The Poem

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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 pentameter, and the poet’s message here is that this standardized versification must be made to bring the poem beauty and vitality. Keats underscores this point with another reference to Greek mythology: Even as Midas was a miser of gold, so should the sonneteer be attentive to the metrical pattern. A “[Miser] of sound and syllable,” the poet should not allow any “dead leaves,” or useless syllables, “in the “bay-wreath crown.” Every syllable and word should be apt and vital to the sonnet as a whole.

Keats closes his sonnet with a tone of cheerful inevitability: “So, if we may not let the Muse be free,/ She will be bound with garlands of her own.” The sonnet, he acknowledges, presupposes certain structures and strictures. The poet cannot discard these but must accommodate them. Keats ends with both a note of respect for these forms and restrictions and the requirement that a poet work to subordinate these constrictions to the charms, the beauties, and the powers of poesy.

The closing balance achieved in this sonnet reflects the pattern of maturation that marked Keats’s brief career as a poet. He began with youthful ardor and eagerness by writing effusive, lush, and loose verse after the example of his mentor, Leigh Hunt. The young poet decried the barren rationalism of the eighteenth century with its focus on form and structure; thus, he began by writing with slack structure and versification. As he matured, he came to tighten his metrics, vary his rhyme, and firm his rhythm. He confirms in the closing of “On the Sonnet” that he is now cheerfully reconciled to poetry’s binding garlands.

Forms and Devices

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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...

(This entire section contains 519 words.)

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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 remind sonneteers to be careful with sound and syllable. By exercising this concern and carefulness, he continues, the sonneteer will neither ignore nor downplay the careful inspection of the poem’s metrics; he will ensure that there are no “dead leaves in the bay-wreath crown.”

Few other poets are as aware as Keats of the artistic legacy of the past. For example, in his own poetry, he especially absorbed and revered the artistry of other sonneteers: Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, and John Milton. An overview of his poetry shows that Keats’s inspiration also derived from various other art forms: the Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon, an engraved gem of Leander and Hero, and a Grecian urn. He memorialized—all with sonnets—Chapman’s translation of Homer, Dante’s La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802), Chaucer’s poetry, and Shakespeare’s King Lear (pr. c. 1605-1606). He also used the sonnet to write tributes to poets as varied as Thomas Chatterton and Spenser, George Gordon, Lord Byron, and Robert Burns. He even wrote a sonnet on the occasion of “. . . Seeing a Lock of Milton’s Hair.”

The overall tone of “On the Sonnet” is one of resignation and resolution. The resignation springs from the conviction that rhymes can be dull and restrictive, for they chain “our English” and constrain a sonneteer’s expression, never allowing the Muse to be free. However, the poet does not complain, but rather cleverly adapts: He keeps the rhymes but makes them less poundingly regular and more “interwoven.” He also carefully examines the stress in the meter pattern and allows for no dead weight. With this resolution, the poet closes, content that his sonnet will no longer be harmed by external, arbitrary constraints of form.