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.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Keats admired poet William Wordsworth, who had also written a sonnet on the sonnet: “Nuns Fret Not at Their Convent’s Narrow Room” (1807). As in Keats’s sonnet written twelve years later, Wordsworth announces that limitations and restrictions do not bother nuns, hermits, students, maids, or weavers; even bees crawl comfortably into the narrow foxglove florets. Therefore, Wordsworth decides that he, as a poet, will work within the sonnet’s confines.

It is noteworthy that Wordsworth chose the English countryside of his day to illustrate his resolution; Keats, by contrast, reaches back to images from classical times. In the early nineteenth century, Romanticism was revitalizing mythological lore. In fact, Keats’s best-known early sonnet expresses this delight: “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” (1816). In this sonnet, he writes of the joys of discovering George Chapman’s more vital translations of Homer, having only known that of Alexander Pope, which he had read as a schoolboy. In his entire poetic career, Keats treasured Greek lore, legend, and myth.

In “On the Sonnet,” Keats not only mentions sandals, lyres, Muses, and bay-wreath crowns but also incorporates two more specific allusions to Greek myth. First, he refers to Andromeda as analogous to the sonnet’s chained, “pained loveliness,” both being a combination of restriction and beauty. Then, in line 11, he alludes to Midas as a miser, in an effort to...

(The entire section is 519 words.)