by Adelaide de Beaumont (Lisa Theriot)
So you’re writing sonnets. And you turn valiantly to the formula provided by a textbook, web site, or well-meaning High School English teacher, that a Shakespearean sonnet is fourteen lines of iambic pentameter, rhymed abab cdcd efef gg. If you are still paying attention, said teacher or essay may tell you that a Shakespearean sonnet may be broken into quatrains, such that each quatrain should progress the poem in a predictable fashion, to wit, the first quatrain establishes the theme, the second quatrain develops the theme, the third resolves the theme, and the concluding couplet, well, concludes . And off you go. Provided you have basic counting skills and even a smattering of rhythm, you should be able to produce something that follows the rules; so why doesn’t it sound like Shakespeare? Because Shakespeare, like almost every writer, musician, and artist who ever worked in a medium with rules, learned those rules, understood those rules, and then broke them.
As we look at some of the ways in which Shakespeare achieved immortality through rule-breaking, I’ll be referring to several of his most beloved sonnets, several of which I provide at Appendix 1 so you won’t have to go looking for them (just in case you don’t have them committed to memory). The others you’ll have to look up. It’s good for you.
Is Nothing Sacred?
Nope. Nothing. There is not one rule of sonnet-writing that Shakespeare did not break. Not often, in some cases, but in becoming a master of the form, he played with every possible element. Fourteen lines? Usually. Oh, but there’s Sonnet 99 with fifteen; the opening “quatrain” has five lines, rhymed ababa. Why? Nobody knows for sure. And how about Sonnet 126, with only twelve lines and two blank, bracketed gaps? S126 is also written in couplets, rhymed aabbccddeeff. Why? Was something naughty edited out? Is it illustrative of the silence of the grave? Is it even still a sonnet?  Those are the only two of the 154 published together that don’t have fourteen lines, so I don’t recommend varying the number of lines unless you have a really good reason, but Shakespeare did it.
How about that typical Shakespearean rhyme scheme? Again, yes, usually, but, as noted earlier, S126 is six rhyming couplets rhymed aabbccddeeff. And the rule, or at least the norm, of ababcdcdefefgg might lead you to assume that letters a through g represent seven unique rhyming sounds. They often are, but not always. Look at Sonnet 29, beginning, “When in disgrace with Fortune and men’s eyes…” So our a is eyes/cries; b is state/fate; c is hope/scope; d is possessed/least (Huh? Let that one go for a minute, we’ll get to it.); e is despising/arising (Yes, two syllables; we’ll get to that, too.); f is… oops, state/gate. Not only has he reused a sound, he has reused a word! Oh, the humanity! If you look at this poem as printed in poetry texts, they’ll still tell you it’s ababcdcdefefgg, but they won’t tell you that a=f. Then there’s Sonnet 25, rhymed ababcdcdefgfhh in the original and “corrected” to ababcdcdefefgg in later printings. What? Here is the original quatrain and the modern version:
|The painefull warrier famoſed for worth,
After a thouſand victories once foild,
Is from the booke of honour raſed quite,
And all the reſt forgot for which he toild
|The painful warrior famoused for fight,
After a thousand victories once foiled,
Is from the book of honour razed quite,
And all the rest forgot for which he toiled
Being famous for “worth” and famous for “fight” are very different things. Is it really likely that Shakespeare blew that rhyme for no reason? Yet some editors are still sure it’s a misprint . Sonnet 46 is rhymed ababcdcdefefff; Sonnet 69 is rhymed abbbcdcdefefgg. Sometimes, he just had the word he wanted, and to hell with the stupid rhyme scheme. Sonnets 135 and 136 are extended puns on the word “will” and his name; 135 is rhymed ababbcbcadadaa, 136 is rhymed ababcdcdefefbb, and the word/name “will” appears seventeen times in the two poems. The rhyme scheme was sacrificed to the joke. Again, like the number of lines, Shakespeare varied the rhyme scheme only occasionally, and almost certainly for a good reason, even though we may not know what the reason was. (But remember that a=f phenomenon; he did that a lot, so if the right words mean repeating a sound, do it.) So, what sorts of things was Shakespeare playing fast and loose with?
Shakespeare was very much between a rock and a hard place as a writer of English living around 1600; the “rock” was a sweeping pronunciation change called the Great Vowel Shift, and the hard place was the proliferation of printed matter leading to a standardization of spelling. Early Modern English was beginning to crawl to a stop in its evolution, but the spoken form was all over the map. Common folk still spoke a very rhotic pronunciation (pronouncing R firmly, like most Americans, even at the end of words), though the educated and the nobility were dropping their Rs like hot potatoes, such that poetry published near 1600 might rhyme words like “girl” and “bell” .
For a little more detail, let’s look at some words and how they changed over time. The first two columns are rough phonetic representations, and the modern column is the word as you know it .
Moon (rhyme: food)
Moove (rhyme: book)
Loove (rhyme: book)
As you can see, the A and E sounds were overlapping, and more limited than in modern English; words that don’t rhyme in modern English, like ‘have and ‘crave’, did rhyme for Shakespeare. William Caxton had introduced the printing press to England in 1476, and printed matter quickly became the norm, as did more standardized spelling, but it, too, was still in flux. We modern speakers don’t think ‘swear’ and ‘fear’ rhyme, though they are spelled like they do, yet even with the archaic spelling ‘sware’, Shakespeare would have given it the same vowel sound as ‘fear’ . This gave Shakespeare a much larger pool of rhyming words than the modern poet has to work with.
Let’s look again at the rhyme referenced above, “dispossessed” with “least”. Though Shakespeare made frequent use of terminal syllables when he needed them to make up a syllable count (re-mem-be-red rather than re-mem-ber’d, for example), both –ed for a past tense or participle and –es for a possessive had lost a true syllable value in speech (as terminal e, pronounced often in Chaucer’s time, e.g. nah-ma for “name”, went silent). You are just as likely to see such a word spelled dispossest to indicate the lost syllable. Now look at the pronunciation of Beg, East, Name and Day in Shakespeare. The last syllable in “dispossessed” is actually pretty close to “layst” as Shakespeare would pronounce “least”; it wouldn’t have been an exact rhyme, but it would have been much closer than it is for us, and it likely WAS an exact rhyme for at least some of the people with whom Shakespeare would have conversed. And “love” and “remove” DID rhyme for Shakespeare. (It’s we who are screwed up!)
I do not suggest that you just get sloppy about finding rhymes. Loretta Lynn may think that “hard” and “tired” rhyme, but unless you’re writing for the Kentucky coal mining community, someone is going to wonder. It’s worth doing a little extra reading of Shakespeare (well, anytime, really) to see what he thought was an acceptable rhyme . We have painted ourselves into a corner with many of the artifacts of modern English, and especially American English. There are words to be considered as rhymes for “love” besides “of” and “above”.
Iambic Pentameter Needs Salt
An iamb, as you probably know, is a two-syllable poetic foot having one unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable, like “today” and “before.” Iambic meter is the natural cadence of both English and French, so you’ll find that overwhelmingly most period English and French poetry is iambic. People often doubt that they speak in iambic meter most of the time, because they’ve been taught that Shakespeare wrote in iambic meter, and they know they don’t talk that way. Oh, but you do. We hate having too many stressed syllables in a row. Why do you think nobody in folk music ever rides a white horse, but a milk-white horse? “White horse” is two stressed syllables and sounds jerky to us, but “a milk-white horse” alternates stressed and unstressed syllables and flows more musically to our ears. Most English words of more than one syllable alternate stressed and unstressed syllables; the few words that have multiple stressed syllables together are typically compound words, or words made by sticking two smaller words together, like “handcuff” and “football.”
Obviously, in normal speech, we don’t make quite as much distinction between stressed and unstressed syllables, and the longer the statement, the less distinct we get. Sensible poets do the same thing. Poetry that never deviates from the pure meter often sounds like a second-grader wrote it:
I think that I shall never see a day
When freeway traffic goes the other way
So this is still the exit that I take
If I should run to Walmart on my break.
Shakespeare’s poetry, and that of his contemporaries, is lousy with variations from the pure meter, but it’s done consciously, for emphasis or effect. Shakespeare often uses it to jolt the reader in the first line, or slow them down when they need to appreciate a weighty thought. Look at the opening lines of S29:
When in disgrace with Fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate…
Lines 1 and 3 are nothing like regular, where lines 2 and 4 are perfectly regular. The snippets “Fortune and men’s eyes” and “trouble deaf heaven” are really meaty in terms of concept, so Shakespeare wants you to consider them. Lines 2 and 4 just move the poem along, so it’s okay if you run through them quickly. And that’s my cue to introduce another scary term: scansion. Scansion describes how well the poet stuck to the meter. If a line “doesn’t scan” it means there is noticeable deviation from the expected rhythm. Such a deviation can be a mistake, or it can be a tool to alert your reader to the important bits. If you overdo it, your reader may simply assume you have no sense of rhythm, which is why Shakespeare here snaps immediately back to perfect scansion until he wants your attention again. If you don’t create a rhythm in your reader’s mind, the deviation won’t have nearly the same impact. Scansion and focus go hand-in-hand; the pattern is the meat, and the deviation is the salt.
It’s Okay To Be Hyper
So having established our base pattern of lines of iambic pentameter, that at least means every line will have ten syllables, right? Penta- means five, like pentagon, a five-sided shape, so penta-meter is a meter of five feet, and while we’re working in iambs, which each have two syllables, we’re looking at 5×2= 10 syllables in a line. Unless we’re not. Look at these rhyming lines from Sonnet 116:
That lookes on tempeſts and is neuer ſhaken
Whoſe worths vnknowne, although his higth be taken
I count 11 syllables in those lines, how about you? But note that the lines end in a word which is not iambic (like “before”, with the stress on the end), but trochaic; a trochee is a poetic foot where a stressed syllable is followed by an unstressed syllable, as in “double” and “trouble”. So the 11th syllable is unstressed, and accordingly makes less impact on the ear. When Shakespeare is working, supposedly, in iambic meter, he’ll occasionally throw in a trochee at the end of a line and just not count that last syllable against his allowance of 10. The fancy name for this type of poetic line in hypercatalectic, which just means there’s more there than you might expect . Typically, he does this with words, as here, that naturally end in a swallowed sound. You’ll find –en a lot, as well as –le, -ly, and –ing, as in “singing” and “ringing”. In sonnets, in particular, English poets figured they had a pass for putting 11 syllables in a line because it is the most common line length in the Italian sonnets they were using as models. A line of 11 syllables is called a hendecasyllable .
On the other hand, look at line 3 from S29: And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries
That’s 11 syllables, and there’s nothing unstressed about “cries”. You might think that he meant “heav’n” as in “And Heav’n and Nature sing”, but it has never been printed that way. Furthermore, line 12 of the same sonnet is “From sullen earth sings hymns at Heaven’s gate.” There’s no way to read that with anything but two syllables for “Heaven”. So is line 3 a (gulp) mistake? Maybe. Or maybe Shakespeare loved the line and didn’t care that it had an extra syllable. You, the poet, have to know if you’re on to something worth breaking the rules for. (Check S33: the concluding couplet has 11 syllables and 12 syllables, respectively, in lines 13 and 14.)
A poetic line can also be catalectic, or incomplete; Shakespeare loves writing for supernatural creatures in catalectic trochaic trimeter, as in Puck’s lines here (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, II, ii):
Through the forest have I gone.
But Athenian found I none,
On whose eyes I might approve
This flower’s force in stirring love.
There are 7, rather than eight, syllables per line, with every line starting and ending on a stress; therefore the last, unstressed syllable has been dropped. (I know, but “Athenian” has 3 syllables here and “flower’s” has one. Just go with it.) See also MacBeth’s witches (IV, i): “Fillet of a fenny snake/ In the cauldron boil and bake.” I cannot think of a catalectic line from a sonnet (though I can’t say I have counted every line of every sonnet), and it would be much harder to leave off a stressed syllable, as you’d have to do to truncate an iambic line. Furthermore, there are a lot more non-value-added single syllable utterances that can be thrown in to make your ten syllables. Shakespeare began a frightening number of lines with “O!” There’s also that re-mem-be-red cheat; S52 has three lines out of 14 that require a pronounced –ed (lock-ed, plac-ed and bles-sed), and the last line has eleven syllables! If you like the line, don’t let the syllable count stop you.
What is enjambment ? It means finishing a thought whether it ends at the end of the line or not. Look at these lines from Sonnets 54 and 116:
|They live unwoo’d, and unrespected fade,
Die to themselves. Sweet roses doe not so.
|Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments, love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds…
Technically, any continuation of the sentence is enjambment; think about how few periods you see in poetry until you get to the end of a stanza, or the entire poem. But you generally feel a natural pause at the end of a line. Enjambment as a poetic device intentionally allows a thought to complete in the middle of a line to create an unnatural break. In both cases above, Shakespeare had a statement to make that was much longer than ten syllables, and rather than give up words he deemed important, he went ahead and finished the thought though he needed more than one poetic line in which to do it. But he didn’t have to stop where he did. It would have been easy to stretch the thought to two lines:
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments or bars to love
That has a much more natural reading flow, and that’s exactly why Shakespeare didn’t do it. By stopping in the middle of the line, he puts tremendous emphasis on the words that immediately follow. LOVE IS NOT LOVE. Imagine yourself reading these poems aloud; the longer line makes you pause for breath at the end, and the next word is almost like starting the poem over. You’ll find the next words after an enjambment like this are the main idea or image of the poem, in these cases love and roses. It’s an even stronger signal than metrical variance for *heere be my pointe*.
One of the biggest changes that English poets, chiefly Shakespeare and Spenser, made to the sonnet form was to consider the 14 lines less as an octave (8 lines) plus a sestet (6 lines) as the Italians and the French did, and more as three quatrains (4 lines) and a concluding couplet (2 lines). Accordingly, so the textbooks say, a good Shakespearian sonnet has three quatrains that represent different phases of the thematic situation, followed by a snappy closing remark in the last two lines. And many of them do. Sonnet 29 (see appendix) can rightly be described as the “it sucks to be me” quatrain, the “I’d rather be someone else” quatrain, and the “but you love me” quatrain, leading to the “it really doesn’t suck to be me” conclusion. But Sonnet 18 is all over the map:
Well, that’s wrong:
And there’s another problem:
Come to think of it, summer sucks:
And that second problem? Forget it:
Because _I_ have written a poem about you:
|Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date;
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
The “summer sucks” quatrain is the only four-line passage with any cohesion, and the two tercets forming the back end of the poem read more like Petrarch than “typical” Shakespeare. Sonnet 130 (see appendix) is a laundry list of conventional compliments paid to women and a refutation of their relevance to the lady on Shakespeare’s mind. There is absolutely no progression from line 1 to line 12 (well, okay, the insults shift from one-line to two-line after the first four lines), which actually makes the mood change in the snappy concluding couplet much more impactful. Across 154 sonnets, there are more that can be viewed as following the three quatrains plus couplet model than not, but it’s interesting to note that some of Shakespeare’s most beloved sonnets don’t necessarily adhere to that model. Many that do don’t actually progress or change ideas between the quatrains (see e.g. S73, where three quatrains of “look at me, I’m old” are offset by a couplet “you love me better because I’m old and you know I’m going to die soon”).
We have no way of knowing why Shakespeare changed up the pattern as much as he did, except that he was really good at what he did and he knew when something worked. When I write an English sonnet, I usually write the concluding couplet first, because if it doesn’t grab me, the sonnet is going to fizzle at the end. Once you have your conclusion, think about how you want to get there. Does it make sense to present a problem, turn the problem, and formulate a solution? Or is the conclusion better off coming without warning? Both are valid options, well-used by the Bard.
So, go thou forth! Read sonnets! Write sonnets! Break rules! (And document it, bwa-ha-ha!)
 Preminger, Alex, and Brogan, T.V.F., editors. The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993, s.vv. sonnet, hendecasyllable, enjambment.
 Allen, Vivien (ed.), Dear Mr Rossetti: The Letters of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Hall Caine 1878-1881, Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, Ltd., 2000, pg. 202. Rossetti wrote, “There should be an essential reform in the printing of Shakespeare’s sonnets. After sonnet 125 should occur the words End of Part I. The couplet piece, numbered 126, should be called Epilogue to Part I. Then, before 127, should be printed Part II. After 152 should be put End of Part II – and the last two sonnets should be called Epilogue to Part II. About these two last I have a theory of my own.” Rossetti couldn’t stand the idea that Shakespeare had written something so against the rules. The “vers libre” movement was just around the corner, so Rossetti would soon after this time have more current offenses against poetic form to complain about.
 Schoenfeldt, Michael, ed. A Companion to Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Chicester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010, pg. 151. Scholars are divided between respecting the original stanza, changing “worth” to “fight” (or “might”), and changing “quite” to “forth”.
 The Shirburn Ballads, 1585-1616: Edited from the ms. by Andrew Clark , New York: Cornell University Library, 2009. Blackletter copies of ballad-form poetry dated at or near 1600 show rhymes of ‘girl’ with ‘bell’ and ‘turn’ with ‘won’. They also show non-modern rhymes in the vowel sounds, such as ‘have’ with ‘crave’ and ‘sware’ (swear) with ‘fear’. The collection is available online: https://ia600502.us.archive.org/17/items/shirburnballads00claruoft/shirburnballads00claruoft.pdf
 There is an excellent discussion of the Great Vowel Shift at the Geoffrey Chaucer page maintained by Harvard University. It explains things very basically, and will ease you into IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) usage rather than assuming you already know it, as most GVS articles do. https://sites.fas.harvard.edu/~chaucer/vowels.html
 And please read a facsimile of an original printing. Editors LOVE to “fix” Shakespeare’s spelling, and you’ll never know if he wrote ‘swear’ or ‘sware’ (answer: usually ‘sweare’, but in a least one spot ‘sware’ where we would say ‘swore’). There are several good online sources, like this one: https://internetshakespeare.uvic.ca/Library/facsimile/overview/book/F1.html
 Strachan, John and Terry, Richard, Poetry: An Introduction, NewYork: New York University Press, 2000, pg. 83.
Appendix 1: Exemplar Sonnets
When in diſgrace with Fortune and mens eyes,
I all alone beweepe my out-caſt ſtate,
And trouble deafe heauen with my bootleſſe cries,
And looke vpon my ſelfe and curſe my fate.
Wiſhing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featur’d like him, like him with friends poſſeſt,
Deſiring this mans art,and that mans skope,
With what I moſt inioy contented leaſt,
Yet in theſe thoughts my ſelfe almoft deſpiſing,
Haplye I thinke on thee, and then my ſtate,
(Like to the Larke at breake of daye ariſing)
From ſullen earth ſings himns at Heauens gate,
For thy ſweet loue remembred ſuch welth brings,
That then I skorne to change my ſtate with Kings.
Let me not to the marriage of true mindes
Admit impediments, loue is not loue
Which alters when it alteration findes,
Or bends with the remouer to remoue.
O no, it is an euer fixed marke
That lookes on tempeſts and is neuer ſhaken;
It is the ſtar to euery wandring barke,
Whoſe worths vnknowne, although his higth be taken.
Lou’s not Times foole, though roſie lips and cheeks
Within his bending ſickles compaſſe come,
Loue alters not with his breefe houres and weekes,
But beares it out euen to the edge of doome:
If this be error and vpon me proued,
I neuer writ, nor no man euer loued.
Note: this is the original 1609 spelling and punctuation, except that I have introduced spaces after the commas, for legibility’s sake.