Susan J. Wolfson

Thinking in Sonnets: Lindsey Lecture, Texas State University, San Marcos, 2012

my title, thinking in Sonnets, is a double-grammar, indicating the thinking that can go on in a sonnet, and the sonnet as a productive form for thinking. I’ll turn first to sonnets in general (if “general” is the right term for a tradition so various and experimental), then a sonnet by William Shakespeare that focused John Keats’s attention, then Keats’s turns to the compact of sonnet-writing to work out some key issues in his thinking about being a poet, being a modern poet bidding for recognition “among the English Poets.” i

Sonnet-crafting entails a double-consciousness, tuned to the present occasion of its writing and to a long and sophisticated tradition. A “modern” poet likes to declare new origin, new forms, new principles. Yet it’s a durable, productive paradox that newness requires tradition, because it is most conspicuous in against tradition. This interplay is embedded in sonnetry by force of the genre’s strongly marked history, a history that in effect makes every sonnet formal “allusion”: an event of imagination and craft that brings “into play” a tradition and its influential practitioners. Sonnet-writing inevitably (productively) convenes this conversation with tradition, and is “about poetry” in this way: the form and its field of performance. A poet who writes a sonnet is intensely conscious of the entailment: a budget (flexible but not negligible) of 14 lines, 140 syllables, a set of rhymes, or none, or few. We see this consciousness reflected in the frequency of self-reflexive figures in sonnetry: a sonnet is a scanty plot of ground, a narrow room, a cage, chains or constraints to rules, a happy bondage, an arduous model, a hard task, a varied and peculiar frame, an intricate machine, a moment’s monument, a little picture, a garland, a woven wreath, a wave of melody, a sequence of strict energetic measures, an undulating maze, a simple flow’ret of fourteen, a gift, a precious jewel, a pearly shell, a drop of blood, a gem of thought, a crown, a memorable record, a world of feelings (and, of course) the key to Shakespeare’s heart. ii A sonnet is a poet’s poetry.

And a poet’s game. Sonnet-writing emerged in the thirteenth century as a social recreation in the warm south, probably initiated by Giacomo da Lentini, one of 14 notaries in the Sicilian court of Frederick II. With a wit about the fraternity of 14, Lentini took the two-quatrain troubadour folk-stanza strambotto, rhymed abba//abba, and added a sestet. The 8/6 imbalance worked into the exercise: two quatrains building toward a volta, a turn of verse releasing—with a new set of rhymes--a qualification, a response, a new reflection, a consequence, a resolution. “The sonnet’s structural identity,” remarks Paul Fussell, “lies in just this imbalance.” iii Meeting the sonnet in Italy and Spain, English poet and ambassador Thomas Wyatt brought it back to England pretty much in this Continental style. With English hospitality, poets (Henry Howard) Surrey, George Gascoigne, and Samuel Daniel tried shifting the octave into two discrete quatrains, and breaking the sestet into one more, with a closing couplet, each unit in a distinct rhyme, for seven rhyme-partners in all. Not only did this redesign open up the rhyme field, but the four stages also shifted the two-part Italian affair into a longer dramatic arc: three acts with the volta (usually) issuing the only couplet. When Shakespeare—who had exercised this quatrain+couplet stanza for Venus and Adonis—put the sonnet into production, his sharply honed sense for drama built the pressure of thinking across the quatrains toward a discharge, sometimes a startling reversal, in the couplet. Whether Italian or English, the sonnet’s durable “psychological appeal,” proposes Fussell, is this small drama of “complication followed by resolution.” iv Keats, who liked to work out with sonnet-writing, was tuned to less to the resolutions than the conceptual irresolutions in Shakespeare’s imagination, to which he applied the appealing paradox “negative capability,” which he explained as a receptivity to “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts” against the desire for “fact and reason.” v In Keats’s vibrant attentions as poet and reader, such receptivity is twinned to an aesthetic “intensity” of image-making and wordplay.

It is Keats in this mode of energy that Stephen Booth (who taught a generation or two how to read Shakespeare’s sonnets) summons to refute John Crowe Ransom’s notorious disparagement of Shakespeare’s sonnets (in an essay in Southern Review, 1938). “As to my own admiration for the sonnets and grounds for attempting to redefine as a strength what Ransom calls a structural weakness,” writes Booth, “I have a critical authority not inferior to Ransom…Keats said, ‘Poetry should be great and unobtrusive, a thing which enters into one’s soul, and does not startle it or amaze it with itself, but with its subject.’” vi Booth likes unobtrusive for naming a force of imagination that doesn’t declare itself, exercising a “palpable design” on the reader’s assent (in Keats’s archive, Wordsworth at his bullying worst vii). To startle (instead) with its “subject” is to stimulate the reader’s imagination. If, by Ransom-rules, Shakespeare’s sonnets at best “tolerably workmanlike” and in a good many instances “seriously defective” for failing to make the “metrical pattern” coincide with the “logical pattern,” Booth means to revalue “seriously defective” as a serious defection into a “multiplicity of structural patterns.” viii Sonnet XII is one of Booth’s demonstrations for this case, and he knows that Keats, too, was impressed by it in this measure. This is the text Keats would have read:

When I do count the clock that tells the time,
And see the brave day sunk in hideous night;
When I behold the violet past prime
And sable curls, all silver’d o’er with white;
When lofty trees I see barren of leaves,
Which erst from heat did canopy the herd,
And summer’s green all girded up in sheaves,
Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard;
Then of thy beauty do I question make,
That thou among the wastes of time must go,
Since sweets and beauties do themselves forsake,
And die as fast as they see others grow;
And nothing ’gainst time’s scythe can make defence
Save breed, to brave him, when he takes thee hence. ix

The sonnet is both an argument from temporal consciousness, and an enactment of it. Titled by a timely XII (clock’s hours, year’s months), it starts in a metrical tick-tock, catching the beat in alliteration: count the clock that tells the time (undertoned by a soft counterpointing of th). Time’s active agency activates the poet’s attention. He does not say “When I count the clock” (whenever; by routine), but (disrupting the iambic pattern) “When I do count”: “when I make myself heed”; “when I pay attention to.” Across the quatrain this poet relentlessly tells time, to himself and to us, line to line. Telling becomes quickened witnessing, from his eye to ours, of how brave day sinks to hideous night; of a violet no sooner beheld than past prime (a double stress on the sentence, and rhyming to time, picking up the sense of prime as a clock’s “first hour”); from day to the short spring month, and by line 4, to human life: of sable curls, in a beat of meter, silver’d o’er with white, then all a grain-dead lusterless white. Packing time-spans into a phrase, Shakespeare charges words into vivid dramatis personae (“Fast fading violets cover’d up in leaves” will be a Keatsian thought-express in Ode to a Nightingale). To the imperative of time’s ticking in the first line of Sonnet XII Keats was keenly tuned, catching in his audit its haunting of Milton’s sonnet XVI (on his blindness):

When I consider how my light is spent,
E’re half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide,
Lodg’d with me useless . . . 

Milton exploits the Italian scheme to cue, with a volta impatiently advanced to the third foot of line 8 (instead of the formula, line 9), a voice of consoling faith: “But patience, to prevent / That murmur, soon replies . . .” (8-9). x But in the forming of the sonnet’s considering, patience’s 5½-line reply (9-14) has come too late, for “that murmur” was the first half of the sonnet, not at all prevented. Patience has not come before (the literal meaning of “pre-vent”), but is post-scripted to the murmur. The voice kept in the sonnet poses a contradiction to its argument.

From both Shakespeare and Milton, Keats channeled the temporal syntaxes—the play of thinking in time—for his own sonnet-meditation on the erosions of time. He stretches his syntax on a Shakespearean pattern of accumulating repetition, with a volta that, when it comes, is no turn, but a trapdoor sprung open. It’s one of many sonnet-thinkings that Keats wrote to himself rather than for publication, though he did share it with his poet-friend J. H. Reynolds:

When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain,
Before high piled Books in charactery
Hold like rich garners the full ripen’d grain---
When I behold upon the night’s starr’d face
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And feel that I may never live to trace
Their shadows with the magic hand of chance:
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
That I shall never look upon thee more
Never have relish in the fairy power
then on the Shore
Of the wide world I stand alone and think
Till Love and Fame to Nothingness do sink.---

You can hear Keats thinking through, alluding to, Shakespeare’s and Milton’s sonnets, and turning the Shakespearean wrench: “When I have fears / When I behold . . . And feel / And when I feel / Then . . .” He advances his volta all the way to the middle of line 12, “then on the Shore,” giving Shore the semantic richness of an end-line placement, facing the nothing on the page that prefigures the “Nothingness” into which thinking, including the pile-up of thinkings of this sonnet, do sink.

In the text of Shakespeare’s Sonnet XII that Keats would have read the wording of temporal acceleration in line 4 was “all silver’d o’er,” Edmond Malone’s tidying up of the 1609 Quarto: “And sable curls or silver’d ore with white.”


Applying eighteenth-century polish, Malone smoothed out the semantic level, but as he did so, he rubbed off some rich verbal interplay: the sheen of or silver’d ore as metallic resource (not just a sign of age), in punning league with medieval heraldic gold, or. xii Lost, too, is the ghost of the conjunctive or, a syntax of temporal wavering: “or silver’d or.” (Think of Sonnet 73: “When yellow leaves, or none, or few do hang / Upon those boughs which shake against the cold”). Be “more of an artist, and ‘load every rift’ of your subject with ore,” Keats chided Shelley, plundering his ore from Spenser’s Cave of Mammon. xiii With or, ore (o’er) Shakespeare does it in spades.

Keats’s rhythms of conception pulse with Shakespeare’s own. No surprise that he fancied Shakespeare his “Presider.” xiv When he was re-reading the sonnets in November 1817, he wrote to Reynolds: “I neer found so many beauties in the sonnets—they seem to be full of fine things said unintentionally—in the intensity of working out conceits.” xv

In line with his esteem for poetry that enters “into one’s soul,” the syntax of Keats’s prose is quite canny, giving “in the intensity of working out conceits” both to the verbal energy Shakespeare has invested “in the sonnets” and to the activity that reading “in the sonnets” returns on the investment. It is this cooperation of poet and reader “working out” the conceits that makes the sonnets for ever fresh events for Keats. Back in April 1817, he had suggested to Reynolds that “Whenever you write say a Word or two on some Passage in Shakespeare that may have come rather new to you; which must be continually happening, notwithstandg that we read the same Play forty times--.” xvi

In November he’s writing to him with new admiration of Sonnet XII, and in prologue to the second quatrain he supplies a cue for his love of its rich wordplay: xvii


Keats sighs; but his chime of Is this to be borne? tries an addition, playing along with Shakespeare’s rich loading of this word. Keats’s borne jokes at the surplus: endured, conveyed generatively to the reader, against the sense in Shakespeare’s inert conveyancing. Unintentionally, in the intensity of imagination, we see Shakespeare’s line 5 playing more than a long-e chord of [loft]ty-trees-see-leaves. There is also an embedded palindrome in [tr] e-e-s I s-e-e that sets the I as the center of the temporal change, seeing the leaving of leaves as he remembers a green world wide enough, deep enough, to canopy an entire herd--herd heard, faintly, in girded. Not for nothing did a clerk who copied this letter for Keats’s literary advisor write heard for herd, as if hearing again the telling of the clock. And then the line that kills Keats: life reduced to a harvest borne on a bier, a white-bearded corpse. Had he known the Quarto, he would have harked to see bier spelled punningly beare.


The subversive intensity of Shakespeare’s verse is simultaneously to evoke born and bear (words of life-giving) and not allow this sense: it’s all barren, borne, bier, beard. Borne is a poignant anti-pun. xviii

Shakespeare’s sonnet-poet is in a war with time, with anguished reckoning. While a personal pronoun “I” first appears in Sonnet X, there it’s incidental. Sonnet XII debuts “I” as a front-line actor, a critical agent. “I” is the sonnet’s second word (“When I…”), set to echo in the first line’s end-word, time. This works a striking intensity on Booth’s story, in which the protagonist of a sonnet-drama is always “the reader,” the hero of a “reading experience” that must contend with “a multitude of different coexistent and conflicting patterns—formal, logical, ideological, syntactic, rhythmic, and phonetic” (ix). In Sonnet XII, the plot thickens with “reader” as an active persona in the poem, cast as a perceiving, considering, dramatically speaking “I.” xix We are so strongly startled into a cognitive identification with this “I,” that affinity with the rhetorical addressee thou (when it emerges at line 9’s volta) is without appeal. This is an “I”-witness event.

You can register this primary identification in the report of perceptual data. The violet and sheaved grass may gesture at allegorical emblems, but this is supererogatory to the drama of an “I” who counts, sees, beholds this data in aching immediate, particularity. On the time-plate of this counting consciousness, no volta is more wrenching than the counter-chimed Then at line 9: “Then of thy beauty do I question make.” Borne on the triply intensifying anaphora of When (the launch-word of lines 1, 3, and 5), Then amounts to a rhyming conceit, a rhyming logic. And it descends with dramatic force. While Then carries the syntactic and narrative logic of in consequence, the patterning of Then ... do I question on When I do count tightens up, intensifies, the moment of cognition. In the pressure of this pattern, the force of Then feels not so much successive as reflexive, a consequence simultaneous with the counting.

By the startle of this synchrony, present accounting projects a decay of present “sweets and beauties.” To see in time is to know that everything, everyone, is dying in time, the very word wastes laying a claim, with anagrammatic latency, to sweets. What a devastating concentration, then, in “Wastes of time”: at once the wasteland of time’s work; littered waste (the grim harvest); the wasting of time by improvident youth. On the axis of syntax, a multiplicity of meanings accrue. This is the charged climate in which Shakespeare precipitates the couplet, and with its own volta, flashes it into a saving clause: Save breed (the seed planted by “see others grow”). Noting how the sound-amped Save breed, to brave answers the sinking brave day, some readers wrest a lesson against the lessening of time. Yet to me, this seems less like logic than a drama in the mind, with gainst flaunting resistance in the moment, in anticipation of, in preparation for what is unappeasable: “when he takes thee hence.” xx The sound of breed and thee captures to disarm the he of “Time,” now a stark personification, emerging from the twice-tolled lower-case time (1, 10) that has played from the clock to fate. The capital T in the Quarto-text really has to matter here: Time, the embodied, militant harvester of summer’s green, with a scythe that Shakespeare might have spelled sieth (Q), as if to have Time himself sigh in sorrow at his work.


How telling that Malone wants the capital T for a footnote on the personification, although he sets a lowercase t in the sonnet-text. xxi

Keats’s feel for Shakespeare’s poetry working intentions of syntax into soul-startling intensities of sounding is kin to Booth’s esteem for “phonetic and ideational interplay”—even to Roman Jakobson’s description of poetic “function” itself: poetry takes words from an “axis of selection” and works them on an “axis of combination” so as to exploit the forms as well as logic of the arrangement, a sensuous surplus (sound, say) in excess of semantic function. xxii No slouch on “craftsman’s proficiency,” Shakespeare, says Booth, refuses to align “formal structure, logical structure, syntactical structure, rhetorical structure, patterns of diction, and extra-formal phonetic patterns” in anything so Ransomed as “a concerted phalanx.” Keats’s responsiveness to the intensities stored in Shakespeare’s designs is perfect casting for Booth’s hero: “The mind of the reader is kept in constant motion”; “in making the shifts from one context to another, the reader’s mind is required constantly to act.” xxiii

One context pressing on Keats’s sonnets is gender definition and indefinition. It wasn’t easy for a young man, “under six feet and not a lord” (so Keats cartooned himself in a Valentine’s Day entry in a long journal letter to his brother and sister-in-law in 1819 xxiv) to declare poetry as his profession, no easier if the manly genres—epic and tragedy—were no evident inventory. In Keats’s day, even Shakespeare’s sonnets could be regretted (Dr. Johnson regarded them as sorry errors in the canon). Keats ended this long letter, composed across the winter and spring of 1819, on April 30, with an anthology of his recent poetry, including several sonnets that he wrote with no aim of publication. These were poet-workouts, strenuous, vexed, thoughtful, playful, self-regarding. Also in this letter is a draft of Ode to Psyche (which he did mean to publish), his venture in conceiving this late-antiquity goddess as his muse for poetic modernity, her name, Psyche, pregnant with the sense of “one’s soul.” The turning point in this ode is the third stanza which in Keats’s setting as 14-line unit, has the look of a sonnet exercise. xxv


You can see from the faint double-lines between the eighth and ninth lines that Keats meant to distinguish a separate stanza beginning at the ninth, a stanza of fourteen lines. By the time he prepared the Ode for publication, he had made the sonnet-shape definite, as if to show the modern ode-poet wanting to signal a resource and register a debt to the traditional poetic form of male romancing. It is a fourteen-line stanza in the 1820 volume (pp. 119-120), of which these are the first eight:

O brightest! though too late for antique vows,
Too, too late for the fond believing lyre,
When holy were the haunted forest boughs,
Holy the air, the water, and the fire;
Yet even in these days so far retir’d
From happy pieties, thy lucent fans,
Fluttering among the faint Olympians,
I see, and sing, by my own eyes inspired.

In the rhyme-scheme abab//cddc (the first quatrain is Shakespearean; the second is Italian), you see the sort of quatrain-plot for thinking that Keats had marked off in the right margin in his first draft of one of his earliest sonnets: xxvi


Darien concludes the sonnet about epic-reading in a script of long arrest, its last letter n trailing into a dash. In the second Psyche-quatrains Keats works into it a remarkable enjambment, a language event that enacts with the resources of poetic design the very recovery he proposes:

Yet even in these days so far retir’d
From happy pieties, thy lucent fans,
Fluttering among the faint Olympians,

The turn from the first to the second line would have us suppose is that the prepositional phrase retir’d from governs all of the second line, both happy pieties and the lucent fans that are one of their figures, and the elaborated description of these fans in the third line. Keats solicits this effect with that nice dying fall on Olympians, the word fainting into the single feminine rhyme in this stanza, a grace note on the ironized history of antique (antic) vows in a fond (doting) system of worship. But the full syntax of the second quatrain turns this all around. This is no fainting elegy, but a claim for modern song: lucent fans turns into a direct object for “I see and sing, by my own eyes inspired.” It’s a drama in poetic grammar.

Inspired projects the sestet, a panorama in which a poet inhabits, enchants the whole as a rhyming choir (the very word). These are the six lines that complete that sonnet-stanza:

So let me be thy choir, and make a moan
Upon the midnight hours;
Thy voice, thy lute, thy pipe, thy incense sweet
From swinged censer teeming;
Thy shrine, thy grove, thy oracle, thy heat
Of pale-mouth’d prophet dreaming.

The volta comes at “So let me be,” a proposal for a modern poetry of mind:  “Psychology, or the Theory of the human Mind,” was how David Hartley’s 1749 Observations on Man defined it (1.3.354).  Keats’s modernity is no naïve re-enchantment of disenchanted ground.  It is retro-odic, a modern stylized belatedness that casts the faint imprint of a sonnet, and works its drama, to make its point.  The sonnet-stanza speaks an ode in varied lines, the swinging censer giving the beats, but with an uncertainty:  is “swinged” a modern, colloquial one-syllable sound, with the alliterative stress of swinged censer? Or is it retro-disyllabic, a trochaic swing-ed censer?  The poet’s proposed moan is swung on this suspense, this uncertainty.

Where’s the couplet?  Keats was never a fan of this form, partly a reaction to its neoclassical, eighteenth-century protocols, and partly his own aesthetic distaste of “pouncing rhymes” that interrupted the illusion of psychology (Keatsian couplets are conspicuously counter-classical: enjambed, avant-garde, arty).  In this sonnet-stanza, instead of any couplet, Keats interpolates at the ninth and tenth lines are two singularly non-rhyming lines, enjambed to boot:

So let me be thy choir, and make a moan
Upon the midnight hours;

Instead of end-rhyming, Keats strings the words strung along interwoven sounds— me/be, choir/hours--and that swinging alliterative beat of “me… make a moan / Upon the midnight.”  This is poetic self-imagination writing a sonnet against sonnet rules. 

It’s apt that Keats’s letter pivots from Ode to Psyche to his sonnet-stock, freshly inspired.  This is Keats’s letter-text, where that you can see the sonnet, often titled by its first line If by dull rhymes, emerging from the prose promise, explain itself: xxvii


Here is my own transcription:

Here endeth ye Ode to Psyche

Incipit Altera Sonneta

I have been endeavouring to discover a
better Sonnet Stanza than we have. The le-
gitimate does not suit the language over-well
from the pouncing rhymes - the other kind
appears too elegiac —   and the couplet at the
end of it has seldom a pleasing effect
I do not pretend to have succeeded -   it will
explain itself
If by dull rhymes our english must be chaind

Keats’s jesting Latin prologue may be Englished as Here begins another sonnet. By altera, he means the next; but he’s also glancing at his sheaf of experimental alternatives, and so altera puns “other” arrays of sonnet forms.  By legitimate Keats means the old-school Italian-Petrarchan pattern, with 3 couplets pouncing from 2 rhymes in the octave: a bb a/a bb a; the “other” is the Shakespearean, its quatrains named elegiac after it gave the verse pattern to Thomas Gray’s immensely popular Elegy Written in A Country Churchyard (1751).  Though (most usually) the sole couplet in the Shakespearean sonnet is the closer, the summary placement gives it a full pounce.  So here’s Keats thinking in productive resistance to both the elegiac plot and the legitimate rules:

If by dull rhymes our english must be chaind
And, like Andromeda, the Sonnet sweet
Fetterd in spite of pained Loveliness . .
Let us find out, if we must be constrain’d,

And here is the continuation on the next page of Keats’s letter: xxviii


And my transcription:

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.
Here endeth the other Sonnet -
This is the 3rd of May and every thing is in
delightful forwardness, the violets are not
withered before the peeping of the first rose -

Keats’s sonnet is a romance, no less thrilling than calculated, of meta-poetry, illegitimate and un-Shakespearean at once: the naked foot Poesy is meter blank of rhyme (in this very line, even); attention meet puns on the call of meter; the chord of sound audits, in order to refuse, the hard chains, fetters, constraints of rhyme-patterning. It’s not free verse, but it’s conspicuously unruly. As John Hollander has written up the account, Keats “loosen[s] the links of rhyming’s chains without actually breaking them or having them slip off.” xxix  You can read some of the ensuing letter text, where you can note attention mete in an initial pulse of pentameter: this is the 3rd of May and every thing

In Altera Sonneta, traditions are at once the form and the subject in transformation.  Take the first rhyme: chain’d / constrain’d.  It frames a quatrain, even picking up sweet enforcement from the medial chime of pained loveliness (3).  The chime is audible because there is no rhyme in lines 2-3.  The next rhyme-chain laces stressed syllables at the front of lines 3 and 4:  Fettered / Let.  Even at the quatrain rhyme, constrain’d, the syntax stays unconstrained, moving past complete to the staccato of to fit (as if sprung from Fettered), and not resting until Poesy (6).  The small dash here is only a pause for breath, pivoting into the rhyming repetition of exhortation (“Let us ... Let us ... let us”).  The proposal keeps moving, hitting the soft chords of loveliness / stress / no less / jealous--the middle two carried forward by syntactic enjambment, too.  Keats ends not with a sestet, not with a couplet, but with a quatrain that plays rhymes to the eye that hardly sound to the ear:  the dead-leaved crown at best supplies 4 letters to her own.  The only word in the sonnet unchained from rhyme is, tellingly, Poesy.  While it’s schemed with end-rhymes be and free, it’s metrically off-key (be and free chime more audibly with internal words see, She, be, several times).  No oth er rhyme is so uncooperative, so asym­­­met­­rical, as the iconic word Poesy.  The wit of Keats’s sonnet is that it is still a sonnet, Altera Sonneta, playing convention and expectation into variation, experiment, visible departure. 

In the forcefield of Keats’s argument, gender is a conspicuous figure in a swerve from a tradition that had recently been marked, with no little commercial potency, as female (Charlotte Smith, Mary Robinson).  The simile that invokes Perseus rescuing Andromeda matters for Keats’s self-esteem as a masculine poet, and plays into his homage to male tradition, and his wrestle with resources conceptually figured as she:  variously, the muse of sonnetry, of modernist psyche-poetry, and always the genre of Romance.  And so I turn back to Keats and Romance in a different key: a letter to his brothers, in which he mentions his regret at having missed Hazlitt’s lecture on Chaucer and Spenser (he arrived an hour too late, but was determined to be there, securely, for the next one, on Milton and Shakespeare).  During these weeks he was correcting proof for an acutely self-invested Romance, Endymion,but with acutely mixed feelings:  eager for the publication and excited by the praises of some friends and his new publisher, but stung that two other friends, both established poets, Leigh Hunt and Percy Shelley, found its diction too arty, even artificial.  This stung, because it was a self-sting, too:  Keats was coming to think, with no little embarrassment, that Endymion: A Poetic Romance was slipshod, immature, too reliant on beauties instead of a fierce dispute of ideas. 

This conflict between his facility with Romance and the trials of vocation drew Keats to another sonnet as an exercise of thinking, written just a week before “When I have fears,” but with determined prospects instead of self-annihilating fears.  What he was certain of, he told his brothers in prologue to writing out the sonnet (published quite posthumously xxx), was that

Nothing is finer for the purposes of great productions than a very
gradual ripening of the intellectual powers. As an instance of this—
observe— I sat down yesterday to read “King Lear” once again: the
thing appeared to demand the prologue of a sonnet. I wrote it and
began to read. (I know you would like to see it.)

On sitting down to read King Lear once again

O golden-tongued Romance, with serene Lute!
Fair plumed Syren! Queen! of far-away!
Leave melodizing on this wintry day
Shut up thine olden Pages, and be mute.
Adieu!   for once again, the fierce dispute,
Betwixt Damnation and impassion’d clay
Must I burn through; once more humbly assay
The bitter-sweet of this Shakspearian fruit.
Chief Poet! and ye Clouds of Albion,
Begetters of this our deep eternal theme!
When through the old oak forest I am gone,
Let me not wander in a barren dream:
But when I am consumed with the fire,
Give me new Phœnix-wings to fly at my desire.

So you see I am getting at it, with a sort of determination and strength
though, verily, I do not feel it at this moment.

The event of “reading” King Lear is critical; Keats would not have been able to see Shakespeare’s play.  The stage was held by Nahum Tate’s “Romance” revision (1681), of which even Dr. Johnson approved. xxxi  Tate’s Lear doesn’t die, but regains the throne, then abdicates to newly married Edgar and Cordelia and happily retires with Gloucester and Kent.  Keats’s reading is more than a recuperation of Shakespeare’s severity; it’s personal discipline: he’s sitting down, once again, as if in rehab from battening on toxic Romance.

Why once again?  Romance, for all its specious allure and acknowledged danger (a Syren) is a perpetually seductive muse.  Keats is not shy about the gendering of She-Romance and manly, Shakespearean agon:  the literature of fierce dispute at the extreme pitches of King Lear.  His first quatrain issues an injunction against the she-allure, but the hailing of Romance into court also sounds like it could fall into a new courtship with those three epithets, the seductions almost re-experienced in the exasperated voicing. Keats’s scheme is to use a Petrarchan octave with a calculating difference, hailing a muse in order to break up.  But breaking up is hard to do. It’s all, even at its most imperative, still prospective: Shut up ... and be mute; Must I ... When ... Let me not ... But when ... Give me. The Adieu! is a fond farewell (no Aroint thee, witch!).

This is not an occasion of time slipping away, but of time not well spent, with no certainty of reform.  No wonder Keats can’t wait until line 9 for the volta, but rolls up for an accelerated turn at line 5, with a point-by-point substitution:  fierce dispute instead of golden-tongued, serene melodizing; “this Shakespearean fruit” instead of “far away”; reading as “burning through” instead of languorous listening, he-Chief instead of she-Syren.  And so the sonnet’s form shifts, as if in alliance with Shakespeare, to a Shakespearean sestet, driving toward a couplet about the new desire.  Yet this couplet, too, figures into the lover’s quarrel:  though uttered in determination, two elements ruffle its force, one in syntax, another in form.  On the syntax, it seems that “When through the old oak forest I am gone” is another figure for reading the severe anti-Romance King Lear: “must I burn through.”  But old also echoes Romance’s “olden Pages.”  Damnation if you do, damnation if you don’t.  No less an uncertain figure is the supposedly transformative phoenix.  It is born out of the ashes of another phoenix— both a new birth and repetition, and destined for this cycle of repetition.  On form, too, there is ambivalence:  Keats’s final line is strangely retro-.  It is not pentameter but hexameter, a meter hallmarked by Romance, imported from the analogous place in the Spenserian stanza, the form that bears The Faerie Queene,the very primer of Romance in Keats’s imagination (his first poem, titled Imitation of Spenser, was in Spenserian stanzas).

As Milton would remind Keats, Spenser’s is not an uncomplicated, serene Romance, and Spenser’ s ghost in poetic form may have reminded him of that, with a sense of opportunity about taking the complex attractions of Romance as a theme of poetic desire.  Across Keats’s subsequent poetry, Romance returns, again and again, yet always with an edge:  as a subject for tantalizing, cautionary negotiation, tagged by the phrases “new Romance” (the rather dark, stark Isabella), or “old Romance” (the girlish whims of Madeline in The Eve of St. Agnes, a poem in Spenserian stanzas that more than once work the form into a critique of Romance).  Flirting with and subverting Romance arguably become Keats’s modern genre, and poetic form is one of the players.  I conclude with two later sonnets embedded in this territory, literally:  neither is free-standing, but rather a sonnet thought into the verse field.  One unveils a severe Lear-landscape, a vast scene of stunned consciousness.  The other is a return to Romance, but with the artifice of calculating golden-tongued melodizing and staged with stylized critical pressure.

A sonnet forms the opening verse paragraph of Hyperion, the epic Keats had begun— its hero a Titan god whose brothers have fallen into mortality— while his own brother was dying in the next room, in the autumn of the year initiated by that sonnet on King Lear.  It haunts his composition, in form and theme—a radical ejection from power, concentrated on a stunned patriarch.You can feel the weight of mortal knowledge:

DEEP in the shady sadness of a vale
Far sunken from the healthy breath of morn,
Far from the fiery noon, and eve’s one star,
Sat gray-hair’d Saturn, quiet as a stone,
Still as the silence round about his lair;
Forest on forest hung about his head
Like cloud on cloud.  No stir of air was there,
Not so much life as on a summer’s day
Robs not one light seed from the feather’d grass,
But where the dead leaf fell, there did it rest.
A stream went voiceless by, still deadened more
By reason of his fallen divinity
Spreading a shade: the Naiad ’mid her reeds
Press’d her cold finger closer to her lips.  

If Chapman’s Homer caught epic power in a sonnet, this sonnet introduces epic impotence.  From the first spondee-thud of Deep in (soon echoed in sunken), the sentence piles its clauses in a weighty accumulation, as far from Olympus as fallen divinity can be.  Keats will not spring even an initial iamb until the 7th line, “Like cloud on cloud”). Keats weighs the stress of every blank-verse chord, with relentless repetitions and adhesive internal rhymes of intensifying arrest.  Far sunken ... far from, then far rhymed to star; interwoven with dead, still as the silence, still deadened more; lair / there / where; Sat Saturn; not one light seed  /mid her reeds; sadness / voicelesss / Press’d; Shady sadness ... spreading a shade. This is a dirge in brilliant acts of negative imagination, aching in what can never be recovered:  the healthy breath of morn, leaves that live, a summer’s day animated by a breeze, a stream lilting with a voice, breeze-stirred reeds whispering in animation.  The sonnet is a grave of history, its obituary.

Keats renders a sensation of mortality so vast, so overwhelming as to absorb and arrest all thought. In the form of an epic sonnet, it is another memory of Milton.  “I wish I could here write down all Wordsworth has said about the sonnet lately— or record here the fine fourteen lines of Milton’s Paradise Lost which he says are a perfect sonnet without rhyme ... The lines in Milton are essentially a sonnet in unity of thought. xxxii” So Henry Crabb Robinson wrote in his diary, January 26, 1836; I think he would have added Keats’s stanza to his archive of “a perfect sonnet without rhyme” in epic imagination.  Keats’s intensity of working out conceits is to traumatize the reason of this massive block of time.  On this score, there is a couplet in Wordsworth’s Great Ode that Keats felt deeply enough to copy out for a friend: 

Nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass and glory in the flower

“I once thought this a Melancholist’s dream—” Keats postscripts. xxxiii He wrote it out because he wanted to feel on his pulses this unforgiving reply to ubi sunt.  For Wordsworth, the lines elegize the loss of a childhood’s effortless sentient vitality; to Hazlitt the lines spoke the political melancholy of a lost daystar of liberty; to Keats it was pretty much everything, entire orders of relationship with time and history, and artistic vocation. If Keats’s liveliest sonnets write autoparables of positive production, his brave venture in the genesis of Hyperion is to show a sonnet driving this process in reverse.

Ubi sunt in a brighter tone is the keynote of the last sonnet in my review. It begins a sonnet stanza five lines into the manuscript page: xxxiv


This is the slight revision for the first publication, with the sonnet-stanza still retained:

Whither fled Lamia, now a lady bright,
A full-born beauty new and exquisite?
She fled into that valley they pass o’er
Who go to Corinth from Cenchreas’ shore;
And rested at the foot of those wild hills,
The rugged founts of the Peræan rills,
And of that other ridge whose barren back
Stretches, with all its mist and cloudy rack,
South-westward to Cleone.  There she stood
About a young bird’s flutter from a wood,
Fair, on a sloping green of mossy tread,
By a clear pool, wherein she passioned
To see herself escap’d from so sore ills,
While her robes flaunted with the daffodils. xxxv

For the first naming of the seductress lady Lamia, Keats crafts a sonnet stanza for the first naming of “Lamia.”  Ere now she had been a gorgeous serpent, from the syren sorority (released from this form in a bargain with Hermes).  “Lamia” is the name of a lady and of a poem, more specifically a kind of Romance, lady and poem, seemingly free of sore ills.  On the pattern of Satan primed for seducing Eve, this lady is ready to fly at her desire, a young Platonic philosophy student, Lycius.  Keats is wonderfully witty with that opening “Whither fled ... ?”  Ubi sunt?  Right here, says Lamia.

There is sonnet wit in the answer to the faux question: in the 5th line, the place of a second quatrain, she “rested” and by the third quatrain, at line 9, “There she stood” embodying the etymology of stanza (Italian: standing), while line 13 hisses with the s-sounds that echo “serpent” and set a snare for the consonant “Lycius.”  As far as I’ve discovered, Keats originated “flutter” as a measure of distance.  His sonnet stanza is at once extravagant art and its deft critical disturbance.  It exposes the way lovely robing, like the language of “Romance” (the implied trope), may cover a history of sore ills and flaunt with daffodils.  Daffodils are both the flowers and the figures of a sonnet-romance: a romance of flowers that reflect the flowers of romance.

No small part of Keats’s double-play is to set the arts of seduction into the artifice of a sonnet, that formal purchase from the tradition of male erotic admiration and peril, here staged as erotic-aesthetic set-up.  If Lamia is the epitome of Romance in all its alluring artifice, the sonnet in which she enters the world of human recognition is a figure of irony:  a bright flaunting of amorous self-regard, with Lamia passioning to see her arts so happily reflected.  In crafting this sonnet-stanza, Keats stages impassioned reading, including our reading of Lamia, the poem titled for the shifty lady.  While we readers know a fall impends, what Keats’s sonnet-stanza captures is the brief arrest of desire. A self-mirroring sonnet is the figure of this momentary reading.

For his debut volume of 1817, Keats had assembled an entire suite of sonnets (Roman-numbered I-XVII, including some of his very first compositions, and with 4 more sonnets earlier in the volume).  XVII is the number of “breed” sonnets in Shakespeare's sequence; 17 is the year that Keats’s debut volume appeared.  Yet there were no sonnets in his 1820 volume, which his publishers titled by its Romance narratives: Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems. No conspicuous sonnets, anyway— but the ghosts of sonnet-thinking are legion, and not just in the inset-stanzas I’ve discussed.  As we’ve seen, a sonnet-form hovers at the turning point of Ode to Psyche. More than one reader has noted how, in some of those unnamed Other Poems, a sonnet haunts about the stanza shapes: the dexain stanzas of his regular odes (Ode to a Nightingale, Ode on a Grecian Urn, Ode on Melancholy) are crafted from a Shakespearean quatrain (abab) with a Petrarchan sestet (cde/cde). xxxvi  Sonnetry stays in Keats’s mind not only in this rhyme-array, but also in the intricate interplays of imagery, syntax, diction and phonetic patterning borne in his reading of Shakespeare's sonnets. Sonnet form possessed Keats as a medium to think with, think through— a medium that let him say, ever variously, “here endeth the other sonnet.”

Princeton University


    i Letter, 14 October 1818.  Unless otherwise noted, quotations of poems and letters are from my John Keats: A Longman Cultural Edition (New York: Pearson, 2006), here p. 209, hereafter JK.  Some material in this present essay (on sonnet tradition and on Shakespeare’s Sonnet XII) draws on companion essays: my introduction to Sonnets then and now: Fields of play, a special issue of Literary Imagination 12.3 (2010) 1-4; and “Reading Intensity,” in Shakespeare Up Close, ed. Russ McDonald, Nicholas Nace, Travis D. Williams (Bloomsbury Publishers /Arden Shakespeare, 2012) 147-53. 
    ii As this little anthology of tropes from sonnets about the sonnet may indicate, meta-sonnetry is a durable sub-genre.  For a sample, see
    iii “The Example of the Sonnet,” Poetic Meter and Poetic Form (new edition; New York: Random House, 1979), 115.
    iv Fussell, Poetic Meter and Poetic Form, 124.
    v Keats’s letter to his brothers, December 1817; JK 78.
    vi Booth, An Essay on Shakespeare’s Sonnets (26-28), on John Crowe Ransom’s provocative hostile essay, “Shakespeare at Sonnets,” Southern Review 3 (January 1938) 531-53, and citing Keats’s letter to J. H. Reynolds, 3 February 1818; JK 99. 
    vii Letter to J. H. Reynolds, 3 February 1818; JK 99.
    viii Ransom, p. 533; Booth, Essay x.
    ix The Plays and Poems of William Shakspeare (London, 1790) 10: 201-2, ed. Edmond Malone, with emendations (accidental and substantive) of the 1609 Quarto.  Keats was probably reading an 1804 printing of this edition; my transcription modernizes typeface.
    x John Milton, Sonnet XVI, Poems, &c upon Several Occasions (London: 1673); in the edition of H. C. Beeching (London:  Oxford University Press, 1922), 85.
    xi The poem-text is from Keats’s letter to J. H. Reynolds, 31 January 1818; JK 97.  Keats did not write the sonnet with any aim of publication.  Its first publication was in R. M. Milnes, Life, Letters, and Literary Remains, of John Keats, 2 vols. (London:  Edward Moxon, 1848) 2: 293.
    xii Booth allows that sable, heraldic black, could draw or into heraldic punning, although he endorses Malone’s judgment that the Quarto’s “Or was clearly an error of the press” (Shake-speare’s sonnets, edited with analytic commentary [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977; new printing, with additional preface and notes, 1978], 201).  Gerald Willen and Victor B. Reed, ed., A Casebook on Shakespeare’s Sonnets (New York:  Thomas T. Crowell, 1964) had proposed the heraldic pun (14).
    xiii Keats, letter to Percy Bysshe Shelley, 16 August 1820; JK 426.
    xiv Keats, letter to Benjamin Robert Hayden, 10-11 May, 1817; JK 53.
    xv Keats, letter to J. H. Reynolds, 22 November, 1817; JK 71-73.
    xvi 18 April 1817; JK 49.
    xvii 22 November 1817; JK 72. Richard Woodhouse’s Letterbook, MS Keats 3.3, p. 51.
Keats Collection, Series III, seq. 55, Houghton Library, Harvard University.
    xviii “Anti-pun” is Christopher Ricks’s nice coinage for a punning sense that is activated and refused (The Force of Poetry [New York: Oxford University Press, 1987] 100).
    xix Helen Vendler argues that Booth’s heroized reader displaces (or effaces) what she sees as the paramount figure:  a poet-speaker in the drama of interpretation (The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005]17-28, 40n5). I think that Booth, whether he knew it or not, has always implied this operation, the way a reader in the sonnets produces the reader of the sonnets, and surely Vendler’s subtle readings feel this sympathy and are a fine example.
    xxFor the multiple senses of gainst see Booth’s edition, 152n30 and compare Sonnet 13: “Against the coming end you should prepare” (in anticipation of, in opposition to).
    xxi Plays and Poems 10: 202, note 6.
    xxii Garrett Stewart makes the astute connection to Booth’s critical mode in Reading Voices: Literature as Phonotext (Reading Voices: Literature as Phonotext [Berkeley CA: University of California Press, 1990] 40).  Jakobson’s famous formulation, The poetic function projects the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection into the axis of combination, is from “Closing Statement: Linguistics and Poetics,” in Style in Language, ed. Thomas A. Sebok (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1960) 358.
    xxiii Booth, Essay, 27, 84, 120.
    xxiv Keats, letter to his brother and sister-in-law, 14 February 1819; JK 238.
    xxv Autograph manuscript, Pierpont Morgan Library, New York (LHMS. 104978. MA 210.1).  Hyder Rollins gives the lines I am identifying as a sonnet-stanza as the first 14 lines of 32-line stanza (The Letters of John Keats, 2 vols. [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1958] 2:107-8); but the letter manuscript to my eye indicates a stanza break after 14 lines (not as emphatic, but visible)


MS Keats 1.53, Letters by John Keats, seq. 269. Keats collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University.  All images from this collection are supplied by generosity.  It’s a great site:
    xxvi Draft or fair-copy ms., AMS early draft.  Houghton Library, Harvard University, Keats Collection, MS Keats 2.4, seq. 1.
    xxvii Keats, letter to George and Georgiana Keats, 3 May 1819, JK 254; for the full text, see Rollins, ed. 2: 106-9.  The manuscript is in the Keats Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University (MS Keats 1.53, Letters by John Keats, seq. 270).
    xxviii Keats Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University (MS Keats 1.53, Letters by John Keats, seq. 271); I’ve cropped this page.
    xxix Hollander, Melodious Guile:  Fictive Pattern in Poetic Language (New Haven:  Yale University Press, 1988) 94.  I respect Helen Vendler’s sensitive chapter, “John Keats: Perfecting the Sonnet” in Coming of Age as a Poet (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003), though I differ about some details.
    xxx The sole source for the letter is John Jeffrey’s copy; it appears in Milnes’ Life, Letters, and Literary Remains with a sonnet text at variance from the one Keats wrote on a blank space opposite the first page of King Lear in his facsimile of Shakespeare’s first folio, there dated “Jany 22 - 1818-” (Keats House, Hampstead).  I give the sonnet in transcription of this facsimile, interpolated into the letter in Milnes (1: 96-97). The first publication of the sonnet was in 1838, the next in Milnes, 1948.
    xxxi“Cordelia, from the time of Tate, has always retired with victory and felicity. And, if my sensations could add any thing to the general suffrage, I might relate, that I was many years ago so shocked by Cordelia’s death, that I know not whether I ever endured to read again the last scenes of the play, till I undertook to revise them as an editor” (Samuel Johnson, The Plays of William Shakespeare, 1765 (10 vols., London:  several booksellers, 1778] 9: 566).
    xxxii Henry Crabb Robinson on Books and Their Writers, ed. Edith J. Morley, 3 vols. (London:  J. M. Dent, 1938) 2: 484-85.
    xxxiii Keats, letter, 31 May 1819; JK 256. Keats isolates this statement from a subordinate clause in Wordsworth’s Ode (“Though nothing can bring back . . .”) that is pointed toward spiritual fortitude:  “We will grieve not, rather find / Strength in what remains behind” (177-80).
    xxxiv Fair copy autograph manuscript, Lamia, p. 7; MS Keats 2.26, seq. 21, Houghton Library, Harvard University.
    xxxv Lamia Part I, 171-84; Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems (London:  Taylor and Hessey, 1820), pp. 13-14.
    xxxvi W. J. Bate, building on the suggestions of H. W. Garrod and M. R. Ridley, analyzes this development in John Keats (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1963) 495-97.

Susan J. Wolfson is Professor of English at Princeton University. She received her PhD from University of California, Berkeley and, previous to Princeton, taught for thirteen years at Rutgers University New Brunswick. Wolfson's recent books include Frankenstein: Longman Cultural Edition (2007). Formal Charges: The Shaping of Poetry in English Romanticism (Stanford University Press, 1996) and The Questioning Presence: Wordsworth, Keats, and the Interrogative Mode in Romantic Poetry (Cornell, 1986); two editions, Lord Byron: Selected Poems (Penguin 1986), co-edited with Peter Manning, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson, coedited with Barry V. Qualls (Washington Square Press, 1995), and scholarship on William Blake, S.T. Coleridge, William Wordsworth, Dorothy Wordsworth, Mary Lamb, Lord Byron, John Keats, Felicia Hemans, Mary Shelley, Percy Bysshe Shelley, various topics on British Romanticism. Read her full bio here.


Executive Editor
Tom Grimes

Managing Editor
Jane Hawley

Co-Managing Editor
Reyes Ramirez

Poetry Editor
Jennifer Whalen

Fiction Editor
Stan Rivkin

Nonfiction Editor
Heather Lefebvre

Eric Blankenburg

Copy Editor
Sessa Kratz

Interviews Editor
Amanda Scott

Public Relations Manager
Samantha Tanner

Book Reviews Editor
Mallory Chesser

Blog Editor
Josh Lopez

Assistant Blog Editor
Alicia Salzmann

Sarah Howze
Dan Barton
Niko Kyriakou
Theresa Holden
Brandon Ricks
Casey Winters
Rachel Gray
Lawton Cook
Lauren Bull
Benjamin Seanor
James Deitz
Timothy Dailey
Maggie Ilersich
Stuart Gill
Katrina Goudey
Dorothy Lawrenson
Ram Hinojosa
Meg Griffitts
Jacob Massey
Paul Adams
Allison Myers
Phillip Mandel
John Edgar
Michaela Hansen
Shelby Newsom
Ashton Kamburoff
Graham Oliver

Faculty Advisor
Steve Wilson

Founding Editors
Michael Hart
Evelyn Lauer
Josh Magnuson
Toby Peterson
Michael Wolfe

Advisory Board
Katie Angermeier
Ben Engel
Evelyn Lauer
Herpreet Singh


logo for the CLMP

All photos were taken at the Katherine Anne Porter Literary Center, by Sameera Kapila and Herpreet Singh.

Website design by Sameera Kapila