Sonnets Day

· 20 May 2019 ·

[Showing their birth, and where they did proceed]

Four hundred and ten years ago, 20 May 1609, when I was five years into my postlife, publisher Thomas Thorpe registered Shakespeares sonnettes with the Stationers’ Company. The slim quarto volume was published under the title SHAKE-SPEARES SONNETS, with the hyphen. Those 154 little poems have kept a great many people scratching their pens and their heads ever since. Good.

Here’s my go-to, Sonnet 76. Unless you’re new to the SAQ, you probably know why. If you are new (welcome, glad you’re here), there’s your first sonnet project: find out why #76 is special.

  • Why is my verse so barren of new pride?
  • So far from variation or quick change?
  • Why with the time do I not glance aside
  • To new found methods and to compounds strange?
  • Why write I still all one, ever the same,
  • And keep invention in a noted weed,
  • That every word doth almost tell my name,
  • Showing their birth, and where they did proceed?
  • O know sweet love I always write of you,
  • And you and love are still my argument;
  • So all my best is dressing old words new,
  • Spending again what is already spent:
  • For as the Sun is daily new and old,
  • So is my love still telling what is told.

My nearly-finished Flanders post (I’m aiming for the 28th, after the bank holiday/Memorial Day) features my Gray’s Inn boon companion and fellow poet George Gascoigne. In 1575 he published The Poſies of George Gaſcoigne, Eſquire, containing the essay Certayne notes of Inſtruction concerning the making of verſe or ryme in Engliſh. Included in his proto-how-to manual, the first of its kind for English poetry (now a popular format), was the following definition of an English sonnet. Fix the archaic spelling and the accurſed ſs and it still serves perfectly well.

Here it is, fixed:

Then have you Sonnets. Some think that all Poems (being short) may be called Sonnets, as indeed it is a diminutive word derived of Sonare. But yet I can best allow to call those Sonnets which are of fourteen lines, every line containing ten syllables. The first twelve do rhyme in staves [stanzas] of four lines by cross metre, and the last two rhyming together do conclude the whole.

These are properly called English sonnets, not Elizabethan, and certainly not Shakespearean. All I did was write a bunch of good ones, enigmatic, which made the existing form famous. It was Thomas Wyatt and Uncle Henry (Howard, Earl of Surrey) who were the first to write them, back in the reign of Henry VIII, decades before I did and Willy didn’t. Credit where it’s due, please.

So roll your Sonnets Die and read a few out loud for Sonnets Day. Or if you’re Jeff, recite all 154 from memory.

VERO NIHIL VERIUS