A Timeline of the Sonnet Sequence

The sequence of Shakespeare’s Sonnets parallels the structure of an individual sonnet. Just as each sonnet has an octet, volta, and sestet, the overall sequence of sonnets is divided into two main sections, with a thematic turn in between. The first 126 sonnets serve as the sequence’s octet and focus on the unattainable Fair Youth. They build an argument about poetry’s power to defeat time and preserve the youth’s beauty. Sonnet 126, an irregular, 12-line “sonnet” made up of couplets, is the volta. It announces the thematic and tonal turn in the sequence. The final 28 sonnets focus on the speaker’s relationship with the Dark Lady. These final poems can be seen as a sestet that challenges and contrasts the first set of sonnets. The last two poems in the sequence offer concise, unspecific points about love in general by using Cupid as a conceit. These two poems therefore signify the couplet, or final take away, from the sequence.

1-17: The Procreation Sonnets

The poet tries to convince the youth to have a child. He argues that the youth must pass his genes on to a son in order to preserve his beautiful face.

18-25: The Power of Poetry Sonnets

The poet argues that the youth should not have children. Instead, the youth should believe in the power of the speaker’s poetry to protect the youth against Time. He argues that only poetry can preserve beauty forever.

26-78: The Despair and Time Sonnets

The poet despairs that the youth does not return his affections. He goes back and forth between feeling angry and being dependent on the youth. He thinks about the destructive effect of personified Time and the fleeting nature of all things.

79-87: The Rival Poet Sonnets

The poet discusses the youth’s relationship with a rival poet. He is extremely jealous of the rival poet because the youth seems to favor him. The speaker accuses the youth of disloyalty.

88-126: The Fickle Youth Sonnets

The speaker lists the youth’s faults. However, he also says that he cannot stop loving the youth. The speaker often slips into depressing thoughts about how his actions caused their falling out.

127-154: The Dark Lady Sonnets

The speaker engages in a sexual relationship with a woman. These poems are filled with guilt, desire, and sensual language. The sequence ends with the poet complaining about being unable to end the affair. In the final two sonnets, he describes more broadly the folly of falling in love, drawing on images of Cupid in the process.