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

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.

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

  1. Thanks 🙂 this entry helped me understand the poem better. Hopefully my paper is ok!

  2. poems…

    […]Meaning and Form in John Keats’s “On the Sonnet” « Brian Register[…]…

  3. Nicely done analysis! I am sharing this one with my creative writing students.

  4. this helped me hugely!
    Nicely done

  5. Hmm it looks like your site ate my first comment (it was
    super long) so I guess I’ll just sum it up what I had written and say, I’m thoroughly enjoying your blog.

    I as well am an aspiring blog writer but I’m still new to everything. Do you have any tips for novice blog writers? I’d definitely appreciate it.

  6. Howdy! This post couldn’t be written much better! Looking at this article reminds me of my previous roommate! He always kept talking about this. I’ll send this
    post to him. Pretty sure he will have a very good read.
    I appreciate you for sharing!

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