Analysis: Form and Meter
Shakespeare's Sonnet 60 is… a Shakespearean sonnet. We'll resist the urge to say duh.
Let's start with the sonnet part. The most basic thing you need to know about the sonnet form is that it refers to a poem in 14 lines of iambic pentameter (usually). When you think about it, this is a pretty interesting length for a poem. 14 lines doesn't give the poet much room to talk about a vast range of topics, but it is long enough to talk about one or two ideas in a fair amount of detail.
In response to these challenges, poets over the centuries have developed some traditional ways of organizing the thought-patterns within sonnets. These patterns usually correspond to a particular form of the sonnet. Because all sonnets have 14 lines (aside from some super-rare varieties), these different forms are defined by their different rhyme schemes.
Many poems featured on Shmoop showcase the popular Italian or Petrarchan variety of sonnet, which falls into two main halves rhyming ABBAABBA CDCDCD, with rhyming wiggle room in the second half. Check out John Donne's "Holy Sonnet 7", William Wordsworth's "London, 1802", and John Milton's sonnet "On his blindness" for some top-notch explorations of this type of sonnet.
Of course, our main man Mr. William Shakespeare wrote a type of sonnet with a different rhyme scheme. His brand of sonnet falls into four major sections, rhyming ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. The first three sections are known as quatrains 1-3, and the last section is known as the couplet. Shakespeare wasn't the first to use this type of sonnet; when the Bard took his turn with the form, the aristocratic poet Sir Philip Sidney had already made it famous with his sequence Astrophil and Stella. Even though Shakespeare didn't invent this type of sonnet, he was so good at it that the form is now named after him.
How to Make the Most of a Sonnet, Shakespeare-Style
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 60—the three different ideas in the quatrains are actually all variations of one central theme. In our poem, the central theme of quatrains 1-3 is the passage of time, and how everything that grows in time must die in time.
Then, in the couplet, he mixes things up, by saying that something will, he hopes, last far into the future: his verse. As you can see from Sonnet 60, this particular type of theme-and-variations approach was the perfect stomping grounds Shakespeare's fertile imagination, with its seemingly endless ability to invent new ways of saying things.
Keeping Time in a Poem About Time
The meter of Shakespeare's sonnets (and much of his plays) is the single most common poetic meter in English: iambic pentameter. This term is definitely a mouthful, but it's not so hard once we break it down. Let's start with the word pentameter. The -meter part is easy: that just means some way of dividing up the words in the poetic line. As for the penta- part, that just comes from the Greek word for five. So, pentameter refers to a line that is divided into five sections, which we fancy poet-types call feet.
As for iambic, that just means that each of those feet, is going to follow a certain rhythm, known as an iamb. An iamb is made up of two syllables: the first syllable is lightly accented and the second syllable is strongly accented, giving the rhythm daDUM. Thus, a complete poetic line of five iambs sounds like this:
daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM.
To see this rhythm in action, let's take a peek at a line from the poem:
Each changing place with that which goes before. (3)
Of course, it would be pretty boring to have every single line of your poem follow the same rhythm. So master poets like Big Willy tend to mix things up a bit, by, say, taking one of the iambs and replacing it with a trochee, its metrical opposite (DAdum). Check out line 7, for example:
Crooked eclipses 'gainst his glory fight,
The word crooked is no iamb, Shmoopers. No matter which way you slice it, you have to put the stress on the first syllable, which means that ol' Shakey has dropped a trochee in the first foot of his line of iambic pentameter. Nifty, no?
Some lines go for even more complicated effects. Bearing in mind that this is just Shmoop's own personal interpretation of the rhythm of Line 1, we think the third iamb of this line is also flipped into a trochee. This gives us the following rhythm:
Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore,
In our humble opinion, this rhythm that twists back on itself and then back again is the perfect way of acting out—at the level of the language—the movement of the waves that that language is describing. But do you think this sort of subtle rhythmical effect only turns up here? Not likely. Try reading the poem to yourself a few times out loud (you could even try to memorize it). This is the only way for you to get a full sense of all the crazy things Shakespeare is doing with the rhythm of his language.