On the Literary Genetics of Shakspere's Poems & Sonnets

By T. W. Baldwin | Go to book overview

CHAPTER XIV
Something about Form

The reader will have seen from our analyses that Shakspere has a definite scheme of structure, which extends to the thought content, and which frequently helps to interpret that content. In fact, it is sometimes necessary to know the pattern in order to follow the thought. It may, therefore, be well briefly to sum up once more the chief characteristics of Shakspere's pattern, since some features of it have not always been understood.

The Petrarchan sonnet, the model most in favour with our great poets, is divided into two sections, an octet which states and develops the subject, followed by a sextet which winds up to a climax. Shakespeare, however, for his own purposes adopted another form, made popular in England by Surrey and Wyatt. It consists of three quatrains which are clinched by a final rhyming couplet.1

The rhyme-scheme of these parts is conventionally abab, cded, efef, gg. Or, as Gascoigne defines the sonnet in 1575, it is a poem "of fouretene lynes, euery line conteyning tenne syllables. The firste twelue do ryme in staues of foure lines by crosse meetre, and the last twoo ryming togither do conclude the whole."2

A strong pause in sense and rhythm at the close of each quatrain is for Shakespeare the primary law of sonnet harmony, from which he hardly ever varies. In some twenty-seven sonnets the chief pause comes at the end of the eighth line. In a very few it comes irregularly. But in over two-thirds of Shakespeare's sonnets the chief pause is placed after the twelfth line, at the close of three quatrains which are themselves divided by distinct but less emphatic pauses. . . .

Normally, the couplet in a Shakespearean sonnet gives the moral or conclusion toward which the previous twelve lines have been pointing, and compacts into itself the true essence of the poem. This is true in perhaps ninety of the sonnets. Less often the couplet introduces a surprise or negation which suddenly swings the reader into a point of view antithetical to that developed in the quatrains. The cases are very few in which the couplet is content merely to add another idea or illustration.

The couplet has, then, most often the function of a seed-pod, holding in briefer and unflowered form the idea which the quatrains have more

____________________
1
Bradby, G. F., Short Studies in Shakespeare ( 1929), p. 6.
2
Gascoigne, G. The Posies of George Gascoigne Esquire ( 1575), p. IIV.

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