Form and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

This poem is a sonnet, a poem consisting of fourteen lines in iambic pentameter, a form created by Petrarch, an Italian poet of the fourteenth century. A Petrarchan sonnet usually contains eight lines sketching a situation (the octave) and six lines applying it (the sestet). The form was modified by Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, earl of Surrey, appearing in poetic anthologies during the mid-sixteenth century. They and other poets created the English sonnet, consisting of three quatrains followed by a couplet, rhyming abab, cdcd, efef, gg. In this form, the eight-six division is occasionally maintained, as in Sonnet 18, but the concluding couplet summarizes the theme.

The sonnets of Shakespeare, taken as a whole, may be said to form a sonnet sequence: a series of sonnets, usually addressed to a woman for whom the poet has conceived a passion. From Petrarch’s time on, the conventions of the lover’s complaint pervade the imagery of these sequences, but their originality of imagery and conceit generally transcends the limitations of the troubadour traditions from which they derive. The women of these sequences have themselves become widely known: Petrarch’s Laura, Sir Philip Sidney’s Stella (Penelope Devereux), and Edmund Spenser’s Elizabeth Boyle have achieved the kind of immortality that Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 contemplates.

It is thus ironic that the object of Shakespeare’s own sequence should be unknown. The poems...

(The entire section is 495 words.)