Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

This sonnet is an “English,” or “Shakespearean” sonnet—that is, it is composed of three quatrains and a couplet of iambic pentameter, rhymed abab, cdcd, efef, gg. What is different about the structure of this sonnet is that there is far less development from quatrain to quatrain than is usual for the overall collection. Shakespeare most often develops his sonnets by moving his argument in three quite distinct steps to its concluding couplet, or by developing three quite different images to be tied neatly together in the closing lines. This sonnet, however, has far more repetition than differentiation from quatrain to quatrain. The differences are subtle: The quatrains quietly move from wailing to weeping to grieving, a progression that is hardly noticed.

What makes this one of Shakespeare’s most loved sonnets is not its structure but its music, achieved in part through the rhymes, but even more distinctively through the repetition of consonant sounds. In the first quatrain of the sonnet there are no less than twelve sibilant sounds, which, rather than hissing, evoke the music of the wind. The sound is repeated in the last line of the sonnet, surely an intended recapitulation to increase the feeling of completion. The fourth line of the poem introduces a series of alliterated w sounds: “And with old woes new wail my dear Time’s waste.” These sounds introduce the rhythm of wailing, which is repeated in line 7, “And weep afresh love’swoe,” and again in line 10, “from woe to woe.” Repeated liquid sounds in line 7 add a languid sound to the line—“love’s long since canceled woe”—and repeated m’s add both softness and length to lines 8 and 11: “And moan th’ expense of many,” and “fore-bemoaned moan.” A lengthening of sound...

(The entire section is 737 words.)