Sonnet of the Week — March 7, 2020
So once again upon an empty bed
I lay my weary thought-wrenched body down.
There was a time when Love to sleep had led
This antic soul whose purpose was unknown.
But Life has brought a better happiness,
Existing as it must but here and now.
The past is gone, while futures can arrest
All joy, and furrow deep a lover’s brow.
Then let Her be, for now, a spectre pure,
A lovely Dream, a Promise of the real.
This night will pass, and then the day endure
Another challenge to this lover’s zeal.
She may or may not ever come to be,
But thinking on Her brings a certain glee.
See, the thing is, the Shakespearean sonnet is an archaic poetic form, strict in construct and—mostly because of the meter, I expect—difficult to keep from sounding "twee," as my dear associate etouffee notes in a kind and most welcome message. (Frequent communication between users here is one of the most delightful features of E2.)
Technically the Shakespearean Sonnet consists of three quatrains and a single couplet, written in iambic pentameter with ten syllables per line. True iambic pentameter (di dah - di dah - di dah - di dah - di dah) throughout the poem is very difficult to achieve, I have found, and even Shakespeare sometimes varied the stressed syllable (possibly to avoid sounding "twee").
Shakespeare usually presents some sort of "problem" in the first twelve lines, with a different aspect of the issue being addressed in each quatrain. The concluding rhymed couplet offers a solution, a conclusion, or an epiphany, as we might call it today. Please refer to Shakespearean Sonnet by our sadly long-departed Ulysses for further explication.
The British poet and journalist Thomas William Hodgson Crosland (July 21, 1865—December 23, 1924) made a thorough study of the infernal form, and published a sort of "Dummies Guide to the Sonnet," for those of us with the temerity to give it a go.
Crosland was a humanitarian who frequently wrote about the misfortunate, the poor, the sick, and the unemployed. He was especially concerned about the care of veterans of World War I.
After a series of illnesses, he died in Surrey at 59, leaving a wife and son.
A biography, The Life and Genius of T.W.H. Crosland, by W. Sorley Brown was published in 1928.
But here are his thoughts on the poetic form that's been keeping me so busy in my leisure hours lately:
Sonnet Legislation: The Rules of Shakespearean Sonnets
From The English Sonnet by T. W. H. Crosland.
It has been commonly held that poetry is a law unto itself, and that there are no standards whereby it can be judged. Of the sonnet, however, this is certainly not true. The law has written itself explicitly and finally, and the standards have been set up and are irremovable.
Of the law we may dispose very briefly. A sonnet consists of fourteen decasyllabic lines, rhymed according to prescription. Any poem of more than fourteen decasyllabic lines, or less than fourteen, is not a sonnet. Poems of sixteen or more lines are sometimes styled sonnets, but they have no right to the title. Any poem in any other measure than the decasyllabic is not a sonnet.
For this reason, the poem which figures as Sonnet 145 in the Shakespeare Series is not a sonnet. Fourteen decasyllabic lines without rhyme, or fourteen lines rhymed in couplets, do not constitute a sonnet. The prescription for the rhymes of the English sonnet pure and simple may be formulated thus:
a-b-a-b c-d-c-d e-f-e-f g-g
And, strictly, the rhymes should be single, and never double. This form of sonnet was written before Shakespeare, but Shakespeare appropriated it to himself, and every one of his sonnets is so rhymed. Even in Sonnet 145 the rhyme scheme is maintained, and the sonnet "prologue" to Romeo and Juliet is similarly rhymed. The form is usually known as the Shakespearean.
We call it the English sonnet pure and simple, because it was the first perfect form of sonnet to take root in the language. It is doubtful whether since the time of Shakespeare a really satisfactory sonnet in that form has been written. All manner of poets have tried their hands and their wings. Perhaps, with the single exception of Michael Drayton, they have failed, and Drayton may be said to have succeeded in only one sonnet.
In a sense, possibly, we may regret that Shakespeare handled this beautiful form with such mastery; for after him, flight in it seems not only vain but presumptuous, and the most self-reliant poet will think twice before obeying an impulsion which seems likely to result in "four quatrains clinched by a couplet."
We imagine that if Shakespeare had written no sonnets, or only a few instead of a hundred and fifty-four, poetry might in the long result have been the gainer.
Crosland. T. W. H. The English Sonnet. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co, 1917. Shakespeare Online. 30 Aug. 2009. < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/sonnets/sonnetstructure.html >.