Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
Keats’s central theme in “On the Sonnet” is the poet’s successful handling of the demands of form. He wrote in many forms: songs, romances, epistolary poems, epics, hymns, ballads, and odes. He also composed more than sixty sonnets. Here he had inherited two different traditions. The first was the Italian form of Dante and Petrarch, which consisted of an octave with an abba rhyme scheme followed by a sestet, which allowed for a variety of possible rhyme schemes: cde, cde; or cdc, cdc; or cd, cd, cd. This Italian form required an eight-line development, allowing only two rhyme patterns and ending in a complete stop; this was then followed by the slightly more flexible sestet. Overall, this form of the sonnet prescribed four, or perhaps five, rhyme sounds, and no more.
The sonnet form in England established a new rhyme pattern, ultimately labeled “Shakespearean”: abab, cdcd, efef, gg. Here, instead of an 8/6 division, there is a 4/4/4/2 pattern; also, instead of four or five rhyme sounds, there are seven. In May, 1819, Keats wrote to his brother George expressing dissatisfaction over the “pounding rhymes” of the Italian form and over the hurried snap of the concluding Shakespearean couplet. He then included “On the Sonnet,” which illustrated his continuing experiments with the form. This sonnet’s rhyme scheme is completely...
(The entire section is 396 words.)
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