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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 a couplet."

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. < >.

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