Can you provide an example of a sonnet?

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Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed,
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature's changing course untrimmed:
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st,
Nor shall death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st,
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

This is sonnet 18 by William Shakespeare.  It is the most often cited, partially because of its beauty, but also because it is an excellent example of the form of a sonnet.

Sonnets are poems of fourteen lines, which usually follow the rhyming pattern abab cdcd efef gg. This means that in the first four lines, the first and third lines have end-rhymes, and the second and fourth do.  The same pattern applies in the next two quatrains, which means a group of four lines.  The last two lines rhyme with each other, and they are called a couplet.

There is more than one type of sonnet, but they are usually lyric poems (meaning poems about personal feelings rather than, say, heroic deeds or historical events) of a "single stanza of fourteen iambic pentameter lines linked by an intricate rhyme scheme" (Abrams 299).  Early English sonnets (by poets like Sir Thomas Wyatt) were Petrarchan (or Italian) sonnets, and they followed this pattern; eight lines (an octave) rhyming abbaabba, then followed by a sested (six lines) which rhyme cdecde.  Other poets in later times (such as Milton) used this form in later centuries.

Early in the sixteenth century the poet Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, and others, developed a form of the sonnet called the English or Shakespearean sonnet (so called later on because of Shakespeare's prowess at the form).   The poem above is this form.

The meter, iambic pentameter, consists of five iambic poetic feet (that is one unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable) is one that is also a defining characteristic of sonnets.  Note in the poem above how the meter, or the rhythm, of the lines goes like this:

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day

Not every single line in a sonnet must be rigidly iambic, but if there are extra unstressed syllables they are usually elided -- that is, run over, slightly -- while reading.  The number of feet, five, is generally adhered to, but depending on the reader's accent and style one more or one less foot in a line may appear.  Slight variations in meter make the sonnet more interesting, rather than detracting from its beauty.   The sonnet is a flexible style; short enough to limit the poet to a single complete thought, but long enough to give room for wordplay and development of ideas and imagery.  It has been used by many English-language poets for almost five hundred years.

Source: Abrams, M. H. A Glossary of Literary Terms.  Boston: Thomson Wadsworth, 2005.

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Discuss the sonnet and give an example of one.

A sonnet is a type of poem that has a specific form. The sonnet’s purpose is usually to praise something or someone or to specify the love of the poet.   There are two basic kinds of sonnets: the Petrarchan and the Shakespearean sonnet. 

The Petrarchan or Italian sonnet is a poem of fourteen lines, following a strict rhyme scheme and logical structure.

The sonnet structure divides the fourteen lines into an octave [eight lines] and a sestet [six lines].

The rhyme scheme for the octave is ABBA ABBA, and the sestet follows the pattern of CDE CDE.

The octave presents and discusses the theme of the sonnet; the sestet finishes the discussion and completes the theme.

The Shakespearean or English sonnet also has fourteen lines and follows a rhyme scheme.

This sonnet is broken into three quatrains [four lines] and a rhyming couplet [two lines].

The rhyme scheme is ABAB/CDCD/EFEF/GG.

Most sonnets are written in iambic pentameter which is a poetic meter that alternates unstressed and stressed syllables.

First quatrain: Discusses the subject of the sonnet.

Second quatrain: Develops the sonnet’s theme.

Third quatrain: Gives more to the theme.

Fourth quatrain: Provides the concluding thought.

Rhyming couplet: Reminds the reader of the purpose of the sonnet.

The sonnet is usually serious and thoughtful. 

One of the best known sonnets is Sonnet 18 by Shakespeare. He has a great love for a young man and wrote over a hundred sonnets to him. This sonnet’s beauty comes from the comparison on of the young man to a wondrous summer day. 

Shakespeare believed that as long as the lines of his poetry lived than the young man would achieve immortality. The tone of the poem is upbeat and adoring while the young man is compared to a summer day.  To Shakespeare, the wonderful summer day falls short to the excellence of the man.  The summer day is lacking in many ways. However, the young man is perfection. 

The summer day –

  • Too hot,
  • Too rough
  • Too dirty

The young man-

  • Fair,
  • Warm,
  • Sunny
  • Temperate

He is the darling of May.

And remember that as long as Shakespeare’s lines are read [like today] the young man will live on. Here we are reading and discussing Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18; consequently, the young man has lived on for over four hundred years.

So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,

So long lives this [the poem], and this [the poem] gives life to thee [the young man].

As long as men live and breathe see or hear on the earth, you will live forever. The summer day cannot compare to the exquisite that Shakespeare so admires.  Obviously, everyone loves the freedom of a summer day that has many possibilities. What a wonderful tribute!

Sonnets are no longer used by poets.  Although if one wants to read a beautiful love poem, look for a sonnet.

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