ANALYZING THE SONNET
A fourteen-line iambic pentameter poem with words at the end of each line rhyming in a particular pattern
is called a sonnet. To decide if a poem is a sonnet and also what type of sonnet it is, note the way those words rhyme. Mark the word at the end of the first line a. If the last word of line two rhymes with the last word of the line marked a, mark that line a also; otherwise mark it b. Now check the last word of line three. If it rhymes with a, mark it a. If it rhymes with b, mark it b. If it rhymes with neither, mark it c, and so on throughout the poem. For example, note the first four lines of Shakespeare’s Sonnet XVIII.
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? a
Thou art more lovely and more temperate: b
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May, a
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date: b
If the marks form a sequence of ababcdcdefefgg, as they do in the sonnet above, you have an English (or Elizabethan) sonnet. The first four lines are called a quatrain, as are the second and third sets of four lines. The English sonnet ends with two lines rhyming with each other (These are called a couplet). Sonnet XVIII ends as follows:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, g
So long lives this and this gives life to thee. g
In some sonnets, the rhyme pattern will be different. For example, another common form of sonnet is the Italian (or Petrarchan) sonnet. The words at the ends of its lines rhyme to form a pattern of abbacddc or occasionally, abbaabba. These first eight lines are called an octave. The last six lines, which may rhyme is a variety of ways, are called a sestet.
Knowing whether you are analyzing an English or Italian sonnet is important because the knowledge may affect your understanding of the contents of the poem. In the English sonnet, each quatrain tends to present a separate image and the concluding couplet provides a comment on or a summary of the meaning of the preceding images. With an Italian sonnet, the octave tends to present a problem or ask a question, and the sestet provides a solution or an answer. Occasionally, the English sonnet will lend itself to the Italian pattern with question or problem in the first two quatrains and answer in the last quatrain and the couplet.
Note also the statement in paragraph one that sonnets are written in iambic pentameter. The iamb is a metrical pattern in which the first syllable of a line of poetry is not accented and the second syllable is accented. The pattern continues throughout the line. If there are five recurrences of the pattern in the line, the line is said to be iambic pentameter. In general, accents occur on key words and where words are normally stressed, though reversals commonly occur at the beginning of a poem. Consider again the lines of Sonnet XVIII.
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
While some tension is nearly inevitable between the demands of the poem and how you would normally stress the words, note that by the middle of line one the metrical pattern of iambic pentameter is established.
Before you interpret a poem, make certain you understand the vocabulary in the poem. Because language constantly changes, you can easily lose the meaning of a poem by not understanding the meaning of a particular word in the century in which the poem was written, so you may need to consult a good desk dictionary in order to write the interpretation. Also, consider any special allusions in the poem. Many poems are made richer by allusions to religion, history, other works of literature, and even events in the life of the poet. Although special dictionaries such as Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable may occasionally be needed to interpret an allusion, often the same desk dictionary will provide sufficient information. Consider also the special language in the poem, including images (word pictures appealing to the senses); symbols (images that mean more than what the literal words convey, such as a cross for religion or a red rose for love); and figures of speech such as the use of “eye of heaven” for “sun” or the personification of “Death” as a figure who brags in Sonnet XVIII. Finally, poets are wordsmiths and may choose words for connotation (emotional associations) as well as denotation (dictionary meaning) and even for the sounds of words as they are uttered or as they work together in a poem.
When you interpret a poem, you will want to comment on the poem’s form and language. You may also be asked to convey what the poet literally said in the poem, an exercise in summary or paraphrase. Most important, though, you will need to identify the theme of the poem. The theme is the statement the poem makes on the meaning of life, emotions, relationships, nature, country, deity, etc. If the statement is universal, it captures what other people in different places and times of history have thought or felt; and the poet, in sense, becomes the spokesperson for those people. For example, in reading Sonnet XVIII, consider how frequently people desire to capture visually “a Kodak moment” when the subject is at its peak of beauty and freshness. That is what Shakespeare hoped to do with his words….to give permanence to what was evanescent by preserving the beauty with his sonnet. Sonnet XVIII is only one of the hundred and fifty-four sonnets that form the sequence (collection) Sonnets in which Shakespeare wrote about his feelings and about his relationships with two individuals who were significant to him.