Sonnet Legislation: The Rules of Shakespearean Sonnets
From The English Sonnet by T. W. H. Crosland.
It has been commonly held that poetry is a law unto itself, and that there are no standards whereby it can be judged. Of the sonnet,
however, this is certainly not true. The law has written itself explicitly and finally, and the standards have been set up and are irremovable.
Of the law we may dispose very briefly. A sonnet consists of fourteen decasyllabic lines, rhymed according to prescription. Any poem of more than fourteen decasyllabic lines, or less than fourteen, is not a sonnet. Poems of sixteen or more lines are sometimes styled sonnets, but they have no right to the title. Any poem in any other measure than the decasyllabic is not a sonnet.
For this reason, the poem which figures as Sonnet 145 in the Shakespeare Series is not a sonnet. Fourteen decasyllabic lines without
rhyme, or fourteen lines rhymed in couplets, do not constitute a sonnet. The prescription for the rhymes of the English sonnet pure and
simple may be formulated thus: --
a-b-a-b c-d-c-d e-f-e-f g-g
And, strictly, the rhymes should be single, and never double. This form of sonnet was written before Shakespeare, but Shakespeare
appropriated it to himself, and every one of his sonnets is so rhymed. Even in Sonnet 145 the rhyme scheme is maintained, and the
sonnet "prologue" to Romeo and Juliet is
similarly rhymed. The form is usually known
as the Shakespearean.
We call it the English
sonnet pure and simple, because it was the
first perfect form of sonnet to take root in the
language. It is doubtful whether since the
time of Shakespeare a really satisfactory
sonnet in that form has been written. All
manner of poets have tried their hands and
their wings. Perhaps, with the single exception of Michael Drayton, they have failed, and
Drayton may be said to have succeeded in only one sonnet.
In a sense, possibly, we may regret that Shakespeare handled this beautiful form with such mastery; for after him, flight
in it seems not only vain but presumptuous,
and the most self-reliant poet will think twice
before obeying an impulsion which seems
likely to result in "four quatrains clinched by
We imagine that if Shakespeare
had written no sonnets, or only a few instead
of a hundred and fifty-four, poetry might in
the long result have been the gainer.
How to cite this article:
Crosland. T. W. H. The English Sonnet. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co, 1917. Shakespeare Online. 30 Aug. 2009. < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/sonnets/sonnetstructure.html >.
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