Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Unlike the Italian (or Petrarchan) sonnet, the Shakespearean (or English) sonnet is divided into three quatrains and a couplet, rhyming abab, cdcd, efef, gg. The first two quatrains introduce and develop the subject of the poem to the end of the eighth line, where a pause occurs. The third quatrain addresses the subject from a some-what different perspective, concluding the poet’s argument in line 12. The couplet sums up the foregoing argument or, as in Sonnet 76, delivers a final statement that clenches the matter.

Each line of the sonnet regularly consists of five stresses, or ten syllables, called iambic pentameter. In Sonnet 76, lines 1, 3, 5, 8, and 12 are irregular. All these lines except line 1 combine iamb feet (in which the stress falls on the second syllable) with trochees, two-syllable feet whose stresses fall on the first syllable of each foot: “Whý with the tíme do í not glánce asíde,” for example. The last four syllables in the first line vary the conventional line even further, placing the stresses and unstressed syllables in pairs (illustrated here within brackets): so bár[ren of néw príde].” These variations subtly contradict the poet’s conceding that his verse is conventional.

Structurally, the poem develops as an argument. The first eight lines challenge the poet with three questions, which he answers in the third quatrain and final couplet with a witty rejoinder that demonstrates his skills as a noteworthy opponent. Within this debatelike...

(The entire section is 617 words.)