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Analysis

Elizabethan Sonnet (a.k.a. Shakespearean Sonnet)

Will Shakes wasn't the first person to write an Elizabethan Sonnet, but he was most definitely the best, which is why this particular sonnet form is also known as a "Shakespearean Sonnet." Pretty impressive, right? We can't remember the last time a form of poetry was named after us. 

So, what is it exactly that makes a poem a Shakespearean/Elizabethan sonnet? Well, they all have the same form and meter. (Except for Shakespeare's Sonnets 99, 126, and 145, which are slightly different than the rest.) Don't worry. We'll break it all down for you below.

A Typical Shakespearean/Elizabethan Sonnet:

(1) They're all fourteen lines long. (Except for Sonnet 99, which has one extra line, and Sonnet 126, which is only 12 lines long.)

(2) They consist of three quatrains followed by a rhymed couplet. (A quatrain is just a group of four lines and a rhymed couplet is a set of two lines that rhyme.) Here's how the quatrains and the couplet are divided in Sonnet 146:

Quatrain 1
Poor soul, the center of my sinful earth,
.......these rebel pow'rs that thee array,
Why dost thou pine within and suffer dearth,
Painting thy outward walls so costly gay?

Quatrain 2
Why so large cost, having so short a lease,
Dost thou upon thy fading mansion spend?
Shall worms, inheritors of this excess,
Eat up thy charge? Is this thy body's end?

Quatrain 3
Then, soul, live thou upon thy servant's loss,
And let that pine to aggravate thy store:
Buy terms divine in selling hours of dross;
Within be fed, without be rich no more,

Final Couplet
So shalt thou feed on death, that feeds on men,
And death once dead, there's no more dying then.

A sonnet's structure lets us follow the speaker's thought process in a logical way as he tries to work out a problem. Here's how it unfolds in 146: the first quatrain introduces the subject. (The speaker's body has been bossing around his soul when the soul should be the one in charge.) The second quatrain develops the subject further and even introduces more conflict. The speaker says that life is super short and our bodies are going to end up being eaten by worms. What's the soul going to do about it?

The third quatrain of a sonnet is usually where the speaker offers a solution to the problems he's just introduced. The speaker says his soul needs to work on developing a rich inner life and stop wasting so much time and effort on bodily desires. Finally, the rhymed couplet offers up a strong conclusion. The speaker implies that the only way to kick death's butt is to make sure you get into heaven, where your soul can live forever.

(3) They almost always include a feature called a "turn" (a.k.a. "volta"). This is a moment in the poem where the theme or the tone changes in a sudden and surprising way. Sonnet 146's turn comes at line 9, where the speaker stops lecturing his soul about being such a chump and tells it how it can turn things around.

(4) Just like Shakespeare's plays, the sonnets are mostly written in a meter called iambic pentameter, which is a pretty formal but also very natural sounding meter. It sounds like a series of five heart beats: dadum dadum dadum dadum dadum. For example, you could scan line 3 like this:

why dost thou pine within and suffer dearth

(5) The rhyme scheme usually looks like this: ABABCDCDEFEFGG.

Poor soul, the center of my sinful earth, A
.......these rebel pow'rs that thee array, B
Why dost thou pine within and suffer dearth, A
Painting thy outward walls so costly gay? B
Why so large cost, having so short a lease, C
Dost thou upon thy fading mansion spend? D
Shall worms, inheritors of this excess, C
Eat up thy charge? Is this thy body's end? D
Then, soul, live thou upon thy servant's loss, E
And let that pine to aggravate thy store: F
Buy terms divine in selling hours of dross; E
Within be fed, without be rich no more, F
So shalt thou feed on death, that feeds on men, G
And death once dead, there's no more dying then. G

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