When ‘The Sonnets’ are mentioned it can only apply to one man: William Shakespeare. Yet it is a curious fact that they are all merely English Sonnets, a form already commonly existent in his own time and now also known as Elizabethan Sonnets.
The English Sonnet emerged with Lord Surrey who transformed the rhyming scheme from the so-called Petrarchan form – ABBAABBA etc. Surrey, who it is supposed, recognised that the Petrarchan form demanded two sets of four rhyming words for each Sonnet, and that in the English language there was a dearth of such correspondences, leading to those that were available becoming swiftly clichéd.
He therefore reconstituted the form and split the first octave into two quatrains of ABAB CDCD, a welcome release; the English Sonneteers took flight and were off like a flock of newly minted starlings; later metamorphosing into Larks and Nightingales around the time of Keats and Shelley.
This argument suggests that there is no such thing (in form) as a Shakespearian Sonnet, although protests might arise at this, arguing that the form is in this case irrelevant and it is the content which identifies the Bard.
From the poetic point of view this argument wins hands-down; for what is, and what is not a Sonnet? A hoary old argument still raging in the lofty realms of poetic academia.
However, accepting that Shakespeare’s were the common English Sonnet form of the time; and that the splendour of his content melts the chains of too strictly applied form, might not he have said, ‘A pox on that,’ when confronted with the classical Petrarchan form. For he never wrote one.
Shakespeare gave birth to many of the English words commonly used in our day, and in coining them demonstrated perhaps the primal role of the poet. Words however, like Chinese whispers can fall prey to the pedant, (a strange creature who gives precedence to form over content). A likely example of this occurs in his poem to immortality Sonnet 55, foreseeing through the lines its own deathlessness; for whenever this Sonnet is read; aloud or even silently; it proves its point.
Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme;
But you shall shine more bright in these contents
Than unswept stone, besmear’d with sluttish time.
When wasteful war shall statues overturn,
And broils root out the work of masonry,
Nor Mars his sword nor war’s quick fire shall burn
The living record of your memory.
‘Gainst death and all-oblivious enmity
Shall you pace forth; your praise shall still find room
Even in the eyes of all posterity
That wear this world out to the ending doom.
So, till the judgment that yourself arise,
You live in this, and dwell in lovers’ eyes.
In Shakespeare’s time copies were transcribed by hand and professional copyists made a living this way, these would, by their calling, have been naturally pedantic, more interested in the fineness of their calligraphy than the meaning of the words they transcribed and thus might well, noticing where a poet has, in their eyes, made a mistake, take it upon themselves to ‘correct’ it. This seems to have occurred with the last word of the third quatrain: ‘That wear this world out to an ending doom’.
Doom! What’s this? The whole ethos of the poem is the triumph of survival and the anticipation of immortality. Would Shakespeare lead us up this glorious path and then put the boot in? Hardly. Therefore, it is here speculated, he is likely to have cast around for an appropriate last word to rhyme with ‘room’ whilst maintaining poetic integrity. But with such a splendid poem the choices on offer were hardly appropriate: Boom, Loom, Tomb, Womb, none of these would do and ‘Doom’ least of all
However, perhaps finding nothing suitable he could have given meaning precedence and may have alighted on the word ‘Dawn’, and therefore, ‘wear this world out to the ending dawn’, thus bringing to a perfect conclusion the optimistic tone of the poem. Of course dawn does not rhyme with room, but so what? As Shakespeare once more might have said: A pox on that!’
Enter the pedant copyist: ‘What’s this? He must have made a mistake. “Dawn” doesn’t rhyme with “Room”, so I’ll just correct it and replace “Dawn” with “Doom” which does rhyme,’ not realising that he had doomed the thrust and ethos of the whole poem forever.
Shakespeare is not alone in regarding strict form discomforting and bending the rules under the indomitable guise of ‘Poetic Licence’. Keats took to this cause in a one-man crusade against the Philistine strictures of socially imposed form. His attack in a poem which efficiently demolishes its own form by using the content to defeat it is the anti-Sonnet:
‘If by dull rhymes our English must be chain’d,’
If by dull rhymes our English must be chain’d,
And, like Andromeda, the Sonnet sweet
Fetter’d, in spite of pained loveliness;
Let us find out, if we must be constrain’d,
Sandals more interwoven and complete
To fit the naked foot of poesy;
Let us inspect the lyre, and weigh the stress
Of every chord, and see what may be gain’d
By ear industrious, and attention meet:
Misers of sound and syllable, no less
Than Midas of his coinage, let us be
Jealous of dead leaves in the bay wreath crown;
So, if we may not let the Muse be free,
She will be bound with garlands of her own.
His rhyming scheme on the surface appears deliberately chaotic (which it is) ABCABDCA. A rare example of 19th century Punk, equivalent perhaps, (considering his formal times) to Johnny Rotten singing ‘God save the Queen’, from the roof of Buckingham Palace and a precociousness more than sufficient to bring the pedant roaring from his outdoor privy.
However, being a thinking man his choices were not, as might be supposed, random. His rhyming arrangements were, on examination, carefully considered: ABCA, thus in the first and last line of the first quatrain he pays a subtle lip-service to the Petrarchan arrangement exactly as in that classical Italian form.
The next quatrain, BDCA, moves down one alphabetical interval and begins on the ‘B’, but then, instead of mirroring the first quatrain with BCD, he transposes the CD to DC, and ends again with ‘A’, thus in equivalence with the last word of the first quatrain. The last quatrain he tosses off with a blithe but knowing nonchalance re-establishing the order of DC to CD and thus BCDE, with a final DE.
The last two lines of the third quatrain and the final couplet together interestingly make an ABAB quatrain of their own, unorthodox one might say but a pox on that too.
Art Nick Victor