The Elizabethan Sonnet 

by Magistra Rosemounde of Mercia 

The sonnet is arguably the most important lyric form in the English language. Originating in the 14th century, it became the form of poetry most associated with the Renaissance. A sonnet is generally fourteen lines of iambic pentameter, although there are some variations on this. It is rhymed, and the rhyming pattern can take a large number of different forms, although certain patterns are specifically connected to certain Renaissance poets. Before getting to those, we will first have a brief refresher course in poetic rhythm and notation.

Rhythm is poetry is referred to as meter. The unit of meter is the foot, also called a metric foot, which is a number of  syllables with a specifically placed accent. English meter is derived from a combination of Germanic and classical meters. There are four main types of meter in English: iambic (two syllables with accent on the second), trochaic (two syllables with accent on the first), anapestic (three syllables with the accent on the last), and dactylic (three syllables with the accent on the first). An easy way to remember them is by this sentence. “The iamb saunters through my book, trochees rush and tumble, while the anapest runs like a hurrying brook, dactyls are stately and classical.”

Stanzas are divisions within a poem that are similar to a paragraph. They generally divide both content and rhyming pattern in a sonnet. Stanzas have names that reflect the number of lines in them. Two lines is a couplet, three is a tercet, four lines is a quatrain, five lines is a cinquain, six lines is a sestet, seven lines is a septet, and eight lines is an octave or octet. Sonnets of various types are often identified by the types of stanzas in them. In poetic notation, stanzas are separated by commas.

Rhyming patterns are designated by lower case letters. Letters that are the same have the same end rhyme. Letters are separated by hyphens in poetic notation. A typical ballad, for instance, has stanzas that are quatrains with a rhyme pattern of a-b-a-b, and would be notated in the following way if it had four stanzas: a-b-a-b, a-b-a-b, a-b-a-b, a-b-a-b.

As mentioned previously, sonnets are usually fourteen lines long, and are written in iambic pentameter. Iambic meter is the meter that most closely resembles natural speech in English. The earliest sonnets are attributed to Petrarch (1307-1374), an Italian poet, who has since leant his name to the form of sonnet that he most often wrote. He originally wrote in eleven syllable lines (pentameter plus one), but pentameter is used in the English versions of the Petrarchan sonnet. This form is an octet followed by a sestet, where the octet sets up the poet’s thoughts on a subject, and the sestet makes the point. The most common rhyme scheme is a-b-b-a-a-b-b-a, c-d-e-c-d-e, but Petrarch ended occasionally with the variations c-c-d-c-c-d, and c-d-e-d-c-e. Most of his works were about the cold, chaste Laura, whom the poet woos, ever to be rejected. Petrarch was widely copied in the 15th and 16th centuries by both Italian and French poets.

The English poet Sir Thomas Wyatt (d. 1542) wrote in the Petrarchan, or Italian, form in iambic pentameter using Petrarch’s typical rhyming patterns. Sir Phillip Sidney also wrote in this style, but also with some modification. He often followed the octet with two tercets, with a typical rhyming pattern of a-b-b-a-a-b-b-a, c-d-c, d-e-e. Sidney is best know for his “Astrophel and Stella,” and for popularizing the sonnet form in England. A common theme in his work was the battle between desire and virtue. He also emphasized action in his poems by putting the verb in a position of importance.

Once the sonnet was introduced to England, it became the most popular form of poetry, a position it still holds today in most English speaking countries. The form of the sonnet most associated with the English is the “Shakespearean” sonnet. This is made up of three quatrains and a couplet, and the typical rhyming scheme is a-b-a-b, c-d-c-d, e-f-e-f, g-g. Although referred to as Shakespearean, the first poet to use this form was Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (d. 1547). Edmund Spenser also used this form. Shakespeare is, however, famous for his sonnets in this form. He used the end couplet to great advantage, almost as a punch line, which is sometimes called a “strong couplet.” Even in his plays, where the story is generally told in black verse, i.e. unrhymed metric verse, he often ends his characters’ soliloquies with a strong couplet. Shakespeare was also well known for his used of a two-syllable rhyme, also called a double rhyme or feminine rhyme.

But an Elizabethan sonnet is more than fourteen lines of iambic pentameter. There are certain other characteristics of sonnets of this period that are so important, that you do not really have a period sonnet without them. Some of these are stock metaphors, use of paradox, allusions to classical mythology, alliteration, word repetition, pastoral imagery, and an overall theme which holds the poem together through the use of a thematic device, such as a repeating line, metaphor, or idea.

The use of metaphor is Elizabethan poetry is an important concept. First there were certain stock metaphors, called “conceits” in the period, which were frequently used. Some of these are: the beauty of a woman to various rare objects, the relationship of the poet and his love to a battle, and the emotional state of the poet to ships at sea. Certain other metaphors existed because of the Renaissance worldview. Renaissance literati believed that there were laws of nature as there were laws of man, and that there was a hierarchy in the Cosmos just as there was on earth. The hierarchy of existence was God, who rules all, angels who rule spirituality, humans who rule thinking, animals who rule feeling, plants who rule living, and inanimate objects that rule mere existence. Within these categories there were further hierarchies. The king is above the peasant just as the oak tree is above the grass, and so on. They also believed in spheres of existence: the divine, the universal, the body politic, the individual, and all lower creations. The spheres were believed to be in perfect harmony with one another. This harmony was called the “cosmic dance,” and was often symbolized by music. These concepts came together to make for unique and intriguing metaphors. For instance the king might be represented by the lion, the king of beasts. The rational mind might be called the king of the individual because it rules him. The sun, the king of the planets, might be called a diamond, the king of gemstones.

Repetition was also an important part of sonnets, and was often used to help establish the theme. Words, or different forms of the same word, were often repeated throughout the poem. This provides emphasis, and can also indicate an emotional state or be thematic. When whole phrases were repeated it was nearly always to set the theme. Alliteration, the repetition of consonant sounds, usually at the beginning of the words, was so common as to be required. Sometimes the sound would repeat throughout the entire poem, but it was more common for the alliteration to be by the line. Often two or three different sounds would repeat within the poem. Often the sounds that were used were chosen because they evoked a certain emotional state. For example, “l” and “r” are soft sounds often associated with love, “sh” is soothing, “b” is harsh and discordant, and so on. Mythological references, usually Greek, abound in Renaissance sonnets, frequently in metaphors or similes. Just as the gods and goddesses were associated with certain areas or characteristics in classical times, so were they used by the poets.

The use of paradox, or opposites, is extremely common. “I freeze, I burn,” for example. Pastoral imagery was used extensively as an example of an ideal life, as was a reverence for “carpe diem,” to live each day as if it were your last. Another popular image was a cataloguing of the senses, I see, I hear, etc. This was also often a thematic device. Lastly, was the use of puns. It was not used all the time and not by all the poets, but is hard to appreciate Shakespeare without understanding his sense of punning. English has many words with double meanings, and some of the Renaissance poets took full advantage of that fact.



            The Complete Works of William Shakespeare 

The Elizabethan World Picture, Tillyard 

“Elizabethan Prose and Poetry,” English 3510, University of Tennessee, Knoxville 

The Faerie Queen, Edmund Spenser 

The Norton Anthology of Poetry, shorter edition, Eastman, ed. 

Whitfield’s University Rhyming Dictionary, Stillman, ed.