Archive for February, 2011

Meaning and Form in John Keats’s “On the Sonnet”

Posted in Assignments on February 22, 2011 by breg9

John Keats’s “On the Sonnet” engages directly with the structure and tradition of sonnets and sonnet writing.  The speaker in the poem voices his concern that if English poets are chained “by dull rhymes” to the sonnet form they may lose sight of the beauty of poetry in an attempt to meet formal expectations (1).  The vehicle for this critique of the sonnet is an unusual sonnet that uses the rhyme scheme ABC ABD CABCDE DE. Within this rhyme scheme the lines are still written in iambic pentameter, and the sonnet is still 14 lines long, indicating a desire to remain within conventions even while questioning them.

The speaker begins by suggesting that the strict form of the sonnet has “chain’d” poetry.  He uses a simile that alludes to Greek mythology comparing the restrictions that the sonnet form places on poetic freedom of expression to Andromeda who, “in spite of pained loveliness,” was tied to a rock (3).  The rhyme scheme begins with AB for the first two lines which would be typical for either a Shakespearean or Petrarchan sonnet, but then begins to break the “fetters” of these “dull rhymes” by continuing the scheme with a C in line three.  He then begins to offer potential solutions to the problem of restrictive form, and begins to search for “Sandals”—or poetic forms – “more interwoven and complete/To fit the naked foot of Poesy” (5-6).  To reflect what seems to be a call for more varied and ornate poetic forms the rhyme scheme is altered again with repeated AB in lines 4 and 5 being followed by an unexpected D rhyme in line 6 that breaks the pattern that has begun to emerge (abc-abD).

The speaker then turns to possible solutions for reinventing poetry.  His first concern seems to be with the aural qualities of poetry, and uses the Lyre (Classical imagery again) as the means of comparison.  He says that poets must “weigh the stress/Of every chord” to see how they can improve their poetry by improving its sound. For the three lines that he discusses the sonic properties of poetry (7-9) two of them are enjambed, and the effect of traditional end-stopped poetry is lost as three lines go by before any pause at the end of the line. In the same way that the speaker has played with the formal characteristics of the sonnet, he also holds the reader (or listener) in suspense by leaving such distance between end-stopped lines.

Next he asks that poets be “Misers” of “syllable” like King Midas was of gold, and he says that they should be “jealous of dead leaves in the bay wreath crown” (an emblem of poetic achievement).  There seems to be an implication that poetry, or great poetry which is worthy of the crown of laurels, is dead, and while modern poets should try to achieve success by innovating with form, meter, and sound, they will inevitably fall short and be left envy the achievements of great poets of the past.

In the midst of these calls for change in poetic form, the speaker resolves his argument  with a turn beginning in line 13. He says that “if we may not let the Muse be free,/She will be bound with garlands of her own.” The speaker seems to have resigned himself to the fact that for poets to write poetry they must be constrained, at least to some extent, by conventional forms. In accepting this fact, the speaker also resigns to form because the turn is the one formal element in this sonnet that does conform to traditional expectations.  Not only is the turn in its expected location for an English sonnet, the lines here are both end-stopped and the rhyme scheme becomes somewhat regular in the last four lines – DEDE. The resignation to structure is a sign that the poet has determined not to reinvent poetic form. In the beginning of the sonnet he tried to break away from the “dull rhymes” that English poets are chained to by creating an entirely new rhyme scheme and by making enjambments the rule rather than the exception. But upon realizing that the great poets of the past have worked within traditional forms, his radical vision for poetic reform is softened, and he concludes his sonnet with a traditional turn. In the end, the speaker is predestined to return to tradition simply because he has consciously chosen one of the most rigid poetic forms as the vehicle for his critique. In choosing the sonnet form the speaker also becomes a part of the sonnet writing tradition. While his topic may differ from the normal subjects of Renaissance poets, he plays with conventions and expectations within the sonnet form in order to show his unique poetic abilities.

Figurative Language in John Donne’s “The Sun Rising”

Posted in Assignments on February 14, 2011 by breg9

In the second stanza (11-20) of John Donne’s “The Sun Rising,” the speaker seems to challenge the power of the sun in comparison to the relationship between himself and his lover. The literal action of the first four lines of the stanza sees the speaker introduce the sun’s supposed power, then show how easy it would be for him to eclipse that power, before he lets the sun go so as to keep his eyes fixed upon his lover. The sun is described as “reverend and strong,” but the speaker cautions the sun that he is the one with the true power and not the sun (11). By simply closing his eyes he “could eclipse and cloud” the sun, but because of his attraction to his lover the speaker condescends to spare the sun because he “would not lose her sight so long” (13-14).

Next the speaker begins to talk down to the sun saying “if her eyes have not blinded thine, / Look” (upon his lover) (15-16). Here the speaker elevates his lover to the position of the sun, because the mere sight of her has the power, or at least the potential, to blind the sun. The sun, unlike the speaker, cannot close its great eye and must observe the blinding beauty of the lover. Interestingly, the speaker portrays himself in a position of power over both because he can “wink” to cause an eclipse of the sun, but refrains from doing so because such a wink would also make him lose sight of his lover implying that he could just as easily eclipse her. The speaker now turns from the sun, who he has shown to be a lesser power than himself and his lover, to world itself. He claims that the sun, who has seen “Indias of spice and mine” and “kings,” will “tomorrow late” see them “All here in one bed lay” (17-20). To the speaker, his bed has become the center of all of that is exotic (“Indias of spice”) and valuable (“mine” as in gold mines), as well as becoming the center of all temporal power in the world (the “kings”) (17-19).

Not only has the speaker’s lover taken on the attributes of the sun in her blinding beauty, they now both have the power, like the sun, to view and contain all the things of the world. But even in this they surpass the sun because the sun must make its circuit around the world (in a geocentric universe) in order to see all of these things. But “tomorrow late” everything comes to the lovers (16). In this process the bed becomes the world itself, the lover the sun, and the speaker almost a kind of god figure who has the ability to create this world with his lover, or eclipse it with a wink. The central conceit of this stanza seems to be the speaker’s lover and the bed they share being compared to the sun and the world. In the first half of this stanza the lover takes on the attributes of the sun, while in the second half the content of the world is drawn into their bed. This stanza sets the scene for the final stanza in which the bed is transformed into the world and the sun is called upon to perform its duty with “This bed thy center is, these walls, thy sphere” (30).

Shakespeare Sonnet 116 Image Networks

Posted in Assignments on February 7, 2011 by breg9

Sonnet 116 uses two major image networks in its definition of love. The first is based around images of stability and consistency, and the second around images of instability and changeability, and the contrast between these two networks of images creates an interesting tension in the sonnet. Structurally, each of the three quatrains offers different definitions of love, but throughout all three the speaker argues that love is unchanging and eternal. After defining love for the first twelve lines, the couplet at the end is a bold pronouncement by the speaker in which he tries to prove the truth of his assertions. However, despite the seemingly straightforward argument of the sonnet, the speaker’s language, and the metaphors he uses shed some doubt on his claim that love is unchanging.

In the first line the image of stability is introduced with “the marriage of true minds,” which is the subject of the sonnet (1). Besides the obvious definition of two people being married to each other, the OED also defines marriage as “an intimate union; a merging or blending of two things,” and since those “things” are true minds, their intimate union gives a sense of stability and permanence as they become one. Throughout the rest of the first quatrain the speaker defines this marriage of true minds further and the idea of stability is supported since love according to the speaker does not “alter” or “bend.” But speaker’s way of defining love also complicates the notion that love is completely stable. Rather than saying what love is, the speaker defines it by saying “Love is not love” when it alters or bends (2). In line three, “alteration finds” create tension because the speaker seems to suggest that love will find alteration, and only true love will not alter when it meets with it (2). Doubt is cast on the stability of the “marriage” because alteration, and therefore instability, seem to be inevitable dangers. The process of definition by negative is repeated again in line four, and the same tension exists between the stability of love that will not bend, and the inherent instability if there is potentially a “remover” which love will have to resist.

The second quatrain is the only time that love is defined by what “it is” rather than what it “is not.” Here images of stability come to the fore, and love is defined as “an ever-fixed mark” that “is never shaken” (5-6). And as “the star to every wandering bark,” it seems to be a permanent point of navigation that can always be relied upon to be stable and secure (7). But the images of instability are also able to work their way into this metaphor of a navigational star. Despite its stability, the fixed mark of the star must look “on tempests” and the “wandering bark,” both of which are images of instability and changeability. The tempests could represent the unpredictable alterations that occur in the natural world, and the bark, or ship, is people at the mercy of changeable nature.

The third quatrain returns to the “is not” method of definition and seems to favor instability as a means of showing Love’s stability. The main image is of “Time,” which will inevitably bring change. The “rosy lips and cheeks” of temporal beauty are impermanent, and will inevitably fall “Within his bending sickle’s compass” (9-10). But in the midst of the change that time brings love (or true love) will not alter over the “brief hours and weeks” of time (11). Instead, it transcends the ravages of time and will remain constant and stable till the “edge of doom” (12). In this quatrain the tension between stability and instability is particularly clear in the metaphor of Time. Time, which represents inevitable change, is placed against love, which is supposedly unalterable. Interestingly, in this conflict between stability and instability, Time’s primary attribute, bringing change as it unfolds linearly into the future, is also a source of stability.  Time will inevitability keep moving forward, and therefore despite the change it brings to the outside world, time itself remains predictable and stable. According to the speaker, love is the same and will continue without alteration till eternity.

In the couplet the speaker claims that if his statements prove to be false, “I never writ, nor no man ever loved.” This assertion seems to be true, he has written this sonnet, and men have loved (and apparently the speaker has loved). This statement does seem to end the sonnet with a tone of stability. The sonnet itself becomes the source of stability because as readers we are proving the truth of his assertions by reading his writing, and in the process the speaker  is being put in a position where he is able to, like love, transcend the instability of time.