Anatomy of a Shakespearean Sonnet

Recreating (and advancing) pk’s censored domains: & / Teaching / Scholarship /
Shakespeare’s Sonnets: Meta-Oxymoron /

I’ll illustrate a Shakespeare sonnet with an early example: #17, the last of a series with procreation as the common thread.


Sonnet 17

Who will believe my verse in time to come
If it were filled with your most high deserts?
Though yet, heaven knows, it is but as a tomb
Which hides your life and shows not half your parts.
If I could write the beauty of your eyes
And in fresh numbers number all your graces,
The age to come would say, “This poet lies!
Such heavenly touches ne’er touched earthly faces.”







So should my papers, yellowed with their age,
Be scorned, like old men of less truth than tongue,
And your true rights be termed a poet’s rage
And stretchèd meter of an antique song.
But were some child of yours alive that time,
You should live twice — in it and in my rime.

final quatrain:


heroic couplet: gg

Fourteen lines, iambic pentameter throughout, two rhymes alternating for each quatrain, capped by an indented heroic couplet.

If you write fourteen lines of iambic pentameter in three quatrains of alternating rhymes, bring the first two quatrains to a period, and end with an heroic couplet, you’ve written a Shakespearean sonnet. If you weave the rhymes abba, bccb; def (twice), you’ve written a Petrarchan or Italian sonnet.

Try it. Everyone should write at least one. Maybe warm up with a limerick first.

I chose this sonnet as an illustration for several reasons, each relating to something to be developed in the modules. I’ll discuss the sonnets as a “sonnet sequence.” This poem caps the clearly sequential section. Also, the poem compares experience with expectations. In this case, the experience is said to outstrip the expectations. It is the precise reverse of the point I’m making about the sonnets as a whole. Here ordinary “ideals” fall short of the experienced “reality.” It also touches directly on epistemology (problems of belief, ll. 1, 7, 11 …); appeals to a standard higher authority (“heaven knows”); introduces problems of literature’s relationship to truth; and develops themes common to many of the sonnets: time, mortality, mutability … I’ve already mentioned the theme of procreation, a form of immortality (or at least endurance): Sonnet 17 is also one of a number which makes an analogy with literature as of form of immortality.

Notice also: typically of almost all Shakespeare, though “heaven” is mentioned, the appeals to immortality are not the usual Christian ones.

on Shakespeare’s Sonnets Menu

About pk

Seems to me that some modicum of honesty is requisite to intelligence. If we look in the mirror and see not kleptocrats but Christians, we’re still in the same old trouble.
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