The Fusion Of Content And Form In Sonnet 29

1778 words - 7 pages

The Fusion of Content and Form in Sonnet 29

One of the most popular of the fixed poetic forms in English
literature is the sonnet. Attributed to the Italian poet Petrarch in
the fourteenth century, the sonnet is still used by many contemporary
writers. The appeal of the sonnet lies in its two-part structure,
which easily lends itself to the dynamics of much human emotional
experience and to the intellectual mode of human sensibility for
argument based on complication and resolution.

In the last decade of the sixteenth century, sonnet writing became
highly fashionable following the publication of Sir Philip Sydney’s
sonnet sequence Astrophel and Stella, published in 1591. Sonnet
sequences were widely read and admired at this time, circulated about
the court, and read among friends and writers. Shakespeare took up
this trend, adapting his considerable talent to the prevailing
literary mode while writing for the theater. He specifically followed
the form of the sonnet as adopted from the Italian into English by the
Earl of Surrey and Sir Thomas Wyatt.

Bound by the conventions of the sonnet, Shakespeare used the form to
explore the same themes as early Latin, Italian, and French verse. He
treated the themes of the transient nature of youth and physical
beauty, the fallibility of love, and the nature of friendship. Even
the dominating conceit of Shakespeare’s sequence—the poet’s claim that
his poems will confer immortality on his subject—is one that goes back
to Ovid and Petrarch. In Shakespeare’s hands, however, the full
potentiality of the sonnet form emerged, earning for it the poet’s

The Petrarchan and Shakespearean sonnet are similar in that they both
present and then solve a problem. The Petrarchan sonnet does it
through an octave which presents a problem and a sestet which provides
the resolution. A different rhyme scheme and thus a different
convention of logical and rhetorical organization determines the
differences between the two sonnet forms. In the Petrarchian sonnet
the problem is solved by reasoned perception or a meditative process.
The Shakespearean sonnet maintains the basic two-part structure of
conflict and resolution, now presented in fourteen lines of three
quatrains and a concluding rhyming couplet. Each quatrain presents a
further aspect of a problem, conflict, or idea. The resolution occurs
in the last two of a rhyming couplet, achieved through logical
cleverness that summarizes or ties together what has been expressed in
the three quatrains. The rhyme scheme, subject to variation, is abab,
cdcd, efef, gg in iambic pentameter.

The sonnet sequence is a gathering together of a number of sonnets to
present a narrative or examine a larger theme. Shakespeare’s sequence,
like Sydney’s, was intended as a series of love poems to celebrate the
poet’s affections for a young male friend. The poems were collected
and published as a sequence in 1609, though initially they were

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