This book consists of 154 sonnets that were published in a quarto dated 1609. It’s not all of the sonnets written by Shakespeare because there were a few stashed in his plays. It’s also not the entire contents of that 1609 quarto, which also included a long-form narrative poem entitled “The Lover’s Complaint.” However, these are the poems typically included in collections of Shakespearean sonnets.
For those unfamiliar with the sonnet, it’s a 14-line poem that’s metered and rhymed. In English language sonnets (and Shakespeare’s, in particular) that metering is iambic pentameter (five feet of alternating unstressed and stressed syllables.) Shakespeare’s sonnets follow a rhyme scheme that is often named for him: ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. (It’s also called English Rhyme, and is differentiated from Petrarchan Rhyme which has an octave of ABBA ABBA and a sestet that can vary, e.g. CDCDCD.) As with all rules of poetry, there is the occasional exceptions taken here and there.
Love, beauty, and death are common recurring themes in the sonnets, but there are occasional forays into tangential topics like lust, infidelity, and immortality through poetry. There are also humorous twists on the expected approach. The most famous Shakespearean sonnet is probably 18 “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”, but we see in another popular contender, Sonnet 130 (“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;”), Shakespeare mocking hyperbole. Of course, he’s not just mocking hyperbole; he’s also saying that he can still love his lover despite the fact that she isn’t in all ways more beautiful than the most pleasing elements of nature (and might even have halitosis.)
There’s no division or formal organization of the sonnets. However, scholars do divide them up in various schemes. One simple way that they are divvied up is to put the first 126 in a category in which Shakespeare addresses a young man. The first 17 sonnets are a subgroup in which the poet attempts to convince the young man to be fertile and multiply. Sonnets 127 – 154 are sometimes called the “Dark Lady” (a.k.a. “Black Mistress”) sequence as they frequently refer to a brunette woman (i.e. the woman whose lips are not as red as coral in Sonnet 130.) One can see the difference in tone extremely contrasted in the two poems mentioned in the preceding paragraph – Sonnets 18 and 130.
Besides the aforementioned sonnets, a few others stand out as personal favorites:
– 55 “Not marble, nor the gilded monuments”
– 27 “Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed,”
– 1 “From fairest creatures we desire increase,”
– 65 “Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,”
But you should read them and find your own favorites. It’s Shakespeare, of course they are highly recommended.