In ‘Sonnet’ Johnson explores themes of motivation, fear, and courage. The tone is optimistic throughout, even when the mood is dark and fearful. Johnson addresses these fears head-on, showing his heart what it’s going to take to make it through life positively and successfully.
Summary of Sonnet
In the poem, Johnson addresses the unavoidable darkness and drear in the world. It’s something that his speaker’s heart as shied away from in the past. He asks his heart to confront it and remember that it’s always darkest right before the morning comes. In the end, he concludes that the scariest and most terrible parts of the world may be pushed back by one who strives to do what’s right.
Structure of Sonnet
‘Sonnet’ by James Weldon Johnson is a fourteen-line sonnet that is contained within one stanza of text. The lines follow the traditional pattern of a Shakespearean sonnet. The poem is structured in the form which has come to be synonymous with the poet’s name. It made up of three quatrains, or sets of four lines, and one concluding couplet or set of two rhyming lines.
The poem follows a consistent rhyme scheme that conforms to the pattern of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG and it is written in iambic pentameter. This means that each line contains five sets of two beats, known as metrical feet. The first is unstressed and the second stressed. It sounds something like da-DUM, da-DUM.
As is common in Shakespeare’s poems, the last two lines are a rhyming pair, known as a couplet. They often bring with them a turn or volta in the poem. They’re sometimes used to answer a question posed in the previous twelve lines, shift the perspective, or even change speakers.
Poetic Techniques in Sonnet
Johnson makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Sonnet’. These include alliteration, caesura, enjambment, and imagery. The latter, imagery, refers to the elements of a poem that engage a reader’s senses. Traditionally, the word “image” is related to visual sights, things that a reader can imagine seeing, but imagery is much more than that. It is something one can sense with their five senses.
For example, lines five and six are also juxtaposed against one another. The reference to the “raven-winged night” alludes to darkness, fear, and creatures that may take advantage of both those things. The following mentions the “bright and blushing morn”. This is very much the opposite and the use of “blushing” speaks to innocence, and the color of the sky as the sun rises. Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, “fierce the fight” in line thirteen and “gross” and “grope” in line ten.
Caesura and Enjambment
Caesura occurs when a line is split in half, sometimes with punctuation, sometimes not. The use of punctuation in these moments creates a very intentional pause in the text. A reader should consider how the pause influences the rhythm of one’s reading and how it might proceed an important turn or transition in the text. There is a great example in the first line of the poem. It reads: “My heart be brave, and do not falter so”.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. Examples include the transitions between lines five and six as well as twelve and thirteen.
Analysis of Sonnet
My heart be brave, and do not falter so,
Nor utter more that deep, despairing wail.
Thy way is very dark and drear I know,
But do not let thy strength and courage fail;
In the first quatrain of ‘Sonnet’, the speaker begins by addressing his own heart. Johnson uses apostrophe in this line. It occurs when the speaker is addressing someone who does not exist, or is not present, in the poem’s immediate setting. It also relates to something that is unable to respond to or understand the speaker’s words.
He asks his heart to be strong, not falter when he goes to confront the darkest parts of his life. In particular, he wants the “deep, despairing wail” his heart has uttered in the past to cease. This is an effective use of personification.
The speaker is very aware that there are dark things ahead, but that should only be motivated to be stronger and more courageous.
For certain as the raven-winged night
Is followed by the bright and blushing morn,
Thy coming morrow will be clear and bright;
’Tis darkest when the night is furthest worn.
In the second quatrain, the speaker continues on the same themes he addressed in the first. Still speaking to his heart, he tells it that times are going to be dark but the light will following. He compares emotional and mental darkness to the physical darkness of the “raven-winged night” and happiness and peace to the “bright blushing morn”. The last line in this section is a version of the saying “it’s always darkest before the dawn”. He says, “’Tis darkest when the night is furthest worn,” or furthest along (aka, closest to morning).
Look up, and out, beyond, surrounding clouds,
And do not in thine own gross darkness grope,
Rise up, and casting off thy hind’ring shrouds,
Cling thou to this, and ever inspiring hope:
Tho’ thick the battle and tho’ fierce the fight,
There is a power making for the right.
In the second half of ‘Sonnet,’ the sestet, there is the first of two turns. He tells his heart, and really just his whole self, to not get too bogged down in his own “darkness”. His heart should look up and out at the “surrounding clouds”. There, one can find hope and goodness.
The poet transitions into the final two lines with a semi-colon that asks his heart to “cling” to what he’s about to say rather than depression. In an effort to motivate himself, he says that the “battle” is “thick” and the “fight” is fierce. But, both those things can be overcome by focusing on doing what’s “right” for oneself and for the world.