For hundreds of years poets have used the sonnet to express their feelings, usually placing emphasis on the theme of courtly love. It is estimated that the earliest sonnets date from around 1200 AD, and they were probably sung as expressions of romantic love in Italian courtyards. As the sonnet moved from country to country different poets attempted to ‘make it their own’, causing the variation of sonnets we are now familiar with; namely the Petrarchan, Shakespearean and Spenserian sonnet.
One of the most acclaimed sonneteers is Shakespeare, who wrote one hundred and fifty-four sonnets that were published between 1599 and 1609. From these many sonnets the one Shakespeare is most remembered for is Sonnet 18, sometimes referred to as ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day’ due to the opening line. The sonnet is in keeping with the traditional views of courtly love, where the man tried to win over the woman in whichever way he could, being described as a ‘highly conventionalised code of conduct for lovers’.
This sonnet takes the form of a Shakespearean sonnet – the first of which were composed by Sir Thomas Wyat (1503-1542) and Henry Howard (1517-1547) – written in iambic pentameter, containing three four-line quatrains with a strict rhyme scheme and an ending rhyming couplet. Shakespeare uses this strict form to express his love, allowing the reader to focus more on his words and message than the structure.
The sonnet starts off with the question, ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’ which Shakespeare then goes on to answer in great detail. The first two quatrains show us the flaws of summer, saying its ‘lease hath all too short a date’, and also stating that ‘Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May’.
Throughout the sonnet Shakespeare uses many of the images and language commonly associated with courtly love. Exaggeration is used continuously, alongside imagery, to help us fully comprehend the love that Shakespeare is trying to express. Phrases such as ‘his gold complexion dimm’d’ and ‘eye of heaven’ use personification, helping us to clearly see the image that Shakespeare was trying to create through this sonnet. Another example of personification can be seen in the third quatrain where death is made into a proper noun in the line ‘Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade’, making it seem like Shakespeare’s lover is so great they can, in fact, cheat death.
Despite these few techniques, the language in the sonnet is actually very straightforward, with limited alliteration and assonance, helping Shakespeare get his views across in a simple way that the readers, then and now, would understand. The point of Shakespeare wanting this poem to be accessible for everyone can be explained in the final two lines of the poem, ‘So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, So long lives this and this gives life to thee.’ Here, Shakespeare tells us that as long as people can read this poem his lover will live on.
Shakespeare’s views of true love can also be seen in Sonnet 116. In this poem the character of death is also personified, ‘Within his bending sickle’s compass come’, saying that this time it’s not just the person that Shakespeare is writing about that can cheat death, but love itself.
The sonnet, also sticking to the common Shakespearean form, has a constant theme throughout – what is true love? The strength and continuity of love is stressed. First we are told what love is not; ‘Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds, or bends with the remover to remove’. The sonnet then goes on to tell us what love is. Although some familiar imagery is used, such as ‘rosy lips and cheeks’, Shakespeare also uses a maritime theme, which wasn’t commonly used in sonnets. He using a metaphor, describing love as both a lighthouse and the North Star in the second quatrain, saying it is ‘an ever-fixed nark…it is the star to every wandering bark’.
Similar to Sonnet 18, this poem seems to have been purposefully written in a way that people would have been familiar with. The rhetorical device ‘O no!’, not only draws our attention to the following lines, but also creates a feeling of natural, flowing speech. Iambic pentameter, said to be the rhyme scheme closest to regular speech, is also used in this way.
Whilst Sonnet 18 and 116 are both quite similar to most sonnets involving courtly love, Shakespeare truly breaks the mould with sonnet 130.
From the opening line of the poem, ‘My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun’, we can see that this sonnet is not condoning the usual exaggerated, false love mentioned in most other sonnets. Here, Shakespeare takes the usual techniques used in sonnets, such as metaphors and similes to describe the lady, but turns them around, giving them the complete opposite meaning.
The familiar metaphors become the opposite of what we are used to, for example, ‘My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun; Coral is far more red than her lips’ red’. Throughout the sonnet Shakespeare uses a light-hearted tone, and shows a total rejection of Petrarchan form and content.
As with many of Shakespeare’s sonnets, the rhyming couplet can be used to sum up the purpose of the poem. In this case, the lines ‘And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare as any belied with false compare’, show us that Shakespeare sees no need in the exaggerated, false images of women the other sonneteers of the time were responsible for creating.
In contrast, Lodge’s Sonnet 22, one of a long series of poems written to Phillis, is the perfect example of courtly love; it is possibly sonnets like this that Shakespeare was trying to reject with his Sonnet 130.
Lodge uses many of the same metaphors that are used in Sonnet 130, and yet in an entirely different, albeit more traditional, way. The metaphors and imagery used in Sonnet 22, such as ‘in thy cheeks sweet roses are embayed’, and ‘gold more pure than gold doth gild thy hair’, are an obvious contrast to the lines ‘I have seen roses demask’d red and white, but no such roses see I in her cheeks’, and ‘If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head,’ from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130.
Sonnet 22 also shows us how exaggeration was used in these love poems. The line ‘About thy neck do all the graces throng’, is a reference to three sister goddesses who could grant charm, happiness and beauty. Again, this type of statement is contradicted in Sonnet 130, where Shakespeare tells us ‘I grant I never saw a goddess go; my mistress, when she walks, treads the ground’.
The sonnet is of Shakespearean form, using punctuation to bring each quatrain to a close. In each quatrain Lodge describes Phillis to us in a different way, the first quatrain tells us of her outer beauty, the second of her inner beauty and the third explaining the effect she has on him and other men, describing how irresistible she is, ‘From such sweet arms who would not wish embraces?’. The final rhyming couplet highlights yet another difference to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130. Shakespeare’s rhyming couplet is used to show us what true love really is and say how ‘rare’ his love is, whereas Lodge’s rhyming couplet says that his faith is better than anything that Phillis has to offer, saying ‘Yet natheless though wondrous gifts you call these, my faith is far more wonderful than all these.’
The style of writing, and also the use of a romantic tone, used in Sonnet 22 were not only questioned by Shakespeare, but also by Spenser in Sonnet XLVII.
It is a Spenserian sonnet, which allows the subject to continue throughout as each quatrain links together. This type of sonnet was creates by Edmund Spenser by experimenting with the rhyming and stanza pattern used in ‘The Faerie Queene’. The Petrarchan form is also used slightly in this sonnet with a change in subject at line eight.
Images are created throughout with metaphors and similes such as ‘for they are lyke but vnto golden hookes, that from the foolish fish thyr bayts doe hyde’; here, alliteration is used to help create the image of men being innocent but foolish. Graphic images like ‘her bloody hands them sly’, which seem to be made even more shocking by the bitter, exaggerated tone used, acting as a warning to men, telling them to not be deceived by women.
It seems as though Spenser had been rejected by someone he loves, probably more than just once, and is using this experience as his inspiration for the poem.
The motives behind Lodge’s Sonnet XLVII may have been anger and bitterness; however The Cross of Snow by Longfellow was inspired by something completely different.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) was one of many American sonneteers. Sonnets were introduced later to America than Europe, with the first being written by the Revolutionary War general David Humphreys in the last quarter of the eighteenth century (however, they weren’t published until 1804).
It is a Petrarchan sonnet with an octave and sestet and was written eighteen years after the tragic death of Longfellow’s wife who died after her dress caught fire. It is possible that Longfellow chose the traditional form of the Petrarchan sonnet as it is timeless and unchanging, as he later says his love for his wife is.
The two main inspirations in the poem that we can see are the photograph of his wife, ‘A gentle face – the face of one long dead – looks at me from the wall’, and the photograph of the Mountain of the Holy Cross, a mountain in the Rockies where the snow-filled crevices made the image of a white cross that could be seen all year round from many miles away.
The suffering that Longfellow feels his wife went through is shown to us in how he describes her as a martyr, saying ‘Never through Martyrdom of fire was led to its repose’. This description might help us to understand how it took him eighteen years to write a poem about the death of his wife.
Longfellow uses the metaphor of ‘a halo of pale light’ to create an angelic, pure and innocent image of his wife, which is then reinforced with the repetition of the word white.
The image of the Mountain of the Holy Cross is also used as a metaphor in two ways. The cross is used to represent the suffering and burden he has carried since his wife dies, and it is also used to say ‘through all the changing scenes and seasons, changeless since the day she dies’, showing us that Longfellow’s love for his wife remains unchanged.
This collection of sonnets shows us how different sonneteers have used the strict form of the sonnet to express their feelings of love; whether it be through a simple love poem such as Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 and 116 and Lodge’s Sonnet 22, a way of mocking false love as Shakespeare did in Sonnet 130, a warning to other men as in Spenser’s Sonnet XLVII or even as a way of expressing your grief at the loss of a loved one, as Longfellow did in The Cross of Snow.
At the time these sonnets were written, the poems were very much expected to be used in courtship, so it would have been extremely surprising to see Shakespeare and Spenser using it differently, and even Longfellow to a certain extent.
Despite these sonnets being from so long ago we can still relate to them; after all, are they really so different to the love songs we hear sung today? The language used in the sonnets, the metaphors, similes and imagery, along with the idea of courtly love itself have clearly stood the test of time, and are just as much a part of today’s society as society in the sixteenth century.