Short Note On Shakespeare’s Sonnet Pattern

There are two forms of the sonnet:

The Petrarchan and the Shakespearean. They are also known as the Italian and the English respectively. In the Petrarchan form, the sonnet is divided into two parts, an ‘octave’ of eight lines and a sestet of six lines, with a pause or ‘caesura’ in between. Each line in the ‘octave is interlocked by cleverly worked out rhyme-scheme which is a b b a, a b b a or subtle variations of it. In the ‘sestet there may be three sets of rhymes (c d e. c d e. or c d c. c d c) or sometimes only two (c ed, c cd). The ‘sestet’ develops and expounds the thought or emotion of the octave’. In this way, the sonnet becomes an integrated whole, the ‘sestet supports the ‘octave’ as the cup supports the acorn.

It was the Petrarchan form of the sonnet which was widely adopted in most countries of Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries. But it is a difficult and complex form, and somehow or the other. It did not suit the English genius and taste. It was Sir Thomas Wyatt who first used the sonnet-form in England. He followed in the main the Petrarchan tradition, but even he broke new ground in his use of the sonnet. In his rhyme-scheme and in the fourteen-line length, he follows his Italian original. But there are subtle differences. He uses the decasyllabic line (and not eleven-syllabic line of the Italian original) and nearly all his sonnets have a couplet at the end. The result is, as Levers points out, each poem seems to end on a logical, critical note and this in its turn affects the total spirit. Phrasing and subject-matter of the sonnet. Thus Wyatt showed an interesting independence and brought the sonnet closer to the English genius and English tradition.

Nevertheless, there is a great deal of difference between the Petrarchan and the Shakespearean form of the sonnet. It was Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, who completely discarded the Petrarchan form, and invented the English form of the sonnet. Shakespeare used this form most vigorously and like a master. That is why it is known as the Shakespearean sonnet. In the Shakespearean sonnet, there are three stanzas of four lines each and a couplet at the end. The rhyming scheme is a b, with subtle variations according to the requirements of thought and emotion. This sonnet pattern is simple and easy and more suited to the genius of the English. Shakespeare preferred this form because it was difficult to maintain the classical restraint of the Petrarchan sonnet.

In the words of Theodore Watts, “The quest of the Shakespearean sonnet is not, like that of the sonnet of ‘octave’ and ‘sestet – sonority and – so to speak. Metrical counterpoint, but sweetness: and the sweetest of all possible arrangements in English versification is a succession of decasyllabic quatrains in alternate rhymes. Knit together and clinched by a couplet – a couplet coming not so near the initial verse that the ring of epigram disturbs the linked sweetness long drawn out of this movement, but sufficiently near to shed its influence over the poem back to the initial verse. A chief part of the pleasure of the Shakespearean sonnet is the expectancy of the climacteric rest of the couplet of the end – and this expectance is gratified too early if it comes after two quatrains, while, if it comes after a greater number of quatrains than three. It is dispersed and wasted altogether.” Its placing at the end of the third quatrain is, therefore, ideal.

Shakespearean sonnet-pattern has many merits, but it has its demerits too. Because of the lack of linking rhyme between the quatrains, there is a danger that each quatrain will appear cut off from the others or related in too mechanical a fashion (often through parallel syntax) and that the poem as a whole will have too simple a structure: three successive quatrains. More or less self-contained, and then a final couplet. Further, the couplet may make a damaging conclusion sometimes too pat. Sometimes an anti-climax. A sonnet is too brief a form “to contain the entire statement to the first three quatrains without giving the impression that the poet is trying to wrench the poem back on its course.”

Also Read : 


Philip Martin also agrees to the view that the concluding couplet often lets down even sonnets which are otherwise perfect. There are instances of intellectual collapse and concealment of thought in the Shakespearean sonnets.

Shakespeare might have his faults, but on the whole, the sonnets are perfect works of art. They are generally sweet and mellifluous and the quatrains are inter- linked by moderately varied rhythms. Frequent use of alliteration and assonance, and apt and suggestive imagery changing in accordance with thought and emotion. T,S. Eliot rightly says. “The sonnet of Shakespeare is not merely such and such a pattern. But a precise way of thinking and feeling.” In Coleridge’s mature opinion. Shakespeare’s language is entirely his own. That the construction of his “sentences. Whether in verse or prose. Is the necessary and homogeneous vehicle of his peculiar manner of thinking.” And that the “body and substance of his works came out of the unfathomable depths of his own oceanic mind.” The sonnets are the exact vehicles for Shakespeare’s thought and Emotion, and that is the secret of their organic unity and their greatness.

Shakespeare was irresistibly drawn towards the sonnet form and left upon it an indelible mark of his genius. Shakespeare perhaps wrote sonnets to make it evident to the world that he was something more than a successful playwright and that he could compete with the best non-dramatic poets before him. His greatness as a sonneteer is beautifully summed up by Saintsbury thus, “verse and form cannot be better moulded to the melodious suggestion of beauty.” With this key, Wordsworth said. “Shakespeare unlocked his heart.”



Leave a Comment