From time to time, awash in waves, a song
Appears against the canvas of the moon—
A pleasant, purpled aria along
The distant depths: the whales begin to croon.
The tune is distant, but it draws us in.
We scour the dark and misty horizon,
To catch a glimpse of an enormous fin,
To signal a gentle giant risen.
I’ve never seen a whale, though still I spy,
Unsure the source of the deep, keening cry.
Chad M. Crabtree, 2019
The English Sonnet
The best-known and most ubiquitous poetic form in the English-speaking world, the English sonnet (also known as the Shakespearean sonnet, after the unrivaled master of the form) is, at its most basic, a 14-line poem with an prescribed rhyme scheme and stanza structure. But there’s really a lot more to this iconic form than its mechanics.
A Brief History of the English Sonnet
Without getting too deep into the weeds of poetic histories, it’s easy enough to understand how the English sonnet first came about.
Precursors and Birth of the English Sonnet
The form is essentially a variation on the Petrarchan sonnet, an Italian form developed by the medieval poetic genius Francesco Petrarca (commonly known as Petrarch). The first-known sonnets written in English (notably, those by 16th century poets Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey) were English translations of Petrarch’s own Italian sonnets, using the same structure, meter, and rhyme scheme).
However, Surrey eventually established the formula for would become the English sonnet we’re familiar with today.
The Form of the English Sonnet
Surrey’s formulation of the English sonnet remains the standard form used even today. Here are the rules:
- 14 lines
- Strict rhyme scheme
A / B / A / B // C / D / C / D // E / E
Indeed, Surrey had established an immortal poetic form. But it was the later practitioners of the English sonnet who took the form to new heights–mechanically, aesthetically, and philosophically.
The Bard Makes the Sonnet His Own
There’s simply no avoiding it: William Shakespeare is the unrivaled master of the English sonnet–so much so that the form is often referred to as the “Shakespearean sonnet.”
While there were plenty of Shakespeare’s contemporaries who had success with the English sonnet, none could match his skill with the form–mechanically, aesthetically, not philosophically.
I won’t include any of his sonnets in this post, since his works are readily available online. Suffice it to say that Shakespeare was the best of the best, and every sonneteer since has been struggling to catch up.
In the centuries since Shakespeare penned his 154 iconic sonnets, the form has ebbed and flowed in popularity. Writers like John Milton, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and even some Harlem Renaissance poets have had considerable success with the form.
A Few of My Favorite English Sonnets
Holy Sonnets: Since she Whom I lov’d hath paid her last debt — John Donne
Bright Star — John Keats
America — Claude McKay (1921)
Now, It’s Your Turn
Give it a shot! And if you want, you can leave your sonnet in the comments below, so we can start a discussion and bask in our mutual mediocrity!
~Chad M. Crabtree