The English Sonnet: queer words make an impression

August 20, 2017

The old debate about Shakespeare’s sexuality was in the news again recently (it’s August). It all stems from his sonnets. In the 16th and 17th century, sonnets were a popular poetic form; romantic and usually cheesy.


Shakespeare turned that on its head with a series of one hundred and fifty four about an older man called Will lusting after a younger man. Rejected, he turns his attention to an exotic, dark, but not very attractive, prostitute. But, as sod’s law would have it, the younger man is there before him and he’s once again thwarted, this time by ‘too many ships in port.’


They're strong stuff. Whether personal confessions or a satire on King James’ notoriously camp and dissolute court is up for debate, but what’s for sure is they were original and risky (homosexuality was illegal). And the conservative nature of the form adds to the shock value. Form carries expectations. Expectations allows for subversion.


I’ve reproduced the 129th as an example but, because English has changed over the centuries, I've replaced f with s, u with v and I with j (so ‘luft’ becomes ‘lust’, ‘fhame’ is ‘shame’, ‘ioy’ is ‘joy’ and ‘haue’ is ‘have’, etc). Otherwise, it's in its original archaic form, including punctuation and the final couplet’s indent. 


TH’expense of Spirit in a waste of shame

Is lust in action, and until action, lust

Is perjurd, murdrous, blouddy full of blame,

Savage, extreame, rude, cruell, not to trust,

Injoyed no sooner but despised straight,

Past reason hunted, and no sooner had

Past reason hated as a swallowed bayt,

On purpose layd to make the taker mad,

Made in pursut and in possession so,

Had, having, and in quest, to have extreame,

A blisse in proofe and proud and very wo,

Before a joy proposd behind a dreame,

All this the world knows yet none knows well,

To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.


You'll see it has fourteen lines with no stanza breaks, although, if you examine the end rhymes, you'll see there are three quatrains (four line stanzas) and one couplet (a two line stanza). That's the English convention. The other rules are:


  1. take an idea and develop it (lust in this case);

  2. at some point, traditionally around the eighth line, do a volta (a shift), for example from what to why (Will shifts at line eight, 'On purpose layd...' to point an accusing finger at the object of lust);  

  3. use iambic pentameter for rhythm, i.e. diDUM, diDUM, diDUM, diDUM, diDUM;

  4. use an end rhyme scheme (here it's ababcdcdefefgg);

  5. and come to a conclusion in the final couplet.


With its busy punctuation, this particular sonnet has a sense of agitated despair and is a fantastic example of the importance of punctuation in the art as well as in the mechanics of writing.


If you decide to have a go at writing one, try to avoid cliché. Do something queer, like Will. Not 'gay' queer because he's done that, but original queer.


You can read Shakespeare's sonnets for free, here.



Book review/recommendation: The Arden Shakespeare Sonnets published by Bloomsbury.


Good editions of Shakespeare's work introduce context and edit original text to make sense of it. It's invaluable and worth paying for if you want to discover the genius of the man. The Arden edition ticks those boxes. 







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