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Recent American Poetry

8 Sonnets

3 by Shakespeare, 1 each by Milton & Keats, 2 by Hopkins, & 1 by Millay

Please read these sonnets as background for our reading. In particular, compare Shakespeare's Sonnet 29 with Milton's sonnet on his blindness, and compare both of those with Keats' untitled sonnet, "When I have fears that I may cease to be."

Please also read about sonnets here.

As you read, keep these questions in mind --
  • Is this sonnet the English/Shakespearean form or the Italian/Petrarchan form? or is it, perhaps, some more unusual variant?

  • Can you mark how the argument (or metaphor or idea) changes or develops from quatrain to quatrain?

  • Can you locate the turn (most often at the start of line 9, but see the notes about sonnets) where the argument shifts from part A to part B?

  • There's an old wise-crack about Shakespeare, that he wrote the first twelve lines of each poem, handed them to an apprentice, and said, "Here, kid. You've got two lines to say what this means." But there are a lot of ways to do that. The couplet may sum up the rest, reverse it, comment on it, make a pun or other joke, or paradoxically deny what the other twelve lines have argued. What happens in the sonnets you are reading?

  • If you are looking at a Petrarchan sonnet, you may find that the difference in argument between the octave and sestet is a bit more subtle than the punchline affect of a Shakespearean sonnet. What's the affect of the longer sestet? Does the development of the content seem related to the rhyme scheme?

  • If you are looking at a Petrarchan sonnet, does it have internal rhyme in the last line, or some other couplet-like affect?

  • If you are looking at a couplet sonnet, or some other variant, can you find a "turn" or other structure in it?

William Shakespeare
[Sonnet 29]
(Shakespeare's sonnets were written between 1564 and 1616)

WHEN in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes

I all alone beweep my outcast state,

And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,

And look upon myself, and curse my fate,

Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,

Featur’d like him, like him with friends possess’d,

Desiring this man’s art, and that man’s scope,

With what I most enjoy contented least;

Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,

Haply I think on thee,—and then my state,

Like to the lark at break of day arising

From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;

  For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings

  That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

William Shakespeare
[Sonnet 116]

LET me not to the marriage of true minds

Admit impediments. Love is not love

Which alters when it alteration finds,

Or bends with the remover to remove:

O, no! it is an ever-fixed mark,

That looks on tempests and is never shaken;

It is the star to every wandering bark,

Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.

Love ’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks

Within his bending sickle’s compass come;

Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,

But bears it out even to the edge of doom.

  If this be error, and upon me prov’d,

  I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.

William Shakespeare
[Sonnet 130

MY mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun

Coral is far more red than her lips’ red:

If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;

If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.

I have seen roses damask’d, red and white,

But no such roses see I in her cheeks;

And in some perfumes is there more delight

Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.

I love to hear her speak, yet well I know

That music hath a far more pleasing sound:

I grant I never saw a goddess go,—

My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:

  And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare

  As any she belied with false compare.

John Milton
[On His Blindness]

WHEN I consider how my light is spent

  Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,

  And that one Talent which is death to hide

  Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent

To serve therewith my Maker, and present

  My true account, lest He returning chide,

  “Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”

  I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent

That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need

  Either man’s work or his own gifts. Who best

  Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state

Is kingly: thousands at his bidding speed,

  And post o’er land and ocean without rest;

  They also serve who only stand and wait.”

John Keats
[When I have fears...]

WHEN I have fears that I may cease to be

  Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain,

Before high piled books, in charact’ry,

  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 think 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 faery power

  Of unreflecting love!—then on the shore

Of the wide world I stand alone, and think

Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.

Gerard Manley Hopkins
[Carrion Comfort]
(published 1918)

NOT, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;

Not untwist—slack they may be—these last strands of man

In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;

Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.

But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me

Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan

With darksome devouring eyes my bruisèd bones? and fan,

O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?


  Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.

Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod,

Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, chéer.

Cheer whom though? the hero whose heaven-handling flung me, fóot tród

Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one? That night, that year

Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.

Gerard Manley Hopkins
The Windhover
for Christ our Lord
(published 1918)

I CAUGHT this morning morning’s minion, king-

  dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding

  Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding

High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing

In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,

  As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding

  Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding

Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!


Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here

  Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion

Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!


  No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion

Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,

  Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.

Edna St. Vincent Millay
[I shall forget you presently]
(published 1923 or earlier)

I shall forget you presently, my dear,

So make the most of this, your little day,

Your little month, your little half a year,

Ere I forget, or die, or move away,

And we are done forever; by and by

I shall forget you, as I said, but now,

If you entreat me with your loveliest lie

I will protest you with my favorite vow.

I would indeed that love were longer -lived,

And vows were not so brittle as they are,

But so it is, and nature has contrived

To struggle on without a break thus far, --

Whether or not we find what we are seeking

Is idle, biologically speaking.

a few more sonnets are discussed here