Sonnets

The two major types of sonnets throughout literary history are the Petrarchan and Shakespearean sonnets. While both use 14 lines with various rhyme schemes in order to write poetry, the specifics, both in form and content, can be very different.

Petrarchan sonnets develop before those of Shakespeare, in Italy during the 13th and 14th century, as imitations of classical ovidian poetry by the “Father of Humanism”, Petrarch. He adapted these poems into what is known today as Petrarchan or Italian sonnets. In them, there were two parts that made up the 14 lines which were meant to be spoken aloud using a form of stress on the words called iambic pentameter. The first 8 lines, known as the octave, would have its own rhyme scheme in which they would set up a problem for the poet. The poem would then use a volta, or turn, to shift to the sestet, which would signal a change in tone and would often resolve the poets problem. Subject matter for the poems was usually the description of a loved one for the poet, comparing her to something found in nature through the use of metaphysical conceits.

Shakespearean sonnets, on the other hand, while they shared the 14 lines and spoken nature of Petrarchan Poetry, had a difference in general rhyme scheme and also in form. Shakespeare used three quatrains instead of an octet to set up the main part of the point he was trying to get across as a poet, finishing with a rhyming couplet that solved the problem or concluded the poem. Shakespeare and other English poets felt that the traditions of Petrarch were admirable but were overused and idealistic, with subject not changing. Shakespeare did use some of these forms, like in the intro to Romeo and Juliet, but he and other poets of his time like Wyatt and Surrey wrote about topics other than romantic love, such as life in the city of London itself.

After reading both the Shakespearean and Berrigan sonnets, I noticed that the structure was somewhat similar. Both sonnets contained 14 lines, which is typically a characteristic of all sonnets. However, the Berrigan sonnets were not consistent in terms of syllables per line. The Shakespearean sonnets all contained 10 syllables per line. The two types of sonnets were different in terms of form. In the Shakespearean sonnets, the last two lines were indented to the right and contained an explanation that wraps the sonnet up. The Berrigan sonnets did not end with two lines that follow this format. I found that in the Shakespearean sonnets, it followed a rhyming pattern, but the Berrigan sonnet did not. Also, the Berrigan sonnets continued thoughts and sentences on the following line. I felt like the Shakespearean sonnets were easier to follow because each line was one complete idea/sentence. The Berrigan sonnets threw me off because the first word of every line was capitalized, however, some of these lines were not new sentences. Most of them were a continuation of the last line. The language and vocabulary in both types of sonnets were also different. I did not need to know that Shakespeare wrote the sonnets because the language was very much like Shakespeare’s language. It was Old English, and contained certain vocabulary words that you would typically find in Shakespeare’s work. The Berrigan sonnets contained a mixture of different types of words and did not have too many vocabulary words that were unfamiliar. Before conducting this research on sonnets and reading through these poems, I was unfamiliar with this type of poetry. I remember touching on it in grade school, but I did not remember enough about it to recognize a sonnet without me being told that it is a sonnet. I now know how to distinguish a Shakespearean sonnet from a different type of sonnet because Shakespearean sonnets have specific characteristics that make them Shakespearean sonnets. It was interesting to learn that certain lines are grouped together and how most all sonnets are structured a certain way.

Upon looking at the four sonnets of Shakespeare, and the two sonnets of Berrigan, one could immediately deduce that Berrigan was heavily influenced by Shakespeare’s work. The style of these Shakespearian sonnets are quick, romantic, and almost musical in a sense. Heaviness is a word that would describe Shakespeare’s use of vocabulary compared to the light and almost airy use of Berrigan’s. Time could play a bit of a factor in this language difference. Even though Shakespeare’s use of language is heavy, he manipulates the flow of the language in a certain way to make it seem as if it is faster than Berrigan’s airy words. Whenever I think of the name “Shakespeare”, I associate it with love and all of its forbidden glory and beautiful charm, but also the dark side of love. Shakespeare captures this content with his specific language. Whereas Berrigan seems to take a more satirical or a daunting approach, with crude, harsh language.

As I researched the sonnets of Shakespeare and Berrigan, I learned that, in order for a poem to be considered a “sonnet,” it does not necessarily have to follow a certain pattern or style; even within this specific branch of poetry, there is much variety in terms of form, structure, content, language, and vocabulary.

Shakespeare’s sonnets are written in iambic pentameter; this means that each line consists of ten syllables, and these syllables are divided into five pairs, or “iambs.” (Each iamb consists of one unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable.) There are fourteen lines in a Shakespearean sonnet. The first twelve lines are divided into three stanzas, or “quatrains”; this leaves two lines at the end, and they form what is known as a “couplet.” Within each quatrain, every other line rhymes, and the two lines of the couplet (at the end) rhyme. In terms of content, the theme or problem of the poem is established in the three quatrains, and this theme or problem is then concluded or resolved in the couplet. Shakespeare’s sonnets include many literary devices (such as alliteration, personification, oxymoron, synecdoche, and metonymy), as well as puns and double entendres. His sonnets are written in Early Modern English; words such as “thou” and “thy” are used. Shakespeare’s word choice can be described as “rich and colorful,” and, in fact, some of the words used in his sonnets are ones he “invented” himself.

I learned about Berrigan sonnets by reading a transcript of a talk he gave at the Poetry Project on February 27, 1979. Berrigan said, unlike Shakespeare, he “could not handle iambic pentameter naturally” because “[he] could not put [his] emotions into those rhythms.” Thus, his form is much “looser” than Shakespeare’s in that it is not quite as “predictable.” He decided that his sonnets would also be fourteen lines long, but, unlike Shakespeare’s, his sonnets would not be guided by a “set rhyme scheme.” Additionally, each line of his sonnets can “stand alone”; they are complete thoughts, or, as he calls them, “separate units.” In the first eight lines of his sonnets, Berrigan “notates what [is] going on at [the] … time.” Then, in the last six lines, he “move[s] to the inside” and writes about “the main things … on [his] mind.” If his sonnets were to be divided into three quatrains and a couplet, like Shakespeare’s, the first quatrain would serve as an “attempt to get something said,” the second quatrain would “bring in some new things or make a total digression,” the third quatrain would “start turning [what has already been said] around,” and the couplet would simply be a “statement”—perhaps a “melodramatic statement.” Berrigan’s sonnets are written in Modern English; words such as “thou” and “thy” are not included. Berrigan’s vocabulary varies, as, on many occasions, he “didn’t always … know” what he was “going to come up with” before he began writing. One observation I made, though, is he tends to use very descriptive words that create imagery. For example, in Sonnet XVI, he writes, “Vast seas of doom and mud spread across the lake.”

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