The Latin infinitive speculari, from which we derive the English verb to speculate, has a number of meanings: to spy, to look out and to examine. In the case of the sonnet, it is not simply that such poems look out, examine and conjecture upon an external universe. Rather, sonnets — with their capacity to ‘turn over’ an idea or experience through the tradition of the volta (Fussell 1979, Spiller 1992) — are particularly suited to solipsistic introspection; a speculative investigation of the poet-narrator’s own desires, shortcomings and hopes for the future. This paper examines the relationship between form, meaning and subjective introspection in the sonnets of Petrarch and Shakespeare (Engle 1898, Durbrow 1996, King 2005, Martin 2010). Acknowledging recent interest in the sonnet in the wake of New Formalism (Caplan 2012), it is argued that the work of these master-poets in this genre sets a benchmark for later sonneteers to continue in the tradition of poetic self-speculation.
Keywords: sonnet; Petrarch; Shakespeare; self; speculation