: 

When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
(Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth) sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
   For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
   That then I scorn to change my state with kings. 

Earlier, I had mentioned that the Shakespearean sonnet form is more flexible compared to its Petrarchan counterpart. While the ‘standard’ rhyme scheme for Shakespearean sonnets is ABAB CDCD EFEF for the three quatrains and GG for the final couplet, the rhyme scheme in Sonnet 29 diverges from this in two ways: 

1) there’s a lapse in the end rhyme of line 8 (i.e. standard ‘D’ rhyme word becomes a new rhyme – ‘E’, which doesn’t rhyme with any other end rhyme word in the poem), 

2) the third set of alternate rhyme (supposedly ‘EFEF’) rehashes the ‘B’ rhyme from the first quatrain (“state/fate” in lines 2 and 4), resulting in an ‘FBFB’ scheme (“state/gate” in lines 10 and 12)

Previously, I’ve said that for any literary analysis to be rewarding, one must examine the structural or linguistic anomalies in a given text.

In this sonnet, then, perhaps the ‘missing’ D rhyme in the line “With what I most enjoy contented least”, read vis-a-vis its corresponding rhyme line “Featured like him, like him with friends possessed” (i.e. the other line containing the D rhyme), is to emphasise both the persona’s own lapsed state, as well as his status as a social ‘other’ – an “outcast” who has lost everything that a respectable man in society should own – “fortune” (wealth), “friends” (companions), “art” (hobbies) and “scope” (work).

The persona reveals that he isn’t just a social outcast, but a spiritual one, too, as he reveals in line 8 – the line sans end rhyme – that he no longer delights in these conventional endeavours, which the rest of society deems important. 

Shakespeare sonnet 29 couplet

Yet” – and this word, like the “But” in Milton’s sonnet, initiates the critical pivot in this poem – all is not lost for the persona. With the turn into line 9, the persona recalls the one thing which has kept him going despite the hardships in life: “Haply I think on thee”.

As we enter into the final two lines, then, we realise that it is “thy sweet love remembered” – the memory of his dead lover – which grants him a transcendental awareness, which is that no material or mortal comfort would ever measure up to the precious experience he once had with his love. Indeed, this is a memory he wouldn’t trade for all the world, not even the king’s throne – 

For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
I scorn to change my state with kings.

And what of the curiously repeated ‘B’ rhyme in the third quatrain? With the “state/gate” pair in lines 10 and 12 echoing the “state/fate” pair in lines 2 and 4 of the first quatrain, Shakespeare reiterates the sober reality of the persona’s “state” – which remains materially poor and destitute. 

But he delivers ‘redemption’ in the alphabetical slide from ‘f’ to ‘g’ as in “fate” to “gate”, which reveals a radical change in worldview on the persona’s part.

This change initiates not only a linguistic pivot from letter to letter, a formal pivot from quatrain to quatrain, a structural pivot from question to solution, but recalls the epochal pivot from the Medieval belief in Fate as the guiding force (as in the rota fortunae – Wheel of Fate – in Boethius’ Consolations of Philosophy) to the predominant creed (at least in Renaissance England) of God as the ultimate authority. 

Rota Fortuna Press - Wiseblood Books
Coëtivy Master’s Rota Fortunae, 15th Century (via Wiseblood Books)

As such, the persona evolves from someone wracked with doubt and bitter despair in God’s seeming abandonment, to one who makes an enlightened return back “at heaven’s gate” through the blessing of memory. 

One of the best things about the sonnet is its malleability, which also explains why it’s been able to stick around for so long. Even today, people are writing sonnets to express all kinds of emotions, struggles and ideas.

Such is the teflon nature of this poetic form. 

To read my analysis of other sonnets, check out the links below: 

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