As you might have noticed from the title, Sonnet 137 is… wait for it… a sonnet. More specifically, it's what's known as a Shakespearean sonnet—he was that good at writing in this style. Oh sure, there are other kinds of sonnets—Petrarchan, Spenserian—but this one is unique in its form and methods. Let's dive in, shall we? (That is why you're holding your nose, right?)
First off, this kind of sonnet, like all sonnets, has 14 lines. The difference is in the way it's organized: three quatrains, followed by a heroic couplet, and with a rhyme scheme of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG.
What's all this mean? The Shakespearean sonnet lends itself most naturally to the poet working out a different idea in each of the three quatrains and then summing everything up in the couplet. Usually—as in Sonnet 137—the three different ideas in the quatrains are actually all variations of one central theme. In our poem, the central theme is how the speaker can’t break the spell of his lady-love, despite her sluttiness.
To break it down further, a quatrain simply refers to a stanza with four lines. And, if you notice, each quatrain has two end rhymes. So, when you see a rhyme scheme of ABAB, that means that the first and third lines rhyme with each other (denoted by the A), and the second and fourth lines both rhyme (B). The second and third quatrains follow this pattern, until you get to the final two lines.
Meet the heroic couplet. No, it won't save you from a falling meteorite, it's just there as two rhymed lines (the G's in our rhyme scheme) that have iambic pentameter. Iambic pent-who-meter, you ask? Well, friends, read on…
Iambs Times Five
Iambic pentameter, thanks in large part to our man Wild Bill Shakespeare, is the most well-known meter in English literature. So, how does it work? Well, if something is iambic, then it's made of iambs. With us so far? Now, an iamb is made up of two syllables. The first syllable is lightly accented and the second syllable is strongly accented, giving the rhythm "da DUM." (For an example, say the word "allow" to yourself. You should hear the iamb pattern.)
"Pentameter," then, just means a meter (or rhythm) of five ("penta" is Greek for five). So, a "pentameter" is a line that is divided into five sections, or "measures." (Just so you know, these metrical units are normally called "feet." Go figure.) Thus, a complete poetic line of five iambs sounds like this:
da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM.
To see this rhythm in action, let’s take a sentence we know, like:
That they be hold and see not what they see.
Hear how every other syllable gets stressed? Viola! Iambic pentameter. Now, why would this form be a fitting choice for a poem like Sonnet 137? Why would a heartbroken speaker want to tell his tale of woe in a regular rhythm and with regular rhyme? Well, in some ways, this poem is an exercise in detachment. Clearly, our guy (as we assume him to be) is not a happy camper. As we talk about in "What's Up With the Title?", though, he's also not being very direct in re-telling the story of his betrayal. Nope. When he's not blaming some Love god, he's off on an elaborate metaphor. He never confronts his loved one directly, only through the confines of this formal poem.
To us, then, the sonnet form—with its formal rules and regulations—is a great way to continue that detachment. The language is regular and formally laid out, because it allows the speaker to, in a way, present his feelings in a formal, restrained way. We can tell that he's hurt, sure. Ironically, though, this choice of presentation in a way tells us that he can only express these raw feelings in a formal way. It's kind of like when you run into your ex-, say on the bus. Inside, you want to scream the place down and throw things at them. Instead, you formally say, "Oh, hello there ex-. What pleasant weather we're having."