Sydney or Shakespeare; a Sonnet for the New Age

Among the most restraining of poetic forms, the sonnet has been used for many centuries to express feelings, thoughts, poetic expertise, and even to persuade audiences of political area. Proficient poets have found ways to manipulate the rhyme and verse within to show off their creativity. Many poets stay true to traditional sonnet form and seek only to convey their thoughts, while others seek to break from the normal as a testament to their poetic skill. Two famous poetic geniuses come to mind when trying to convey the sonnet form and how it was used differently. Sir Philip Sidney and William Shakespeare, both masters of the form and yet each chose to write in his own respective style. Sir Sidney, through changes in poetic technique, made significant, almost dramatic changes to the traditional Petrarch sonnet. Shakespeare, on the other hand, focused more on what could be written in a sonnet and less on being creative with its form. Shakespeare contributed so much to the content of sonnets that a sonnet form is named after him.

The traditional Italian form of the sonnet was discarded by Sidney in order to free him of the restraints of its rhyming requirements. This enabled him to create his own version of the sonnet by variation of the traditional rhyming scheme of ABBA ABBA with varying sestets, in an adaptation from Italian to the newly developed English form. One such example is his Astrophil and Stella sonnet 1. While remaining true to the traditional sonnet structure in that the first part asks a question, the sonnet begins:

“Loving in truth and fain in verse, my love to show,
that she (dear she) might take some pleasure in my pain:
pleasure might make her read, reading might make her know,
knowledge might pity win and pity grace obtain” (lines 1-4).

Here Sidney is suggesting that if he could write a poem to Stella that he might win her favor. He then proceeds to do just that, write a sonnet to her. This form of sequence proved to be important for literature. For this type showed that writing a sonnet in traditional form was not necessary to win a reader’s attention. Because of this creativity, Sidney showcased his skill for, not only readers but other writers as well. Interestingly, Sidney’s sonnet form varied from poem to poem. Because of his creativity, he felt it was unnecessary to be consistent. One such difference can be found in sonnet 15.

“You that do search for every purling spring
Which from the ribs of old Parnassus flows,
And every flower, not sweet perhaps, which grows
Near thereabouts, into your poesy wring ;”( Lines1-4).

While Sidney’s creative thinking was innovative and unique, his writings lacked heart and seemed less realistic than other writers such as Shakespeare. However Sidney chose to write his sonnets, the message is clear, he remains a vital contributor to the world of sonnets and thus literature in general.

In contrast to Sidney, a well-known writer, and playwright, Shakespeare, chose to closely adhere to conventional sonnet form. In his sonnet 18, he kept with the traditional A-B-A-B C-D-C-D- E-E structure as can be seen as he writes:

“Nor shall death brag thou, wander’st in his shade,
when in eternal lines to time thou growest:
so long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
so long lives this and gives life to thee” (Lines 11-14).

All of Shakespeare’s sonnets followed closely to this form. In fact, after his time, this became known as the Shakespearean sonnet form even though he had nothing to do with its invention. While Shakespeare was not unique in the form he chose for his sonnets, he contributed greatly to their tone and content. In fact, his elevated speech and heartfelt words are what makes his sonnets the most recognizable poems in English literature. To illustrate, Shakespeare’s sonnet 60 says “And yet to times in hope my verse shall stand / Praising thy worth, despite his cruel hand” (Lines 13-14), in this way, Shakespeare succeeds in proving his love for this man and his hopes that his words will live on for eternity in verse. Thus his opinion of his worth and love for this man will never die. This is eloquently written and not time-stamped as other authors. In fact, Sidney attempts a similar thought and yet appears more concerned with his own immortality as a writer than that of his love. “How then? Even thus: in Stella’s face I read / What love and beauty be, then all my deed / But copying is, what in her Nature writes;” (“Sonnet 3” 12-14) here, Sidney admits that Stella is naturally beautiful and by writing about her beauty, her love will last forever, even if only in his mind. While the sentiment is beautiful, the words themselves lack beauty.

While Shakespeare and Sidney differed greatly from the form of the sonnet and their quality, they were similar in that the message was the same. Both poets wrote to present the subject matter of love and romance. In addition, both poets write first about a problem or question and proceed to answer or solve the dilemma. Where they differ is in the structure of the sonnet and the actual quality of the words and thus their impact on the reader. Shakespeare, a more realistic, mature writer, surpasses Sidney in his quality. However, both writers are literary masters in form, although different.

Shakespeare, William. “Sonnets 18, 60”. The Longman Anthology of British Literature (2nd ed.) Ed. David Damrosch. New York: Pearson Longman.

Sidney, Sir Philip. “Astrophil and Stella”. The Longman Anthology of British Literature (2nd ed.)Ed. David Damrosch. New York: Pearson Longman.

%d bloggers like this: