A Final Sonnet

Ted Berrigan

‘A Final Sonnet’ by Ted Berrigan is a meditative poem that follows a man’s disjointed thoughts as he struggles to comprehend death.

Ted Berrigan

Nationality: American

Ted Berrigan was an American poet born in Providence, Rhode Island in 1934.

His poetry has been compared to that of Allen Ginsberg and the other Beat poets.

Key Poem Information

Unlock more with Poetry+

Central Message: Our lives are fleeting, so we should cherish the present

Themes: Death, Dreams

Speaker: Unknown

Emotions Evoked: Anxiety, Sadness

Poetic Form: Free Verse

Time Period: 20th Century

Although this poem's meaning can feel obscure to the reader, it is a lovely example of Berrigan's gift for adopting another author's text and making it feel personalized and immediate.

Ted Berrigan’s ‘A Final Sonnet,’ or ‘Sonnet LXXXVIII,’ is a moving meditation on human mortality. As the conclusion to Berrigan’s The Sonnets, ‘A Final Sonnet’ incorporates motifs from the entire poetic sequence, as well as a quote from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The speaker reflects on how people create meaning in the face of death, which culminates in his acceptance of life’s temporality.


The poem begins with the speaker’s fragmented thoughts about mortality, some of which are found in Berrigan’s earlier poems.

The speaker’s reverie on the banalities of life, which can include anything from “birthday[s]” to “joke[s],” merges into an excerpt from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. In this quote, the character Prospero chooses to give up his magic and enjoy the remainder of his life. The speaker concludes his meditation with a greeting to “Chris,” to whom the poem is dedicated, thereby choosing to focus on the present moment rather than his future death.

Structure and Form

‘A Final Sonnet‘ is written in free verse, but contains an excerpt from The Tempest, which is in iambic pentameter. The form of Berrigan’s sequence takes significant inspiration from T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land,‘ which also employs a disjointed grammatical structure and loosely incorporates quotes from famous works.

For example, Berrigan cuts up a quote from The Tempest with unorthodox line breaks and spacing. Furthermore, instead of beginning the poem with a greeting, “Dear Chris, hello,” he ends with it.

Literary Devices

Berrigan uses the following literary devices:

  • Enjambment: Berrigan makes frequent use of enjambment throughout the poem. For example, the first line ends in an enjambment with “a man/Signs a shovel.”
  • Antithesis: The line, “work mine end upon their senses,” creates an antithesis between “mine” and “their.”
  • Repetition: Berrigan repeats the word, “Someone,” from lines 4-6 for additional emphasis.

Detailed Analysis

Lines 1-3

How strange to be gone in a minute! A man

Signs a shovel and so he digs Everything

Turns into writing a name for a day

In Berrigan’s poem, the speaker reflects on life’s temporality. His exclamation, “How strange to be gone in a minute!” encapsulates the act of dying and how, at any moment, someone can leave this world forever. He observes that an “A man signs a shovel and so he digs,” which suggests the act of grave-digging.

Taken with the following line, one can infer Berrigan’s comment on how people “name” the world around them as a way to cope with mortality. “Nam[ing]” and describing our experiences is also the act of a poet. Berrigan thereby implies a comparison between the art of writing and of grave-digging, as both merely postpone the inevitable.

Lines 4-7


is having a birthday and someone is getting


a white tree     I dream of the code of the west

The speaker describes how people mark out their lives with marriages, births or even something as small as “telling a joke.” The repetition of “someone” emphasizes the repetitious nature of these events, while the speaker’s ambivalent tone characterizes them as largely meaningless. The next two phrases are also found in Berrigan’s “Sonnet XLI,” which ends with the line, “My dream a white tree.” White connotes purity, while a tree often represents life, but the exact meaning of the white tree’s symbolism is unclear. The “code of the west” refers to an unwritten code that guided cowboys in the lawless Wild West. Zane Grey’s 1934 novel The Code of the West specifically identifies this set of values. The speaker’s fragmented dreams of a pure “white tree” and a noble “code” thus evoke an idealistic vision of American life.

Lines 8-14

But this rough magic I here abjure     and


That this aery charm is for     I’ll break

My staff     bury it certain fathoms in the earth

And deeper than did ever plummet sound

I’ll drown my book.

Berrigan expands upon the poem’s dream imagery by quoting a speech from the The Tempest. Prospero, a sorcerer exiled to a remote island, chooses to give up his magic staff and book of spells upon leaving the island. Since the speech is about Prospero relinquishing his beloved “art,” some scholars believe it was Shakespeare’s farewell to the stage. Berrigan quotes the text exactly but breaks it up with unusual spacing and line breaks, which grammatically mirrors how Prospero breaks his staff. The act of “burying” one’s staff also recalls the grave-digging imagery in the first lines of the poem. That Berrigan chooses to use older text emphasizes that people have been grappling with the fleeting nature of their existence for hundreds of years.

By including an excerpt from The Tempest, Berrigan further plays into the poem’s themes of mortality and dreaming. The Tempest continually references dreaming, with one of Prospero’s most famous lines being, “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life/ Is rounded with a sleep,” which describes how human life begins in the sleep of the womb and ends in the sleep of death. Berrigan makes Shakespeare’s text his own by incorporating it into the speaker’s fragmentary thoughts, suggesting that life is as transitory as a dream.

Line 15-16

It is 5:15 a.m.                                           Dear Chris,


In the last lines of ‘A Final Sonnet,‘ the speaker breaks from his reverie. He specifies the time, “5:15 a.m.,” which implies that the speaker has been up late at night, ruminating on death. He goes on to greet “Chris,” to whom the poem is dedicated. By beginning the poem with a meditation on his death and ending it with a greeting, Berrigan moves backward, from the future to the present.

Although we do not know who Chris is, we can infer that he or she is someone dear to the speaker. The speaker has chosen to move on from dark thoughts of his own mortality and reach out for the comfort of human connection instead. Whether or not Chris responds is unknown, which leaves the poem feeling unresolved, and Berrigan’s comment on the futility of human existence remains ambiguous.


What is the poem about?

Ted Berrigan’s ‘A Final Sonnet‘ is about the transitory nature of human existence. The piece follows the speaker’s fragmentary thoughts and dreams as he comes to terms with his eventual death.

What type of poem is ‘A Final Sonnet?’

It is a free-verse poem consisting of 16 lines grouped into one stanza. The poem has no consistent meter, but lines 8-14 quote from The Tempest, which is written in iambic pentameter.

Who does the title, ‘A Final Sonnet,’ mean?

The title labels the poem as the last one in Berrigan’s sequence of Sonnets, but it also refers to the speaker’s meditation on death, which is the “final” stop of a person’s life.

What are the main themes of ‘A Final Sonnet?’

‘A Final Sonnet’ centers on the inevitability of death but also contains themes of dreaming and artistic purpose.

Similar Poetry

Poetry+ Review Corner

A Final Sonnet

Enhance your understanding of the poem's key elements with our exclusive review and critical analysis. Join Poetry+ to unlock this valuable content.
Ted Berrigan (poems)

Ted Berrigan

This poem is an excellent example of Ted Berrigan’s work. It is from his most celebrated work, "The Sonnets" (1964), a sequence that centers around key quotes and figures that are repeated throughout the poems. It exemplifies Berrigan’s disjunctive grammar, his repetition of important lines, and his use of text from other authors. Two of his lines appear in other poems from the sequence, and he quotes from Shakespeare’s "The Tempest."
To unlock content, or join Poetry+

20th Century

Ted Berrigan is a relatively obscure 20th-century poet, though he was well-respected by other poets during his time. 'A Final Sonnet' is not as influential relative to his time period and when compared to better-known poets of The New York School, such as Frank O'Hara.
To unlock content, or join Poetry+


Ted Berrigan was a member of the New York School of Poets and helped to revolutionize form and structure in American poetics. However, there are much better-known and influential American poets from the 20th century. Berrigan's 'A Final Sonnet' was, comparatively, not particularly influential and continues to be an obscure find for most readers.
To unlock content, or join Poetry+


Ted Berrigan's 'A Final Sonnet' is a meditation centered on death, moving from the speaker's exclamation about life's fleeting nature to a Shakespearean speech from The Tempest. As a "Final" sonnet, the poem specifically explores the speaker's attitude toward the length of human life in relation to a cosmic scale. There might be more famous poems about death, but this one is a very worthwhile read.
To unlock content, or join Poetry+


Ted Berrigan's 'A Final Sonnet' plays heavily with dream imagery as the speaker moves between fragmented thoughts about mortality. The speaker recalls his dreams of a "white tree" and the "code of the west" before shifting into a quote from The Tempest, a play that also has a lot of dream imagery. The speaker's musings also take place at night, around 5 a.m., with his thoughts occupying the place between sleep and waking.
To unlock content, or join Poetry+


The speaker in Ted Berrigan's 'A Final Sonnet' expresses anxiety when thinking about human mortality. He begins with an exclamation about the fleeting nature of life, and his fragmented, disjointed thoughts suggest his uncertainty about the issue.
To unlock content, or join Poetry+


As the speaker of Ted Berrigan's 'A Final Sonnet' reflects on human mortality, there is a sense of sadness about life's fleeting nature. His observation of how seemingly important events like weddings or birthdays are unimportant on a cosmic scale instills melancholy in the reader, as well as the image of drowning his "book."
To unlock content, or join Poetry+


Ted Berrigan's poem, 'A Final Sonnet,' looks at the absurdism of how people live their lives under the looming inevitability of death. The speaker suggests that seemingly important events like birthdays or weddings are ultimately meaningless. His disjointed, seemingly disconnected thoughts have an absurdist quality that reflects the content of the poem.
To unlock content, or join Poetry+


Ted Berrigan's poem is a meditation on human mortality that describes how we cope with the inevitability of death. The speaker reflects on life's fleeting nature and how seemingly important events are unimportant on a cosmic scale. He concludes with a greeting to his friend, choosing to focus on the present instead of his future death.
To unlock content, or join Poetry+


In Ted Berrigan's 'A Final Sonnet,' the speaker reflects on how human lives seem short and meaningless on a cosmic scale. He describes how a person's life is "gone in a minute" and how annual events, like birthdays, blur together. Berrigan's quoting of The Tempest also emphasizes how humans are still preoccupied with their mortality, even centuries later.
To unlock content, or join Poetry+


Ted Berrigan's poem 'A Final Sonnet' discusses whether or not writing is a meaningful act on a cosmic scale. The speaker reflects upon life's fleeting nature and how "telling a joke," which alludes to the act of writing, is seemingly meaningless. He then quotes from The Tempest and proclaims his intent to "drown his book," which suggests that he will leave writing behind when he dies.
To unlock content, or join Poetry+

Free Verse

Ted Berrigan's poem is an excellent example of free verse because of its unorthodox spacing and line breaks. It lacks a consistent rhyme scheme or meter, and even when quoting from text in iambic pentameter, it breaks up the lines in an unusual way. Berrigan crafts a disjunctive structure out of key lines and quotes that reflect his unique style.
To unlock content, or join Poetry+
Devony Hof Poetry Expert
Devony is a graduate of Northwestern University with a degree in English Literature with Honors. She received an award for Best Honors Thesis for her work on the doll poems of William Butler Yeats and Eavan Boland, and enjoys diving into poetry.

Join the Poetry Chatter and Comment

Exclusive to Poetry+ Members

Join Conversations

Share your thoughts and be part of engaging discussions.

Expert Replies

Get personalized insights from our Qualified Poetry Experts.

Connect with Poetry Lovers

Build connections with like-minded individuals.

Sign up to Poetry+
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Got a question? Ask an expert.x
Share to...