What is the structure of Poe's "Sonnet - To Science"?

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gpane | College Teacher | (Level 3) Senior Educator

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The sonnet is one of the best-known of all poetic forms, and although it was most popular during Renaissance times, it has frequently been used since by a variety of writers.

The sonnet has fourteen lines and includes rhyme, but beyond this there can be variations. There are three major types of sonnet: the Italian or Petrarchan sonnet, and two types of English sonnet, the Spenserian and the Shakespearean. The Shakespearean sonnet is the simplest sonnet form. Poe’s 'Sonnet to Science' is in the Shakespearean style.

The Shakespearean sonnet form is laid out in three distinct yet related quatrains (verses of four lines), followed by a concluding couplet. In the first quatrain, the main theme of the poem is introduced, and the following quatrains expand upon this theme in various ways. The final couplet contains some sort of twist on the original theme. This twist is sometimes referred to as the volta, from the Italian.  The overall rhyme scheme is as follows: abab, cdcd, efef, gg.

Poe’s poem clearly follows the Shakespearean pattern, both in terms of rhyme and the development of the central idea, although the final twist is not as marked as in many other sonnets. The main idea of this sonnet is how the advancement of modern science has undermined old ideas of romance and beauty in the world, as exemplified in the old mythologies.

The first quatrain opens with a direct address to Science, noting how it changes people’s view of the world – 'who alterest all things with thy peering eyes'. The poet goes on to complain about this, the way that science has replaced romance and imagination with ‘dull realities’. The second quatrain continues with this lament, while the third makes explicit reference to the charming old myths of gods, goddesses and nature spirits which science has now dethroned: ‘has thou not dragged Diana from her car/ and driven the Hamadryad from the wood’. Diana was a virgin Roman goddess of the moon (among other things) and the 'car' referred to here is the moon that she was supposed to ride across the sky, like a chariot.  The hamadryad was a woodland nymph and the naiad, also mentioned in this poem, was a river-nymph.

The final couplet takes on a more personal note than has previously been apparent; science has destroyed not only the old myths and romances in general but also the speaker’s own delightful past imaginings, his ‘summer dream beneath the shrubbery.’ The poem as a whole is in the recognizably Romantic tradition which bewails the advances of modern civilization and looks back nostalgically to the dreams and stories of the past.

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