On First Looking into Keats’s Sonnets

I want to talk today about Keats’s sonnets. I’ve always liked Keats—it’s hard to imagine not liking Keats—but I’ve mostly read his odes. Is it possible to graduate from an English-language high school without reading “Ode to a Grecian Urn?” I certainly hope not. But I honestly can’t recall ever reading any of his sonnets except for “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer.” I didn’t know what I was missing.

This Saturday I belatedly discovered the crown jewel of Chengdu bookshops: Fangsuo Bookstore 方所书店. I don’t know what the rest of Chengdu likes about this store, but for me the star attraction is the remarkably good collection of English literature—prose and poetry, the classics and more recent authors—at prices that are, at any rate, cheaper than having books shipped from the U.S. Among my purchases on this first outing was a small volume of Keats’s poetry that opens with a lengthy selection of his sonnets.

When I took to writing seriously again this spring, one of the novelties I discovered in myself was an interest in poetic form. The first form that I explored was the sonnet, with its long and beautiful history in English poetry as well as in many other European languages.

For those who have forgotten what you never knew about a sonnet, here’s a brief review. All sonnets have fourteen lines. The Italian or Petrarchan sonnet is composed of a group of eight lines, called the octave, which follows the rhyme-pattern abbaabba and a group of six lines, called the sestet, which usually rhymes cdccdc or cdecde. The English or Shakespearean sonnet is composed of three quatrains and a couplet which rhyme abab/cdcd/efef/gg.it is traditionally written in iambic pentameter, meaning most of the lines can be divided into five segments of two syllables each with the rhythm “tah-DUM” (think: “That time of year thou mayst in me behold”).

I found that I really enjoy writing sonnets. Far from constraining me, the form seems to provide a degree of inspiration, and I was pleased with the results. However, I did find myself bending the rules a bit. Some of my Shakespearean sonnets alternated lines of four and three feet throughout the quatrains, only to blossom into six- or seven-foot lines in the final couplet. This seemed justified to me since even within an established form, a poet should be free to adjust the rules in order to make the sound of the poem match its sense. Nevertheless, I worried that others might judge my sonnets incorrect or declare that they are not sonnets at all—until I read Keats.

Keats wrote both Petrarchan and Shakespearean sonnets, but he played with both the length of the lines and the rhyme scheme to place emphasis on different lines or to set up comparisons and contrasts between lines.

The most striking example of Keats breaking the rules is found in one of his sonnets titled “Addressed to Haydon” (more than one poem bears this title):

Great spirits now on earth are sojourning;
He of the cloud, the cataract, the lake,
Who on Helvellyn’s summit, wide awake,
Catches his freshness from Archangel’s wing:
He of the rose, the violet, the spring,
The social smile, the chain for Freedom’s sake:
And lo!—whose stedfastness would never take
A meaner sound than Raphael’s whispering.
And other spirits there are standing apart
Upon the forehead of the age to come;
These, these will give the world another heart,
And other pulses. Hear ye not the hum
Of mighty workings?
Listen awhile ye nations, and be dumb.

In the thirteenth line, he not only makes a sudden shift from lines of five feet to a line of two feet, he even allows the line to end on an unstressed, hanging syllable, unlike every other line in the poem. Furthermore, he alters the rhyme, bringing back the a-rhyme (“-ing” of lines 1, 4, 5, and 8) instead of the d-rhyme (“-um”) expected here. This breaks the lyricism of the poem and brings the reader to a screeching halt at the end of this line. The effect is very much like a rest in music, and I find myself pausing when I reach this spot in the poem. As a result, the last line is uttered with greater solemnity and slowness than it would otherwise receive. This is a beautiful example of how a poetic form can open up new avenues of expression. The existence of pattern makes any deviation from it stand out all the more strongly.

In most of his other sonnets Keats maintains a loose iambic pentameter, but alters the rhyme scheme—particularly of the sestet in Petrarchan sonnets—in intriguing and effective ways. My favorite example is “On the Sea”:

It keeps eternal whisperings around
Desolate shores, and with its mighty swell
Gluts twice ten thousand caverns, till the spell
Of Hecate leaves them their old shadowy sound.
Often ’tis in such gentle temper found,
That scarcely will the very smallest shell
Be moved for days from whence it sometime fell,
When last the winds of heaven were unbound.
Oh ye! who have your eye-balls vexed and tired,
Feast them upon the wideness of the Sea;
Oh ye! whose ears are dinned with uproar rude,
Or fed too much with cloying melody, –
Sit ye near some old cavern’s mouth, and brood
Until ye start, as if the sea-nymphs quired!

By altering the rhyme pattern of the sestet to cdedec Keats morphs its structure from two tercets (three-line stanzas) into a quatrain (lines 10-13) framed by a split couplet (lines 9 and 14). Rhyming the first and last lines of the sestet holds these six lines together as a unified idea more strongly than they are in the traditional rhyme-schemes and mirrors the unity of the thought expressed in these lines.

Another excellent example of how Keats uses rhyme to reinforce the structure of the ideas in his sonnets is seen in “On Sitting Down to Read King Lear Once Again”:

O golden-tongued Romance, with serene lute!
Fair plumed Syren, queen of far-away!
Leave melodizing on this wintry day,
Shut up thine olden pages, and be mute.
Adieu! for, once again, the fierce dispute
Betwixt damnation and impassion’d clay
Must I burn through; once more humbly assay
The bitter-sweet of this Shakespearean fruit.
Chief Poet! and ye clouds of Albion,
Begetters of our deep eternal theme!
When through the old oak forest I am gone,
Let me not wander in a barren dream:
But, when I am consumed in the fire,
Give me new phoenix wings to fly at my desire.

In this sonnet, the tercets of the traditional sestet have become a quatrain and a couplet—giving the conclusion of the poem a feeling much like a Shakespearean sonnet. Again we can see how this mirrors the ideas of the poem: the quatrain ends with an image of fruitless wandering after suffering (an allusion to Lear’s madness and wandering on the heath?), but the couplet hopes for a rebirth after passing through the fires of torment. The meter of this sestet is also well-crafted. The lines of the quatrain have four feet and are composed predominantly of anapests (tah-tah-DUM) and spondees (DUM-DUM), producing an alternation between swift, light syllables and heavy stress that conveys the urgency of the poet’s invocation. The couplet opens with a four-foot line, but iambic feet are again becoming dominant. The last line of the poem is a perfect iambic hexameter, resolving the tension of the preceding lines in a mellow note that mirrors the hope this line expresses.

Throughout his Petrarchan sonnets, Keats makes use of a variety of rhyme-schemes and meters to keep the sound of the poem in harmony with its sense. This is, in my opinion, one of the signs of a truly skilled poet. For me, seeing someone as venerated as Keats playing with the rules of the sonnet in order to achieve his poetic goals has made me feel more confident in my own experimentation, and I have appreciated his sonnets in ways I could not have before starting to write my own.

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