“At the touch of love everyone becomes a poet.”
That’s the observation of Plato, the legendary philosopher of Ancient Greece. But it’s a little hard to tell whether this wise man was giving a thumbs up to love’s inspiration or getting grumpy about the sometimes silly words love inspires.
Some writers have chronicled the comfort of long-lasting love, and the love of family and friends. Many others have shared the heartache of lost love. But many, many more have shared the roller-coaster, pitter-pat, and clammy palms of first love and love-at-first-sight. It remains a favorite subject of thinkers and poets. That’s unlikely to change as long as humans have hearts that beat, eyes that gleam, and glands that sweat.
Love poems have ranged from the silly and cute...
Roses are red.
Violets are blue.
Sugar is sweet.
And so are you.
...to some of the most memorable lines ever penned, such as these from an enduring sonnet by Elizabeth Barrett Browning:
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach...
That’s pretty deep stuff—or high and wide, in Mrs. Browning’s case.
Following are some of the words of wisdom people have used to try to pen... er, pin down this indescribable little thing called love.
Shakespeare & Sonnets
There are two basic sonnet forms:
- The Petrarchan Sonnet, or Italian sonnet, named for the Italian poet and scholar Francesco Petrarca (1304–1374).
- The English Sonnet, or Shakespearean Sonnet, named for William Shakespeare (1564-1616). Both sonnet forms have 14 lines, but differ in structure and rhyme scheme.
Shakespeare is often discussed as the greatest writer in the English language. He was an actor and playwright, author of such stage classics as Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, The Tempest, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and dozens of other plays. Shakespeare’s plays are as current today as they were centuries ago.
But readers have also memorized many of his 154 sonnets to recite and whisper to one another. These poems explore the subjects of love, beauty, jealousy, heartbreak, and the passage of time.
No form of poetry is more associated with love than the sonnet. Sonnets are forms of “lyric poetry”—poetry that expresses deep feelings.
In general, sonnets follow certain guidelines of rhythm and rhyme. For English sonnets, here are the basic rules:
- Subject: deep feelings;
- Length: 14 lines. They are broken into three stanzas of four lines called quatrains. It finishes with a two-line stanza called a couplet;
- Rhythm: iambic, as in tra-LAH;
- Line Structure: pentameter, or ten syllables; that means five tra-LAHs in a line, like so—tra-LAH tra-LAH tra-LAH tra-LAH tra-LAH;
- Rhyme Scheme: rhyming syllables at the end of every other line, and a rhyme between last two lines. Here’s how “pro” poets denote the rhyme scheme of an English sonnet:
Line 1: rhyme A ("summer's day")
Line 2: rhyme B ("temperate")
Line 3: rhyme A ("buds of May")
Line 4: rhyme B ("short a date")
Line 5: rhyme C ("heaven shines")
Line 6: rhyme D ("dimm'd")
Line 7: rhyme C ("sometime declines")
Line 8: rhyme D ("untrimm'd")
Line 9: rhyme E ("not fade")
Line 10: rhyme F ("thou ow'st")
Line 11: rhyme E ("his shade")
Line 12: rhyme F ("thou grow'st")
Line 13: rhyme G ("can see")
Line 14: rhyme G ("to thee")
Exploring Sonnet 18
Like most things in life and love, a sonnet is easier to understand once you explore a real example. Below is one of the most famous English sonnets ever put on paper—Sonnet 18 by William Shakespeare. The notes under each line help explain and explore the sonnet and its unique form.
Quatrain 1: Establish Main Theme and Metaphor
The opening sets the sonnet’s subject and tone. In this case, the poet compares the lover to a summer day. But the poet also suggests this might be a bad idea because summer is not always gentle and does not last long.
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
If I compared you to a summer day
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
I’d say you were more beautiful and mild
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
But summer is hard on young life
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
And summer doesn’t last long, either.
Quatrain 2: Expand the Theme
This section expands on the theme of the lover’s beauty. But it also expresses regret that beauty fades, and nothing can change that.
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
Sometimes the sun is too hot
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
Sometimes clouds block the sun’s face
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
Everything pretty becomes less pretty eventually
By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimm’d;
Neither luck nor nature can change that.
Quatrain 3: Change Direction
Now the poet quickly backtracks. He says nothing, not even death, can take the lover’s beauty, especially since that beauty has now been recorded in the poet’s poetry.
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
But you will never fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Or become less lovely
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
Not even Death will claim you
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st;
Because you will live forever in my poetry.
Final Couplet: Bring It Home!
The poet drives the point home: Now immortalized in this poem, the lover will live as long as there is life.
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
You will stay lovely as long as people live
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
As long as this poem gives you life.
With Willie Shakespeare as your guide, why don’t you try your own hand at a sonnet?