In this video we'll learn about Shakespeare's sonnets, which contain some of his most famous poetry. Shakespeare addresses both a Fair Youth, speculated to be a young earl and patron, and a Dark Lady, whom he describes in frank and unromantic terms. We'll discuss the meter and rhyme scheme of the typical Shakespearean sonnet, as well as the structure of the overall work.
'Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?'
No, I don't thinks so. I don't really like summer. I burn really easily because I'm super pale, and it's too hot out to wear my jacket! Not a big fan.
It turns out that Shakespeare not a big fan of summer days either. In this famous sonnet (that's the opening of the sonnet), he quickly answers: 'Thou art more lovely and more temperate.' Meaning 'thou,' the person to whom the sonnet is addressed to. So, whoever this person is is 'more lovely and more temperate' than a summer's day, which I can heartily agree with even without knowing that person. 'Temperate' seems to be a bit of a pun, because it can mean mild climate, and it can also mean self-restrained. So you're not as hot as summer (yay!), but it also means that you're even-keeled, even-tempered and you're not going to freak out about stuff.
This is 'Sonnet 18', which is really one of the most famous sonnets that Shakespeare ever wrote. He wrote a bunch of them; he wrote 154! So, it's kind of high praise. Are we going to talk about all of them in this video, you may be wondering with dread in your heart. No, we're not going to! You might also be wondering if you have to read all of them. No, you don't!
The Sonnets are kind of the English Lit type person's first experience with talking about stuff that you've only read part of. Once you get to Paradise Lost, the Sonnets don't seem nearly so bad, and you get incidentally exposed to a lot of them if you read and do a lot of lit stuff.
But since it can be daunting to read 154 sonnets all at once (and have coherent thoughts about them and be reading carefully), we English-type folks have all kinds of ways of talking about the Sonnets while only reading a few famous ones really closely. So listen hard, young grasshopper, and I will share with you the secrets of 'distant-reading' the Sonnets. So here we go.
What Is a Sonnet?
You already know your first fact about the Sonnets as a group: there are 154 of them. Second fact would probably be what a sonnet really is, so let's talk about that.
A sonnet, you have hopefully gleaned by now, is a type of poem. It's a short poem. We love sonnets because they're only 14 lines long. They're never longer than 14 lines. Also, they're never shorter than 14 lines, so if that's a problem, you may want to stick to haikus. Maybe that will be your area. There are a few sonnets in Shakespeare's cycle that violate one or more of the sonnet rules (including the length rule), but in general, this is how it works. There are a bunch of different kinds of sonnets in the world. They're distinguished from each other by what type of rhyme scheme they use; they all have 14 lines.
Guess which type of sonnet Shakespeare wrote. If you guessed c (English/Shakespearean Sonnet), you're correct! Shakespeare was such an important sonnet-writer that they named the rhyme scheme he used after him - Shakespearean sonnet!
So what was this rhyme scheme? We're going to take a look at the rest of that summer's day sonnet (remember, number 18), and we're going to figure out what's going on with the rhyme scheme. We're just going to read the whole thing because it's pretty. So, here we go:
Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed,
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature's changing course untrimmed:
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st,
Nor shall death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st,
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
So what do we see vis-a-vis the whole rhyming situation? You can basically divide this thing into three 'quatrains' and a 'couplet.' A la 'quartet,' or 'cuatro' in Spanish, 'quatrain' just means a set of four lines, pretty easy. And a 'couplet' just means a set of two, like a 'couple,' or one of my favorite British TV show, Coupling.
The first quatrain rhymes a/b/a/b, the second c/d/c/d and the third e/f/e/f. And the final couplet rhymes g/g. So 'day' and 'May' rhyme, temperate and date (kind of) rhyme; Shakespeare gets a little fuzzy with this stuff sometimes.
And then 'shines' and 'declines', 'dimmed' and 'untrimmed.' But they're not related to 'day' or 'temperate' from the first quatrain; it's a new set of rhymes in the second quatrain (that's the c/d/c/d part). So that's the rhyme scheme.
Now we're going to take a look at something called 'meter,' which is another distinguishing factor of sonnets in general. Meter, most simply, is just defined as the rhythm of a poem, how you pause and emphasize as you read along. Shakespeare's sonnets are written in a kind of meter called iambic pentameter. Iambic refers to the fact that the lines are divided into 'iambs,' which are basically two-syllable 'feet' with the emphasis light-STRONG. There are tons of types of 'feet.' Feet is just another way to say metrical divisions, so a set of syllables. There are things called trochees that go STRONG-light. And one of my favorite, an anapest, has three syllables, and it goes light-light-STRONG. So, iambs go light-STRONG and are just two syllables that go like that.
Pentameter means there are five iambs to a line. Think pent like in pentagon. Shakespeare is a huge fan of iambic pentameter and uses it all the time. Probably because, unlike some other meters, which can sound sing-songy, you barely notice it's there.
If you go iambic trimeter, which has three iambs per line (so it has six syllables total), it sounds kind of like a chant. 'I LOVE the JOcund DANCE, / The SOFTly BREATHing SONG.' Anapestic tetrameter (that's a fun one) has four anapests per line. It sounds like Dr. Seuss: 'Every WHO down in WHO-ville liked CHRISTmas a LOT. But the GRINCH who lived JUST north of WHOville did NOT.' But 'Shall I compARE thee TO a SUMmer's DAY?' when you read it, sounds pretty natural, even when I over-emphasize the syllables. So, that's why he chooses iambic pentameter.
Now I've bored you to death talking about meter, but it's important so I hope you listened. We're going to talk a bit more about what this sonnet means.
It's the 18th in the sequence. One through 17 were explicitly about encouraging a young man to have children. They're called the 'procreation sonnets,' actually, in reference to this. Number 18 doesn't do this; it's the first one to shift away from that. It praises pure beauty, is what it does. He's saying that the beloved is better than a summer's day for so many reasons, and he names all the reasons.
And as Shakespearean sonnets are wont to do, each quatrain develops the idea further of why the beloved is so much better. Summer still might be windy and nasty ('rough winds do shake the darling buds of May') and even if it's nice, it goes by too quickly ('summer's lease hath all too short a date'). Sometimes it's too hot, and sometimes it's cloudy. 'But thy eternal summer shall not fade;' you'll always be awesome, whereas summer is only kind of awesome only sometimes.
In his couplet, what Shakespeare likes to do is makes some kind of clever turn or new take on his material. In this couplet, he's true to form. What he's saying is that the beloved's eternal summer will not fade because it is preserved in art 'so long lives this, and this gives life to thee.' A lot of his sonnets do this; a lot are self-referential in this way, talking about what they do as poems.
The Fair Youth, the Rival & the Dark Lady
So, I eluded to this a bit, but what is the overall structure of Shakespeare's sonnet sequence? And what are a couple more famous ones that you should know? We'll go over bits and pieces of them. Again, distant reading of the sonnets, that's what we're up to.
Shakespeare's sonnets are basically divided into groups based on who's being addressed. If you assumed that 'shall I compare thee' was written to a lady, you'd actually be wrong! Sonnets #1-126 are addressed to an enigmatic (male) figure typically referred to as 'The Fair Youth.' Within this set, there is a mini set (Sonnets #78-86), which are thought to be addressed to The Rival Poet, again, another dude, essentially. And the latter portion of the sonnets (Sonnets #127-152) are addressed to The Dark Lady.
So, you might say Shakespeare was into dudes? Wasn't he married to Anne Hathaway? He was, but he was possibly also into dudes. He dedicates the whole sonnet sequence to an enigmatic Mr. W.H., and nobody knows who Mr. W.H. is. Scholars love to fight about this; this is exactly the kind of thing that literary people go nuts for. Some people think that Mr. W.H. is the 'Fair Youth,' and he might have been a patron of Shakespeare's, who was a young earl. It's speculation; people can back it up in various ways.
How do we know the addressee of Sonnets #1-126 is a man? There are hints everywhere. Shakespeare uses phrases like 'master-mistress' and entreats the addressee to have sex with women, but to only really love the speaker. All of this could be platonic; there isn't really any explicit sex talk with the 'Fair Youth.' Who knows?
So, we've already looked at one 'Fair Youth' sonnet; we've looked at 'Summer's day.' Sonnet #116 is a good one that is, again, about love and apparently addressed to a man. We're just going to read that out loud so you can get a sense of it.
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O, no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.
This sonnet picks up on the themes of everlasting-ness brought up in Sonnet #18 and directs it directly to the abstract idea of love, 'it is an ever-fixed mark' is love. Again, it relates it back to Shakespeare's writing: 'If this be error and upon me proved / I never writ, nor no man ever loved.' So, love, timelessness, and writing are all intertwined.
What's an example of a sonnet addressed to the 'Rival Poet'? Also, we don't really know who this rival poet is; it might be Christopher Marlowe, maybe not. Sonnet #79 is one that doubts that the speaker's muse serves only him anymore. It says:
Whilst I alone did call upon thy aid,
My verse alone had all thy gentle grace;
But now my gracious numbers are decayed,
And my sick Muse doth give an other place.
Here Shakespeare seems jealous of another, because his verse alone lacks the singular devotion of the poetic muse, or inspiration in general. Since so many of the poems, as we've talked about before, are so concerned with the idea of the permanence of poetry and the importance of verse (in terms of preserving things), it makes sense that some of them would deal with the problem of another poet's fame, or another poet trying to do this. So, that's one of the 'Rival Poet' sonnets.
Finally, we're just going to take a look at a 'Dark Lady' sonnet. This is one of my favorites.
My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.
In this sonnet, Shakespeare seems to be making fun of the tropes of a typical love sonnet, right? He undermines all these clichéd comparisons: eyes like the sun, cheeks like roses, a voice like music. Because of this, the sonnet seems super down-to-earth, and the Dark Lady is so much more relatable, realistic and grounded than the Fair Youth.
There's also, in other sonnets, more evidence of a real sexual encounter with the Dark Lady, whereas the Fair Youth was potentially platonic. We don't really know. In this sonnet, we see too that despite the lady's homeliness, his love is still strong. Maybe stronger than love evoked by 'false compare,' which he says in the final couplet, or by all those techniques he's skewered as ways of false comparing.
So we've covered a ton. We're going to go over it quickly again. What have you learned about Shakespeare's sonnets?
- There are 154 of them
- He wrote something called an English/Shakespearean sonnet, which is easy to remember because it's his name
- These have 14 lines
- They rhyme: a/b/a/b/c/d/c/d/e/f/e/f/g/g/
- First four quatrains tend to develop the argument, and the final couplet makes wry comment on it (a twist on it)
- 1-126 are addressed to the Fair Youth
- Except for 78-86, which are to the Rival Poet
- 127-154 are to the Dark Lady
- Most of the sonnets deal in some way with questions of love, timelessness and, sort of as a metaphor for these things, the act of writing poetry itself.
Those are Shakespeare's sonnets.
After watching this lesson, you should be able to:
- Describe the structure of Shakespearean sonnets
- Identify the three people Shakespeare's sonnets are addressed to
- Understand the basic meaning of Sonnets #18, #116, #79 and #130