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The Sonnet
[Page 3]

The Shakespearean (or English) Sonnet

The English language, with its wide variety of word endings and vowel sounds, does not produce musical, effortless rhymes as easily as Italian does. A density of rhyme that works in Italian poetry can therefore sound strained in English. As a result, English variants of Italian poetic forms will tend to increase the poet's flexibility in rhyme; the English version of the sonnet, for instance, features seven rhymes rather than five, thus requiring less repetition of the poem's rhyming sounds.

Conventional Shakespearean sonnets are easy to spot. Once you see a poem of fourteen lines--by now, "sonnet!" should leap into your head at that point--you can look at the last two lines to see if they rhyme. If they do, you are almost certainly beholding the closing couplet of a Shakespearean sonnet. That couplet closes the Shakespearean sonnet with a bang, replacing or supplementing the Italian volta with a break between the first twelve lines (divided into three quatrains) and the final two, which give a brief summarizing or retrospective statement. The Shakespearean sonnet's rhyme scheme reads abab cdcd efef gg; the volta comes after the twelfth line.

As a clever reader, you have probably deduced by now that this sonnet form is associated with Shakespeare. You can see the form in action through this, one of the most famous of Shakespeare's sonnets (number 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. 



(In the final line, note the archaic use of the pronoun "she," which functions as a synonym for "woman.")

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