Form as Strategy: Keats’s On the Sonnet and Bright Star

July 7, 2019 by Essay Writer

Form as Strategy: Keats’s “On the Sonnet” and “Bright Star””On the Sonnet” is a poem that deplores convention, flouts convention, is governed by convention, and recuperates convention. It is neither a proper Petrarchan poem nor a Shakespearean sonnet; both forms, however, serve as references for the poem. “On the Sonnet” has five rhymes, as in the Petrarchan form, but they are distributed with a seeming randomness, and do not mark structural shifts. Rhetorically, the poem gestures to both the Shakespearean and the Petrarchan forms. As in a Shakespearean sonnet, its argument is organized in short imagistic units, and it closes with two final, epigrammatic lines that form a couplet not through rhyme but through syntactical structure. While a Shakespearean sonnet is organized 4+4+4+2, Keats’s sonnet is organized 3+3+3+3+2. Again, I speak of syntactic organization, unmarked by rhyme, but this numerical scheme is echoed by a rhyme scheme in which four of the five end-sounds appear three times, and the fifth only twice (ABC ABD CAB CDE DE; spaces represent syntactical divisions). The poem also gestures to a larger, two-part Petrarchan structure, as the timbre of its image-set shifts in the middle of the poem. This suggestion of a volta occurs, however, not at the expected point of division between octave and sestet, but rather divides the poem into a sestet followed by an octave.The poem consists of a single sentence cast in “if-then” constructions in which the “then” has been suppressed: “If…[then] let us.” The “if” is always concessive, and though it undermines the absolute certainty of the conditions it describes (Keats might have written “since”), the use of the indicative leaves the fundamental assumptions of the poem in place: Keats does not overtly suggest that “the naked foot of poesy” be left unadorned, though the possibility may hover behind the terms of his argument. The poem’s first six lines, a section that I hesitantly suggest as its sestet, take binding as their dominant trope. The opening image is by far the most violent one found in the poem: “If by dull rhymes our English must be chained, / And, like Andromeda, the Sonnet sweet / Fettered, in spite of paind loveliness”: this is an image not only of bondage, but of sacrifice. It is the only time poetry (“the Sonnet sweet”) is given a human face in the poem, and the only time it is ascribed a feeling: “paind.”The poem’s second group of three lines both presents a “then” clause and repeats the “if” clause that sparked it. The repetition, however, comes with a difference: if before it was “our English” that was “chained,” here it is “we” who are “constrained”: binding’s burden has shifted from the language to its shaper. However, if we are bound, we are also the seekers of our binding: “Let us find out… / Sandals more interwoven and complete / To fit the naked foot of poesy.” There is a curious shift here: “sandals” hardly resonate in tune with Andromeda’s chains. This is not an image of violence, but of utility, protection, and even, perhaps, adornment. Far from desiring to reduce constraint, the speaker seeks out a binding more “interwoven and complete.” This image also makes explicit the speaker’s conception of poetic making, at least for this moment in the poem – “the naked foot of poesy” precedes the form it fills; rhyme is conceived as exterior to “poesy.”In line seven, as mentioned above, the tone of the poem’s images shifts from constraint to making, from explicit bondage to art. The speaker is suddenly transformed into a far more active figure: while the first person pronoun was linked by the imperative auxiliary (“let”) to only one active verb in the poem’s first six lines (“find”), here there are three verbs; each of them, in context, verbs of diligence and judgment: “inspect”, “weigh”, “see”. This set of three lines is the first in which there is no concessive “if” (the word will not appear again until the poem’s penultimate line), as though the speaker has stopped questioning, even implicitly, the fact of constraint. Indeed, the sense of repression – of “pain” – that accompanied the notion of form (“dull rhymes”) in the sonnet’s first six lines is replaced by a sense of possibility: let us, the poet says, “see what may be gained.” And it is with this turn toward industry and making that the poet takes on the full burden of poetic craft: “By ear industrious, and attention meet.” The turn to art, from line seven, is for this poem a turn to sound (“lyre,” “chord,” “ear,” “sound”).The poem’s final group of three lines opens with a syntactical inversion; whereas lines one, four, and seven opened with one half of the poem’s rhetorical cast – either “if” or “let” – line ten opens with two phrases that are apposite to the “us” of the imperative construction: “Misers of sound and syllable, no less / Than Midas of his coinage.” The industry and attention of line nine are intensified to obsession. The Midas comparison serves as a bridge between the two functions of poetic making: the poet must be miserly of “sound and syllable,” never spending more than he must, and he must also prune, leaving no “dead leaves in the bay-wreath crown.” The poem’s final syntactical unit and the epigrammatic nature of the final two lines is announced by the grand “so,” promising a closing summation; the “if” clause absent since line four returns to give a sense of completion to the closure. The poem ends as it began, with a female figure, though instead of the hapless Andromeda there is now a triumphant Muse, “bound” not with chains but with her own “garlands”, made, presumably, from the “bay-wreath” of line twelve.This final image clarifies the astonishing transformation effected in the poem. Every aspect of the opening image finds its inverse in the close. While the poem began with inorganic “chains” imposed externally upon an unwilling victim, the Muse is adorned with organic, living (the pruning of “dead leaves” in line twelve underscores this life) symbols of victory, and symbols that signify herself, that are “her own”, not externally imposed. The notion of constraint has not disappeared (the Muse is still “bound”), but it has been thoroughly re-envisioned. The transformation of form from an external, separate, imposed bondage (chains), to a chosen (“her own”) adornment made of the very symbol of poetry (the bay-wreath), signifies an identity between “poesy” and form. Indeed, that identity has been present in the poem all along: what meaning might “Sonnet” have without the “fetters” by which it is defined? And yet the poem’s practice suggests that these fetters must be chosen, or at least negotiated and crafted; form must not become a received abstraction, “dead leaves”. Thus Keats’s sonnet is no less patterned than its Shakespearean or Petrarchan counterparts, however different it may be; in fact, one might argue that the greater number of parts to Keats’s sonnet – there are five divisions here (3+3+3+3+2), not four or two – allows for more pattern, a form “more interwoven and complete.” Received forms are visible in the poem, especially in Keats’s departures from them; the poem maintains its contact with the sonnet tradition, and makes much of its meaning from that contact. The Muse is not “free,” but neither does she languish, chained to a rock, a sacrifice to a monstrous tradition.”Bright Star” opens with a sense of failure or lapse: “Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art.” This imploring, marveling wish (“Would I were”) generates a fourteen-line sentence, the syntax of which is far more fluid and complex that that of “On the Sonnet”, full of hesitation, interruption, correction. The dash – that mark of crafted syntactical carelessness, ambiguity, or vacillation – appears four times, two of its iterations cradling the strangely reiterative negation at the volta. Though rhymed in the Shakespearean manner, the syntax pays the quatrain divisions no heed, nor are the final two lines a properly cordoned epigrammatic couplet. Instead, the poem’s rhetorical structure is clearly Petrarchan, with the primary division falling, as it should, between the octave and the sestet. This mixture of forms is hardly remarkable, or remarkable only in that “Bright Star” betrays little of the restlessness with traditional form displayed in “On the Sonnet.”The primary rhetorical tool of the poem is, of course, comparison: wakeful in bed beside his beloved, the speaker gazes at a star and wishes he were, at least in some way, like it; this occasions ponderings on devotion, fidelity (“steadfast[ness]”), and transience. Although the star is cast as an ideal, after the first line the octave proceeds through negation, describing in great detail the speaker’s reservations about his own longed-for simile. For three lines this reservation is wholly convincing: “Not in lone splendor hung aloft the night / And watching, with eternal lids apart, / Like nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite.” Solitude, however splendid, is the lover’s great terror, and there is something weirdly agonized in the star’s “eternal lids apart”. “Eternal” is an adjective, and apposite to lids; but it is difficult not to sense in it some adverbial force, and “apart” has an oddly unwilled, mechanistic feel. The force of the speaker’s reservation, however, is mitigated by the loveliness with which he invests the poem’s second quatrain, which delivers the delayed object of “watching”:The moving waters at their priestlike taskOf pure ablution round earth’s human shores,Or gazing on the new soft fallen maskOf snow upon the mountains and the oarsThe first two lines attain a beauty of adjectival excess: “moving”, “priestlike”, “pure”, “human”. Much of this poem’s aesthetic force is provided adjectivally (there are, by my count, twenty-one adjectives in these fourteen lines, more than twice the number of “On the Sonnet”), and lines five and six contain the most striking adjectives of the poem: “moving” and “human”. They are striking in large part because of their demotic blandness: these waters do not “rush” or “purl” or even “run”; they merely “move” as one supposes nearly all waters do. What justifies the modesty of the adjective is the vision of orderly devotion into which it is placed. The waters are personified with the line’s second modifier, “priestlike,” which consolidates the religious suggestion of the “sleepless Eremite” in line four. With the “pure ablution” in the next line, a natural process has become an act of charity and service, and the world is seen, from a celestial vantage point, as sublimely ordered and intelligible. “Human” means, presumably, “inhabited”; but it also personifies the landscape and invests it not with the ideal service of the “priestlike” waters, but rather with a pollution that requires purification. The metaphorical relation of water to land imagined by Keats (he could have imagined any other: lover and beloved, for instance) requires this sense of pollution, without which “ablution” is meaningless; as “human” is the only modifier ascribed to the shore, we must look to it as the source of this pollution. I insist on this sense of pollution not to imbue the poem with a sinister moralism, but rather because it heightens the tenderness and charity of the waters; it makes the image more beautiful. (I’m tempted to see here a precursor of that other great poem of amorous wakefulness, itself a meditation on tenderness and flaw: “Lay your sleeping head, my love, / Human on my faithless arm.”) This personification of landscape fades in line seven, present only in the metaphor of the mask, which is presumably a human adornment; even here, however, a sense of pollution or shame may faintly linger (especially if one recalls Milton’s “To hide her guilty front with innocent Snow”). While line seven continues the intensity of modification that characterizes the poem (“new soft fallen”), the beauty of line eight is secured rather by its plainness amidst such wealth; it is the only line in the poem without adjective or adverb.One assents, I think, to the inherent gorgeousness of these lines; there is an aesthetic investment in them incommensurate with their status as interpolated, negative qualification. And the adversative insistence at the sonnet’s turn suggests that the poet, too, has been lured by his own creation, that he cannot turn from it without effort: “No – yet still steadfast, still unchangeable.” The speaker reasserts the primary term of his desired identification with the star (“steadfast”), but intensifies it: the desire isn’t merely for more perfect fidelity, but for immortality. The sentiment is a familiar one in Keats (“More happy love! more happy, happy love! / Forever warm and still to be enjoyed”), but the dream of an eternal, imperishable consummation is given the lie in the next line: “Pillowed upon my fair love’s ripening breast.” The very quality for which the beloved is cherished is inscribed in time: though “ripening” may be cast in the present participial form, the form of expanding timelessness, the word loses any semantic distinction outside of temporal processes. “Ripening” is the action that links two states, un- and over-ripeness; the “ripening breast” is cherished because it exists, and ceases to exist, in time. Even as Keats longs for eternity, he reminds us that it is unattainable – and that the very conditions of our longing are predicated upon its unattainability.The explicit mention of the senses reappears in line eleven; but, again, it returns with a difference. In the octave the only sense available to the “star” is a solitary, detached, platonic sight; here the speaker experiences the beloved with a more carnal sense: “To feel forever its soft fall and swell.” Indeed, sight is invoked nowhere in the sestet (except by implicit reference to the star, on which the speaker still gazes); instead the speaker invokes touch and hearing, which insist upon a closer proximity to their object. However, lest we think the beautiful vision of the star has passed without regret, its shadow is cast in this very line: “soft fall and swell” echoes the “soft fallen mask” of line seven. “Awake forever in a sweet unrest” recalls “nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,” but “awake” gives a positive cast to “sleepless”, and “sweet” dispels any sense of the agony I detect in “eternal lids apart”. The couplet repeats the double “still” of line nine, but now in its temporal, not adversative sense: “Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath / And so live ever – or else swoon to death.”The poem’s second, sudden volta, “or else swoon to death”, is extravagant, and it is perhaps difficult to take seriously the poem’s final demand of “immortality or death”. And yet death has hovered throughout the sestet, in the organic nature of the very processes the poem has cherished: “ripening”, “fall and swell”, “tender-taken breath”. The poem’s final rhyme, breath/death, makes explicit this link (I think again of Auden: “and the grave / Proves the child ephemeral”): anything that lives (any beloved the lover can hold) carries within itself the possibility of its death. This is the source of the unsteadfastness from which the poet begins to speak, a lack of “fidelity” evidenced in his lingering, longing description of the landscape viewed by the eternal star – a description that delays the turn to the beloved – and in the return of that landscape (“soft fall”) in the description of the beloved’s breath. It would be difficult to argue that the sonnet’s sestet carries an aesthetic charge equivalent to that of the octave: there’s nothing like the figurative brilliance of lines five and six after the poem turns to the beloved. Keats attempts to mask this loss of intensity with a kind of rhetorical fervor, evidenced in the sestet’s repetitions: still/still, forever/forever, still/still (note that no word is repeated in the poem’s first eight lines); and evidenced also in the melodramatic final stakes. But this isn’t to claim aesthetic failure in the poem’s close, but rather to recognize the full depth of its pathos and the impossibility of its hopes: the price of the star’s steadfastness, its eternity, is its “lone splendor,” its removal from the organic joys of life; the cost of those joys, however, is death. And even the entertainment of choice, of course, is restricted to poetry: the human poet is condemned to his own – and his beloved’s – mortal, unsteadfast matter.

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