If we speak of 'Shakespeare's Sonnets', we mean a collection with this name first published in 1609, when Shakespeare was 45 and most of his plays had been staged; he died only seven years later. The 1609 text is the only authentic source for all the editions of Shakespeare's Sonnets published since. So much is problematic about this first edition that it is best to start off with simplicities. The book contains 154 poems, all except two made up of 14 lines; with the exception of one poem, each of these lines has ten syllables and five iambic feet. With the exception of two, each of the poems has three quatrains, each containing two rhymes, followed by a rhyming couplet. There are only two major sonnet forms in English, and this is one of them, the Shakespearean. The other, the Petrarchan, is more coherent aesthetically, having only two rhymes in the octave (the first eight lines) and two more in the sestet (the last six), but it is much harder to write in English than in Italian, because English has fewer rhymes. With its series of stanzas, the Shakespearean form will always seem more a speaking than a singing poem, more reflective, meant for thinking or arguing in. But Shakespeare is no less 'poetic' than Petrarch. The Sonnets vary a lot, in quality as in substance. At their best they have an extraordinarily rich, dense and delicate verbal texture: they form an inimitable network of ideas, images, echoes and ambiguities, a world that is real yet always in process of change and evolution.
LRB 8 May 2008 | PDF Download