A sonnet, from the Italian ‘sonneto’ meaning “little song”, has been a dominant form of verse since the thirteenth century. Sonnets have a fixed form consisting of fourteen lines of iambic pentameter and a specific rhyme scheme depending on the type of sonnet it is. The three types are Spenserian, Petrachian or Shakespearian. In the sixteenth century, Shakespeare deviated from the form and created his own form of sonnet. He wrote over one hundred and fifty in his lifetime and became a master of the genre.
Though usually written on the subject of love, sonnets are sometimes also written about beauty and nature. The themes of sonnet 130 – my mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun’- are masked underneath Shakespeare mocking the unrealistic comparisons written by other poets of the time. It is only in line’s 13 and 14 we realise that he is in fact praising his lover for being real and unlike the woman who are described in unrealistic fashions. However, in sonnet 18 -‘shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? ‘ the theme of love is introduced from the opening line of the poem.
This distinctly questioning line shows how Shakespeare uses a question to deviate from the conventional sonnet layout and add interest to his sonnet. The audience can immediately recognise that Shakespeare is writing about love and will compare his lover to the epitome of beauty- summer. Though written by the same poet, the two sonnets have very different audiences and intentions. Though both proclaiming love for the recipient, they do so in very different fashions. Sonnet 18 was written to immortalise Shakespeare’s subject and to proclaim a love towards them by comparing them to the most beautiful part of the year- summer.
Shakespeare also wants to digress from the conventions of other poems, shown by the way the sonnet starts by posing a question, engaging the reader and putting forward the idea that Shakespeare isn’t quite sure himself. By using a question, Shakespeare has deliberately digressed from convention and continues to do so throughout the following lines. If it were a conventional poem it would continue proclaiming the beauty of his subject and compare it to various aspects of summer and abundance. However, he brings in negative aspects of the summer such as its brief season, winds and the inevitable fading of nature’s beauty.
However, a twist occurs in line 9, the start of the ‘e,f’ quatrain, the short argumentative word ‘but’ starts off the quatrain, proclaiming that the recipients beauty shall live eternally because as long as men shall live, the poem shall be read and the subject will remain beautiful. Therefore, the intention of this sonnet was to immortalise his subject and exalt their beauty by saying it exceeds the beauty of summer. Though written by the same poet, sonnet 130 is written for a completely different purpose.
Though also proclaiming a love for a person, it is written to mock other writers who praise lovers in unrealistic fashions. Shakespeare wishes to speak about a woman he loves and state his love for her by telling the truth about her, flaws and all. This is reflected by language used when firstly using cliche’s and then dismissing them and bluntly describing his own real love. The subject of the poem in sonnet 18 is imagined to be superior to nature throughout the poem whereas in sonnet 130 the subject is seen as inferior to the best parts of nature- snow, roses, coral and perfumes.
Shakespeare love’s his mistress however, as in sonnet 130 he refers to her as ‘my mistress’ and he adores her for her solid reality. Both sonnets’ feature a lot of imagery within their lines. Sonnet 130 is composed of a series of similes which are used to create an idea of a traditional beauty and then dismissed as unrealistic clichi?? s. Ideas played upon are eyes, lips, breasts, hair, cheeks, breath, voice and movement in that order. After lines five to twelve, Shakespeare expands his argument further by using two lines per feature.
Metaphors are only toyed with for up to two lines and so extended metaphors do not really feature within this sonnet. However, all imagery used is vivid and allows you to picture both the traditional beauty Shakespeare dismisses and the woman who he actually loves. In line 3, where we are told ‘If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun’. Porcelain white skin was a sign of both beauty and social class in Shakespeare’s time, for if you were white you did not work and therefore get tanned by the sun.
By using the word ‘dun’ to describe his own lovers breasts, it conjures images of a dull brownish colour whereas the word ‘white’ brings to mind words such as angel, winter and pure. In sonnet 8, imagery is used for an entirely different purpose. It used imagery of nature to describe the beauty of his subject. From the opening line, the poem is an extended metaphor. The first line creates the image of the summer’s day of which the recipient is compared to and the following lines continue with that idea. This is completely different to sonnet 130 in which ideas are brought up then dismissed immediately.
Shakespeare examines the extent to which he can call his love as perfect as a summer’s day but realises that though it is used by hundreds of other poets it is not a very fitting example because nature’s beauty inevitably fades away. He also uses personification in several cases, for example ‘Nor shall death brag’, death is an abstract noun and has been personified and given an emotion- to brag. Death has also been turned into a proper noun so that it seems more personal and powerful, the recipients beauty beats the power of death is the message Shakespeare is trying to give out.
The subject of the sonnet’s gender is also hinted at- in line 6 we are told about ‘his gold complexion’, which could refer to either the sun or to the subject. It could hint that the recipient was a male because the ancient sun god Apollo was imagined as a beautiful young man, which is apt. Shakespeare created his own form of sonnet and became a master. His precise rhyme scheme is now known as the ‘Shakespearian’ or ‘English’ sonnet and follows the pattern of a,b,a,b,c,d,c,d,e,f,e,f,g,g’.
Sonnets 8 and 130 are both traditional in that they are both love poems and love poems were originally sonnets since the thirteenth century. However, in sonnet 8 it is not traditional in that Shakespeare is questioning using natural imagery to describe the beauty of a person because everything that is natural fades. Also, it is highly untraditional in the twist he features in the final couplet, lines thirteen and fourteen- where Shakespeare asserts that the sonnet itself will enable the subject of it to triumph over the changes and decay brought about by time.
In many ways, the sonnet is a boast by Shakespeare of what he can do to the person he is addressing. Sonnet 130 however, has a difference in its variation. Both sonnet 8 and 130 are formed of iambic pentameters- lines of five beats. However, in sonnet 8’s 2nd line, the pentameter is irregular. Stress’ fall on ‘far’, ‘red’, ‘her’ and ‘red’. Shakespeare has chosen to stress ‘far’ because he is belittling his lover. This turns convention on its head by saying that no, coral is far more red than my lover’s lips, my lover is not beautiful but that is alright.
However, in the rhyming couplet in the last two lines of the sonnet, he says that his lover is not comparable to all these fancy things but ‘by heavens’ she is real and I love her. By using the phrase ‘by heavens’ he is using the sixteenth equivalent to ‘my god’ and therefore obviously feels very passionately about this subject and he wants to emphasise it. Therefore, sonnet 8, like sonnet 130, is very unconventional because it is a love poem despite starting off as a parody of a normal sonnet and though it begins in a negative way, it ends up positive.
Both sonnets use the iambic pentameter structure. This is used because of its ten beats in a line and because it closely mirrors natural speech patterns of spoken English. In both poems, it is used because Shakespeare wants his sonnets to sonnet like they are being spoken out loud. In sonnet 130, line 11 the line ‘I grant I never saw a goddess go’ there is an example of alliteration, used to emphasise words. In this, Shakespeare is denying he ever saw his lover walk like a goddess, and the alliteration is used to really add to this denial .
The last two lines also feature a different rhyme scheme which is appropriate for the ending of the sonnet. They feature comma’s which add pauses to the line and make the speech seem less natural and flowing. In line 13, stress falls on ‘by heaven’ which is important to hear at this time in the poem because it reassures the recipient that he loves them because they are real, not just a bundle of exaggerated comparisons. The poem ends on ‘false compare’ because that is essentially, what the poem is all about. Shakespeare is saying that most sonnets are written about lies and he has not lied about his mistress.
She does not have coral lips and her breath may reek, but he loves her. She ‘treads on the ground’, she is down to earth, normal and real and this poem celebrates that. Language used in sonnet 130 is far more colloquial than in 18. In sonnet 130, the rhythms in the poem are more like those of spoken language and the poem flows as if it were spoken -this is the aim of the iambic pentameter. However, in sonnet 18, the language is far more formal in comparison to 130, which could suggest a greater distance between Shakespeare are the subject of sonnet 18.
In 130, the recipient is referred to as ‘My mistress’, whereas in sonnet 18 there are no possessive prefix’s comparable to that in 130. The reason why there is colloquial language in sonnet 130 could be because the recipient is not of such a high class as the recipient in 18 and the language used will be far simpler so the meaning could be put across, or it could possibly be to echo the idea that his lover does not have to be fancy and be described with long, ridiculous words for him to love her.
For example, in sonnet 130 words used to describe the lover are ‘reeks’, something that brings to mind an awkward stench, whereas in 18 ‘temperate’, ‘untrimm’d’ and ‘eternal’ are words used, all with far more syllables within them and sounding far more impressive than ‘reeks’. To conclude, though the two Shakespearian sonnets I have just examined share the same main theme, they differ in language used, Shakespeare’s intentions when writing the poem, gender of the recipient, imagery used and other figurative language. However, they both revolve around the same subject of praising a lover but go about it in very different ways.