The Music, Metre, And Mystery Of Sonnets

by V.S. Ravi - Jan 2, 2022 04:49 PM +05:30 IST
The Music, Metre, And Mystery Of SonnetsWilliam Shakespeare (Wikimedia Commons)
  • A Shakespearean sonnet is one of the best-known sonnet forms, and remains popular to this day.

I am inclined to believe that if Shakespeare had been alive today and had written only his sonnets and not a single play, their excellence alone would have fetched him not one but two or three Nobel Prizes, for literature. Poets like Browning and Wordsworth have openly declared their admiration for his sonnets. In literary grandeur, metrical flow, and sheer melody they are not equalled even by those of Milton, Keats or Wordsworth. It was Wordsworth who wrote the following sonnet:

"Scorn not the Sonnet; Critic, you have frowned,

Mindless of its just honours; with this key

Shakespeare unlocked his heart; the melody

Of this small lute gave ease to Petrarch's wound; "

A thousand times this pipe did Tasso sound;

With it Camöens soothed an exile's grief;

The Sonnet glittered a gay myrtle leaf Amid the cypress with which Dante crowned

His visionary brow: a glow-worm lamp, It cheered mild Spenser, called from Faery-land

To struggle through dark ways; and, when a damp

Fell round the path of Milton, in his hand The Thing became a trumpet; whence he blew

Soul-animating strains—alas, too few"

A Shakespearean sonnet is one of the best-known sonnet forms. It is the most popular to this day. A Shakespearean sonnet is fourteen-lines long, as are all traditional sonnets. These fourteen lines are usually seen together in one stanza of text but throughout time poets have chosen to break the structure up into stanzas. These are generally created with the basic form of the sonnet in mind.

Even if the poem is contained within one stanza of text, for the purpose of analysis or simply in order to come to a better understanding of what the poet is saying, it can be separated into three quatrains, or sets of four lines. These make up the bulk of the poem. They are then followed by a concluding couplet or set of two rhyming lines.

The poem follows a consistent rhyme scheme that conforms to the pattern of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. The difference between the three quatrains and the couplet is clear.

Additionally, as is the case in Petrarchan sonnets, this sonnet form uses iambic pentameter. This means that each line contains five sets of two beats. The first is unstressed and the second stressed. It sounds something like da-DUM, da-DUM, da DUM, da DUM, da DUM.

The Shakespearean sonnet is sometimes referred to as “Elizabethan” or “English” but since Shakespeare used it with so much success in his 154 sonnets published after his death, it has become synonymous with his name.

It should not come as a surprise that in recent years the sonnets have disseminated in ways Shakespeare could never have imagined. As stated earlier, the first line of one of his great sonnets

”Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day” is arguably the most quoted poem on the net. Apps have been created in which famous voices recite the sonnet. T-shirts are printed and almost all the sonnets are stored forever in the cloud.

What magnificent and lovely sonnets they are, how marvellous in rhyme, rhythm, metrical grandeur and powerful emotions. I shall quote only the first lines of some of his

most famous Sonnets. :

Sonnet 2 : When forty winters shall besiege thy brow

Sonnet 12 : When do I count the clock that that tells the time

Sonnet 17 : Who will believe my verse in time to come

Sonnet 18 : Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day

Sonnet 29 : when in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes

Sonnet 30 : when to the sessions of sweet silent thought

Sonnet 33 : Full many a glorious morning I have seen

Sonnet 55 : Not marble nor the gilded monuments of princes

Sonnet 60 : Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore

Sonnet 65 : Since brass nor stone nor earth nor boundless sea

Sonnet 71 : No longer mourn for me when I am dead

Sonnet 77 :The glass shall show thee how thy beauties wear

Sonnet 87: Farewell thou art too dear for my possessing

Each of the sonnets beginning with the first lines quoted above can serve as a treatise on some powerful emotion or quality like love, or impermanence , a commentary on beauty, or passage of time, or the power of Shakespeare's own poetry.

Can Shelley’s greatest sonnet "Ozymandias” or "Bright star would I were steadfast as thou art" of Keats, or "The world is too much with us" of Wordsworth, rival these sonnets in lyrical splendour or emotional content? Each sonnet is a rare gem of purest ray serene.

But the sonnets hold a great secret. If we assume that the sonnets are all autobiographical and are addressed to two persons- a young man beloved of the poet and the " dark lady" with whom they were both entangled- can they be identified? The majority of the scholars who accept the personal theory assume that the " Mr. W.H" of the dedication was this young man. But there is so much confusion in respect of the identity of this W.H whether he was William Herbert Earl of Pembroke or that he was Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton. William Herbert was about 17 years old in 1597 when his mother who was obsessively desirous of getting a grandchild had requested Shakespeare to persuade him to marry Bridget Vere, daughter of the Earl of Oxford.

According to this theory Shakespeare wrote his first 17 sonnets to this young man, at her urging. But some scholars think that this is unlikely. Scholars have also speculated that the so called "dark lady" of the Sonnets was Mary Fitton, a maid of honour of Queen Elizabeth, who bore an illegitimate child to Herbert's father. The Queen sent him to prison but he was released soon. He never gained her favour again.

A statue of Mary Fitton exists as part of the family monuments in Cheshire- it shows a lady of dark complexion with black hair and dark eyes. But at least one person opines that two portraits of Mary represent her as a fair complexioned girl with brown hair.

Henry Wriothesley was born in 1573. Shakespeare dedicated Venus and Adonis and the Rape of Lucrece to him. It is believed that HW fell in love with one Elizabeth Vernon, a cousin of the Earl of Essex and incurred the displeasure of Queen Elizabeth. However he secretly married Elizabeth Vernon and was condemned to death only to have his sentence commuted to life Imprisonment and later pardoned by James Stewart. Sonnet 107 could be Shakespeare's congratulations upon his release.

Supporters of Henry Wriothesley believe that a reversal of his initials reads as W.H. There is another theory that the dark lady in question was either a mulatto or a quadroon with whom Shakespeare was in love.

Irrespective of to whom some sonnets are addressed, the themes are the power of beauty, the impermanence of youth, the havoc caused by the ravages of time and an appeal to get married and leave progeny so as to preserve his or her beauty. Only very rarely as in sonnet 55, the first five lines of which I have quoted below has Shakespeare, justifiably boasted of the power of his own verse as being superior to the statues carved by great sculptors in conquering time and preserving beauty- an assertion no one can refute.

“ Not marble nor the gilded monuments

Of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme

But you shall shine more bright in these contents

Than unswept stone besmeared with sluttish time

When wasteful war shall statues overturn,

And broils root out the work of masonry,"

Anyway it perhaps means very little who the sonnets are addressed to. We have 154 magnificent sonnets which have no parallel in the annals of literature.

V.S.Ravi is a distinguished and highly decorated IPS officer having served both the Government of AP and the Government of India, for 35 years. He retired in 1998. He is a scion of the Alladi family, being a grandson of the Late Sir Alladi Krishnaswamy Iyer, one of the Chief architects of the Constitution . Sri Ravi is one of the foremost authorities on Shakespeare in the country. He has contributed articles on Shakespeare to the Hindu and News Time Now. He passed Physics (Hons) with distinction and he has kept himself in touch with the latest developments in science and technology.
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