Analysis: Form and Meter
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 from the rest.) Don't worry. We'll break it all down for you below.
- Form and Meter of a Typical Shakespearean/Elizabethan Sonnet:
1. They're all 14 lines long (except for Sonnet 99, which has one extra line, and Sonnet 126, which is only 12 lines long).
2. They consist of 3 quatrains followed by a heroic couplet. (A quatrain is just a group of four lines and a heroic couplet is a set of 2 lines or iambic pentameter that rhyme.) Here's how the quatrains and the couplet are divided in Sonnet 29:
When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heav'n with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man's art, and that man's scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate;
For thy sweet love rememb'red such wealth brings,
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
Okay. Great. Why does the sonnet's structure matter? In this case, it allows us to follow the speaker's thought process in a logical way as he works his way through a major personal crisis. Here's how it unfolds: The first quatrain introduces the subject (the speaker's loneliness and depression). The second quatrain develops the subject further and even introduces more conflict (the speaker gets super-elaborate about why he feels so down in the dumps). The third quatrain offers a solution to the speaker's problem (he remembers that someone out there really loves him and it's enough to bring him out of his depression). Finally, the couplet offers up a pretty strong conclusion and solution to the original problem (as long as the speaker is loved, it doesn't matter how screwed up the rest of his life is).
(Brain Snack: Sonnet 126 has no quatrains. It's made up of 6 rhymed couplets.)
3. Sonnets 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. In Sonnet 29, the turn comes at line 9, where it switches from the speaker's loneliness and depression to his sudden realization that he's got someone who loves him and who makes him happy. Check it out:
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee (9-10)
Basically, this is the speaker's big "Ah-ha! moment. This is a big deal because it makes us feel as though we are experiencing the poem in real time—as if the speaker is right there in front of us working through his problems and coming up with a solution.
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 5 heart beats: da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM.
For an example, check out line 1:
When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes
5. Usually, the rhyme scheme of a Shakespearean sonnet looks like this: ABABCDCDEFEFGG. (The first twelve lines rhyme in alternating pairs and the last two lines rhyme.)
But! Sonnet 29 is slightly different because the rhyme scheme is ABABCDCDEBEBFF. Basically, Shakespeare repeats the B rhyme at lines 10 and 12 instead of using an F rhyme. To show how this works, we've assigned a letter to each rhyme like this:
When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes, A
I all alone beweep my outcast state, B
And trouble deaf heav'n with my bootless cries, A
And look upon myself and curse my fate, B
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope, C
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed, D
Desiring this man's art, and that man's scope, C
With what I most enjoy contented least; D
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising, E
Haply I think on thee, and then my state, B
Like to the lark at break of day arising E
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate; B
For thy sweet love rememb'red such wealth brings, F
That then I scorn to change my state with kings. F
So, why did Shakespeare change his usual rhyme scheme for this poem? Did he get sloppy and just screw up? Or, was the change intentional? We'll never know for sure what Shakespeare intended but we do know this: the repetition of the B rhyme at lines 10 and 12 impacts the way we experience the poem because it's unexpected and it draws our attention back to the original B rhyme at lines 2 and 4. Not only that, but Shakespeare repeats the exact same word ("state") at lines 2 and 10.
Think about it. The first time we see the B rhyme and the word "state" at line 2, the speaker is boo-hooing to us about how terrible he feels. But, by the time we hear the B rhyme again at line 10, his emotional "state" is completely changed and he feels like a new person. So, the repetition of the B rhyme and the word "state" helps to emphasize the dramatic change in the speaker that takes place over the course of the poem.