The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

John Keats’s poem “On the Sonnet” examines that poetic form, especially its structural demands and restrictions. The poet begins by positing the necessity of “dull rhymes,” which he feels chain “our English” and “fetter” the sonnet. He offers next the image of Andromeda, or “pained loveliness”; Ovid tells of this beautiful maiden being chained to a rock by Jupiter to pay for her mother’s excessive boasting. Here Keats compares the confinement of the lovely and innocent Andromeda with the sweet beauty of poetry being fettered by the demands of rhyme. The poet seems, however, resigned to rhyme’s fetters but insists that rhyme, like an intricate sandal, be more “interwoven and complete/ To fit the naked foot of poesy.” The poet offers this interweaving as a solution to what Keats in his letters calls “pounding rhymes.” He wants rhyme to be more subtle and intricate, complementing the content of the poem as a whole and not drawing attention to itself.

His next concern is the sonnet’s need for a metrical pattern that is carefully handled: “Let us inspect the lyre, and weigh the stress/ Of every chord.” The assumption here is that the sonnet should be music, but not music of a breezy or vague sort. The sonneteer should “inspect” and “weigh” the sound with “ear industrious, and attention meet,” concerned that the meter and stress pattern enhance the sound of the poem. Traditionally, the sonnet is in iambic...

(The entire section is 516 words.)