Defining Characteristics of Sonnets on John Donne’s, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s, and Edmund Spenser’s Poetry

Categories: John Donne

A sonnet is defined as a poem of fourteen lines using any of a number of formal rhyme schemes. They are typically written about love, but can be about a host of other topics as well. They are well known for the utilization of a strong rhythm, which is why sonnets can be quickly transcribed into music. Sonnet characteristics can be clearly seen in the poems Death, be not proud,” “One day I wrote her name upon the strand”, and “How I love thee? Let me count the ways.

The first sonnet analyzed is “Death, be not proud” by John Donne. The format of the poem follows a Petrarchan format. This format has fourteen lines with a rhyme scheme of a/b/b/a/a/b/b/a/c/d/d/c/a/a. It functions within the normal iambic pentameter structure; each line has ten syllables, every second of which is accented. However, the beat is kept loosely. For example, the sonnet starts with the first word “death” accented.

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This is okay for him to do because once read out loud, the pauses that are generated are allowed to be counted as a syllable as well.

The speaker has a unique viewpoint of Death; instead of being scared of what death can bring, he taunts the concept, as his beliefs dictate he is going to Heaven. This thought allows him to remain confident throughout the entire sonnet. He keeps a sturdy demeanor while taunting and insulting Death as the sonnet continues.

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In doing so, he personifies the concept of death into an entity. By talking to the concept as though it is a conscious being, he is able to verbally challenge it. Without this personification, it would be hard to taunt death, as it would not be able to conceptualize anything that has been said.

The sonnet is also metaphysical, as it talks about reality beyond the physical world. The speaker in the sonnet is very aware of the idea of mortality; in fact, he is so aware that he even predicts Death will eventually die, stating that “And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die” (14). The poem is so aware of death that it understands that all concepts, even the idea of dying, will eventually perish and fall into oblivion. This is also a paradox, another characteristic of a metaphysical poem. The narrator states that death will one day die, but in order for something to die, death must still be valid concept. The sonnet tops it off with a pun as well: “Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery” (8). Delivery can mean a liberation, such as the delivery of the Israelites after their enslavement, or it can mean birth in the sense of how babies are delivered into the world.

Another strong characteristic of a metaphysical poem is the reference to God. This is a recurring idea within the sonnet, as the idea of rest and sleep are contrasted against permanent death: From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be” (5). The distinction between rest and death comes from the story of Christ. When Christ is killed on the Cross, he is depicted as “sleeping” before he wakes up and goes back to Heaven. Similarly, for Christians, the idea of death is a merely a sleep, as they will be resurrected for Heaven when the Rapture starts. This is another reason as to why the speaker is not afraid of Death, as he believes that he will only be asleep temporarily rather than dead permanently.

The volta, or shift in the argumentation, takes place at line 9 which is also when the rhyme scheme changes. He begins to insult death by stating that “Thou’art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,/ And dost with poison, war and sickness dwell” (Donne 9-10). By changing the rhyme scheme, the poet indicates a change in his argumentation. His insults become sharper and more biting which eventually culminates to the idea of death dying.

The Petrarchan structure is just one way of constructing a sonnet. “One day I wrote her name upon the strand” by Edmund Spenser is written in the Spenserian format, meaning the rhyme scheme follows a/b/a/b/b/c/b/c/c/d/c/d/e/e. This is different from the more traditional structure a/b/b/a/a/b/b/a/c/d/e/c/d/e. A large difference between the two is the couplet at the end of the Spenserian format. The poem is written in iambic pentameter, and follows the meter meticulously.

Alliteration is used throughout the sonnet. For instance, in the line “But came the tide, and made my pains his prey,” (Spenser 4) pain and prey both have harsh sounding “p” pronunciations that give the overall sentence a gritty feeling. Spenser is utilizing alliteration as a way of emphasizing the tone of each line. Whereas the harsh “p”s are used in talking about pains, the sentence “My verse, your virtues rare shall eternize” has a softer sound, which is consistent with the content of the sentence. Furthermore, the last line uses alliteration to create a melodious sound: “Our love shall live, and later life renew” (14). The sound of the words emphasize how the reader should interpret the lines as they read them.

The poem takes place on the beach, with the waves continually moving in close to where the speaker is sitting. This allows the poet to use the waves as a metaphor for life; the speaker has no control over the waves of ocean coming in and out, just as nobody has control over how their lives turn out. He is writing his beloved’s name on the beach constantly, only to have it washed away by a tide: “One day I wrote her name upon the strand, / But came the waves and washed it away” (1-2). No matter how much he tries to keep his lover’s name written in the sand, the continual waves destroy the name, which allows him to understand that he cannot create immortality in the physical world. He instead defaults to immortalizing their love through poem, as he states that “Where whenas death shall all the world subdue, / Our love shall live, and later life renew” (13-14).

The volta can be found in the last two lines of the sonnet. It represents a shift from the discussion of slipping into oblivion to one that talks about being immortalized in verse. Before these lines, the speaker’s lover states that there is no point in trying to her name in the sand, as they will all die and everything will be forgotten eventually: “A mortal thing so to immortalize;/ For I myself shall like to this decay” (6-7). However, the last two lines clarifies that not only will she be immortalized, but their love will become eternal through verse. It is not just his lover he wants to immortalize, but it is their love.

The theme of the poem is that something true can be immortalized in some way. Even though physical eternality is impossible, because of the devotion the speaker has to his lover, he makes sure that they are remembered for their love. This is a unique immortality, as they are not truly immortal. When one reads the poem, they do not know the identity of the two individuals in the poem. However, the reader does know what kind of love the speaker wanted to express. This way, the individuals themselves are not immortal, but their abstract feelings are continued through the generations inside of the countless readers’ minds.

The final sonnet is “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. This poem also follows the Petrarchan format and is also written in iambic pentameter. A large part of why the poem sounds so natural is because it uses repetition; the word love is used ten times throughout the poem. Instead of using synonyms for love, the poet wants to fill the one word with a multitude of different implications. This makes the word “love” multifaceted and three-dimensional. Had the word love been replaced with different words such as affection, it would have detracted from the full meaning of love. This also creates consistency; the speaker feels an unchanging sense of love for her significant other.

This sense of love is sharpened through the contrast of her previous grief. She states that the passion she put into grieving has been transferred to her love : “I love thee with the passion put to use / In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith” (Browning 9-10). This contributes to the idea of her version of love being more personal than a generic abstraction, as she is telling her lover that her passion for him has been shaped and fueled by her past history.

Anaphora dominates the poem, as the term “I love thee” is used eight times in the poem, including the ending, which states “I shall but love thee.” The author also uses alliteration, as she uses similar sounding words such as “thee/the” and “quiet/candlelight” in the same line. She also writes about abstract concepts as though they are human; through this personification, the author is able to create a feeling in which these abstractions are more personal to her.She uses capitalized words for these concepts: “the ends of Being and ideal Grace” (4). Any concept can generically apply to every individual; personified concepts are specific to how she conceptualizes them. This conveys the message she wants because the goal of her poem is to describe her love; by personifying abstractions, it describes her love as something that is more personal.

The volta comes in the last two lines of the sonnet: “Smiles, tears, of all my life!- And, if God choose, I shall but love thee better after death (13-14). In the first twelve lines of the poem, her love for her significant other is grounded in physicality; they talk about love in the physical world. However, the last two sentences talk about her love transcending empirical reality and into a different realm of existence. This shift from love in this life to love in the afterlife indicates the shift in how she describes her love.

All three poems utilize the idea of eternality: “Death, be not Proud” states that death is a mere temporary sleep, and one can overcome it; in “One day I wrote her name upon the strand,” immortality is believed to be achievable through the preservation of their love in a poem; in “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways,” she wants to continue loving her significant other into the afterlife. In all three poems, their belief in what they are saying is unwavering, meaning that all three speakers thoroughly believe in what they are saying. Only through such belief can one reach immortality, as without such belief, doubt and fear can prevent one from achieving their goals.

Updated: Feb 27, 2024
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Defining Characteristics of Sonnets on John Donne’s, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s, and Edmund Spenser’s Poetry. (2024, Feb 27). Retrieved from

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