On the Sonnet by John Keats

Around the 18th century, the Sonnet, which had always been a rather favourable form of writing, fell out of favour. An art form adapted from the original 13th century form, the sonnet had been brought to fame, earlier, by Shakespeare, Spenser, and Milton, but, for whatever reason, critics had fallen out of favour with the sonnet. Romantics still wrote, of course, and still wrote Romantic sonnets professing their love to everything possible under the sun, but they were looked upon in a negative light – by the critics.

Romantic poets, on the other hand, were still as enamoured with the sonnet as ever, and no less John Keats. Quite a few of his poetry was written in sonnet form – something that may have contributed to his widescale unpopularity among the critics. Regardless, today Keats is celebrated, and so too are his poets.

On the Sonnet has two names; ‘On the Sonnet’, as well as ‘If by Dull Rhymes Our English Must Be Chain’d’.

 

On the Sonnet Summary

In On the Sonnet, John Keats attacks the stagnant nature of British criticism and British poetry. It is no secret that he was wildly unpopular, particularly among the biggest names of British criticism. His unpopularity was considered to have had such an effect on Keats that some poets actually believed he had died of a broken heart.

Whether or not that is the case, ‘On the Sonnet’ is hardly the work of a sopping poet. It is full of fire and Keatsian emotion, and the trademark beauty of Keats’ work. He talks about the dangers of writing within a box, and the problems therein of writing in such a way that the poetical world remains without change. John Keats himself did a variety of different things within his poetry; it was self-expression and his method of exploration within a world that Keats left far too early.

 

On the Sonnet Analysis

If by dull rhymes our English must be chain’d,
And, like Andromeda, the sonnet sweet
Fetter’d, in spite of painéd loveliness;
Let us find out, if we must be constrain’d,
Sandals more interwoven and complete
To fit the naked foot of Poesy;
Let us inspect the lyre, and weigh the stress
Of every chord, and see what may be gain’d
By ear industrious, and attention meet;
Misers of sound and syllable, no less
Than Midas of his coinage, let us be
Jealous of dead leaves in the bay wreath crown;
So, if we may not let the Muse be free,
She will be bound with garlands of her own.

John Keats’ sonnet about the sonnet follows the traditional pattern: fourteen lines with an iambic pentameter. The only place it differs is in the rhyme scheme; rather than following the Shakespearean or Spensarian sonnet rhyme scheme, Keats goes for one of his own devising, thereby making an example of his poetry. It would be hypocritical for Keats to write a poet lamenting the death of originality without attempting to do something different – and it is this difference itself that highlights Keats’ meaning so thoroughly.

The first three lines of the poem, though graphically enjoyable, are limited; compare this poem to poems of Keats where he was not writing to a specific form. The sonnet form and its short structure demands complete and utter minimalism in terms of imagery, and therefore Keats is not allowed to dwell on his meaning without turning it into a muddled mess. Therefore, Keats does not delve into the idea of Andromeda, a goddess who was chained to a rock for her prideful claim that she was more beautiful than the mother of goddesses, Juno; one can even take the excessive use of anaphora as a show of Keats’ attempt to conform to the restrictive sonnet’s limitations. Thus he states that it is ‘fetter’d, in spite of pained loveliness’ – the pained loveliness stems from the poet’s forcing of his imagery within the inflexible format. The irony of using the sonnet format itself is perhaps not lost here, as it is the very restrictions within it that makes this a poem beyond Keats’ norm.

The second set of three lines continues on the idea of the restrictive sonnet by claiming that they, as poets, should strive to find ‘sandals more interwoven and complete / To fit the naked foot of Poesy’. By capitalizing the word ‘Poesy’, Keats references the Greek goddess of Poetry, which he has often called ‘Psyche’. In his poem ‘Ode to Psyche’, he references Psyche as being the goddess of poetry as well as the goddess of the soul. As for the reference to the ‘foot’ of Poesy, this has a dual meaning: the poetic foot, which in this case is the rigid iambic pentameter, as well as the historical meaning. Sandals were often loose, and needed to be custom tightened. This customization is what Keats believes they should do for the goddess of Poesy. He believes that only alternate and customized forms of rhyme should benefit poetry, not forcing it into a form such as the sonnet form.

Keats then goes on to ask ‘let us inspect the lyre’ – the lyre was an instrument traditionally used for oral and song poetry – and begins to investigate the possibility of reinventing poetry. He asks that we should ‘weigh the stress / of every chord’ to test the limitations of poetry, and to improve it by improving the sound that it makes. In this particular stanza, Keats’ punctuation forces the sentence into an unnatural stop, thus, again, providing a discordant note that is further emphasis that the idea of forcing poetry into such outdated modes of art needs to be re-examined. He goes on to ask poets to be ‘Misers of sound and syllable, no less / Than Midas of his coinage’, and that they should be jealous of the ‘dead leaves in the bay wreath crown’ – then a symbol of the poet laureate, the highest form of recognition in England.

However, in true Keatsian fashion, he has an ulterior motive for mentioning the ‘dead bay leaves’ in the laureate. Keats’ double-meaning in this stanza is that modern poets cannot become great poets by emulating the dead poets laureate; their poetry, robbed of its true form, will always fall short. This is why they need a change in poetic form, and to step away from the idea of constraining poetry by the sonnet form, or any other form of poetry which was popular and used by a poet laureate. For Keats, originality is what best fits poetry, and what needs to be exploited. It is the crux of the poem: a point that strays far from the ideas of British criticism, which was that poets should look up to the older poets and see how they could improve themselves.

In the final few lines, Keats returns to the sonnet; it is ironic that he did not break the rhyme scheme again, and that irony digs deep. By choosing the sonnet form, Keats has relegated himself to the poets that have written sonnet form poems and fallen short of brilliance, and though he plays with the conventions of the sonnet form, in the end he returns to it, as the structure will allow no other end.

 

Historical Background

‘On the Sonnet’ was written in 1818, though no exact date exists.

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