Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 617

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.

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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 format, Shakespeare’s logic weaves a paradox, which ironically displays those very qualities and skills that the questions imply he lacks. His verse is deficient in “new-found methods” and “compounds strange,” yet his poem is a compound of wit, logic, and sophisticated argument: By writing always of his “love” and “dressing old words new,” the poet transforms old coin into new and in that way gives his “love” permanent currency (“still telling”). While seeming to admit his artistic failings through the first twelve lines, the poet’s conceit—that writing and loving are like reusing the same words and spending money—cleverly demonstrates those skills he appears to admit not having.

The poem’s rich wordplay is evident in simple puns, such as the use of “time” (line 3) to mean poetic meter and the time in which the poet lives; the double meaning of “O, know” (line 9); and the more subtle play on seed in “proceed” (line 8). Its more important role is developing at least three arguments simultaneously by playing on the various meanings of spending, telling, inventing, and arguing.

This wordplay is evident in how the poet suggests various roles for himself. As an actor, he might perform a “quick change” (line 2), develop a new style of acting (“new-found methods”), or stay with the familiar mode and dress (“noted weed”), performing his “best” by “dressing” old words in new ways. In this conceit, he ironically hints that his words are nothing more than memorized speech and that he is “acting” the part of the lover, ending with the ambiguous compliment of repeating (“telling”) again and again “what is told (line 14).”

As a dealer in coin, on the other hand, he might make “quick change” or deal in new “compounds” (metals or coinages); his words, being coins (punning further on the notion that words are coined), reflect the value of his name, and he spends the word-coins that have been spent before (line 12). Finally, as the poet-logician, he debates the question of his method with a skillfully reasoned argument: His “love” and the words in which he expresses it are the same “coin” that he counts out and spends, making new currency out of the old or, like the sun, returning always the same but always new.

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