Study Guide

Sonnet 116 Form and Meter

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Form and Meter

Elizabethan (Shakespearean) Sonnet, Iambic Pentameter

Let’s tackle the simpler part first: the meter. This sonnet, like all of the other sonnets, and like Shakespeare’s plays, is written in iambic pentameter. This is a fancy way of explaining the consistent da-dum, da-dum, da-dum rhythm of the lines; every line has five two-syllable "feet" (yes, that’s what they’re actually called), or iambs. "Penta" means "five" in Greek. Each of these feet is one of the "da-dum" – the dum is stressed. Altogether, every line has ten syllables – five iambs times two syllables per iamb = ten syllables total. A perfect example is line 5 (italicized syllables are stressed):

O no! It is an ev-er fix-ed mark

Now that we’ve got the meter down, let’s take a look at the form. Sonnet 116 is, well, a sonnet. The sonnet, a fourteen-line poetic form that originated in medieval Italy, made its way over to England through the very popular poems of Petrarch, an Italian poet, and Ronsard, a French one. These European sonnets followed a rhyme scheme referred to now as the Petrarchan (or Italian) sonnet. However, once it got to England in the sixteenth century, British poets started to shake things up a bit.

Shakespeare’s sonnets are all written in a different rhyme scheme than their Continental predecessors. The so-called English sonnet is divided into three quatrains (stanzas of four lines each), which in turn each have two rhymes. The whole poem follows the rhyme scheme A-B-A-B/ C-D-C-D/ E-F-E-F. In our example, "minds" and "finds" are the "a" rhyme in stanza 1, and "love" and "remove" are the "b" rhyme; in stanza 2, "mark" and "bark" are "c," while "shaken" and "taken" are "d," et cetera. Finally, the last two lines (13 and 14) are grouped together as a couplet, and rhyme with each other – if they were added on to the scheme we wrote out above, they would be G-G ("proved" and "loved" in Sonnet 116). Shakespeare wrote so many sonnets of this form that we now commonly call it the Shakespearean sonnet.

The final characteristic of the sonnet is the turn, or volta. These are really just fancy words for a simple shift in gears, which usually happens in the first line of the third quatrain, between lines 8 and 9, when some change in ideas enters into the poem. This sonnet is no exception to this rule; the turn occurs at "Love’s not Time’s fool…" (9), where the image of love as a guiding star is suddenly replaced by a personification of love as an eternal, everlasting force that resists death, introducing the idea of the immortality of love.

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