Poem of the Week: John Keats “On the Sonnet”

This week’s poem is a sonnet about sonnets (a meta-sonnet, if you like). It is written by John Keats —  and I only discovered it this week, as my Norton Critical Edition of Keats doesn’t seem to include it.

 

On the Sonnet (1819)

If by dull rhymes our English must be chain’d,

And like, Andromeda, the sonnet sweet

Fetter’d, in spite of pained 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.

 

The sonnet seems to ignore most of the conventional rhyming patterns of sonnets. While some of Keats’s most famous sonnets are Petrarchan (“On first looking into Chapman’s Homer”, “The Grasshopper and Cricket”) and others are Shakespearean(“When I have fears that I may cease to be”, “Bright Star”), this one is determinedly neither one nor the other.

The rhyming scheme is:

ABC ABD CABC DEDE

The very idea that “English must be chain’d” with “dull rhymes” is explored through this oddly rhymed sonnet. One might indeed argue that Keats invents “garlands of his own” and creates an idiosyncratic rhyming pattern in this short poem. Instead of having a sonnet of twelve lines and a concluding couplet we have a series of images linked through rhyme:

1.(ABC) English poetry compared to Andromeda in chains

2.(ABD) Creating a sandal that fits poetry

3.(CABC) The lyre of poetry

4.(DEDE) Crowns and garlands (returning to the image of the bound woman/muse)

This very simplistic division into four gives me some liberty to investigate the images one by one.

The comparison to Andromeda is a fascinating one. According to Greek myth, Andromeda was a beautiful princess whose kingdom was plagued by a horrifying sea monster. Her father went to the oracle to ask for advice and was told he would have to sacrifice his daughter to the beast. Andromeda was chained to a rock, waiting to be devoured, when she was rescued by Perseus. Andromeda’s story, then, is as much about bondage as it is about liberation.

If the English language is like Andromeda, chained, in order to be devoured – then it would follow that the reader of the poem is like the beast about to devour “the pained loveliness.” Who is the speaker in this version of the myth? Is he the one who constrains, or the one liberates?

The second image compares rhymes and rhythms to a sandal that is supposed to suit the feet of poetry. I think it’s a pretty unusual comparison (although if you are aware of any classical precedents for it, let me know)

The image of the lyre introduces a pun on “stress”, (the stress of poetic metre and the stress on each note played on the lyre). It also introduces the very Keatsian phrase “misers of sound and syllable”. This image of the lyre is closely interconnected through enjambment “no less/Than Midas of his coinage” to the last imagery group of the poem.

I would like to linger a bit on this one. The story of Midas’s is touch is well-known: asked what he most wanted by the god Dionysus, Midas asked that everything that he touched be turned into gold. He soon learned that his golden touch was in fact, a curse: as he could neither eat nor drink.

But it’s not so much the avarice of Midas that struck me in the myth,  as the profligacy of the gold. In his zeal for multiplying his wealth, Midas turns everything into wealth. Could Midas be seen as a stand-in for the position of the speaker-poet? Not only to treasure examples of “sound and syllable”, but to turn everything into poetry?

The other connection to Midas is brought out by the lyre image in the previous lines. Midas was famously one of the judges in the competition between Apollo (lyre)  and Marsyas (pipe). Midas was the only judge who claimed Marsyas’s skill was better than that of the Apollo’s. For that, he was punished – his ears turned into those of a donkey. By invoking Midas, the speaker may well be invoking a Dionysian sense of rebellion against Apollo’s sense of order. This interpretation is strengthened by the mention of “dead leaves” in the bay leaf crown traditionally ascribed to Apollo. Poetry, one might argue, should be the matter of living, organic material (Dionysus) and not deadened by the constraints of form (Apollo).

The ending of the poem entertains two mutually contradictory ideas: rebellion(Midas) and subjection to bondage (the crown/garland). Those two ideas echo throughout the sonnet itself which is both a rebellion from sonnet conventions and subjection to a new original kind of form.

 

 

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