Poetry Discussions, Part 1: Sonnets

Note from Erin: While I’m slogging away on my third draft, my brother-in-law Pat has graciously agreed to guest-blog for me! He had the idea to do a series of poetry discussions, so I am beyond ecstatic (I hope to finally learn something about poetry!). Alas, the blog is refusing to indent lines, so I can’t share the poems exactly as they should be written. This is my fault (well, I prefer to blame it on WordPress), not Pat’s. Please join Pat in the comments and help him feel welcome!  *applause for Pat* [End note]

Hello, and welcome to the first of four blogs about poetry.  The next several weeks we’re going to examine four different types of poems (sonnets; odes; lyrical; free form), taking special care in noting how the poets use the major tropes, or devices, of poetry, if they do.  Hopefully the discussions that follow will center around how we also can write poetry and use these devices.  Our introductions will be necessarily short so that we can fit in the poems we’d like to discuss.

The major tropes of poetry are – metaphor; metonymy; synecdoche; personification; and irony.  First off, we would do well to remember that not all poems consist of these devices, nor do they need to, but many of the greatest poems do.  Metaphor is comparing one thing to another.  Metonymy uses a characteristic to represent something, or vice versa (ie. a dove symbolizing peace; or calling military leaders ‘brass’).  Synecdoche uses a part to represent the whole (ie. ‘The Prince’s right hand’).  Personification gives human characteristics or feelings to things that are not human.  Irony gives us the opposite meaning, or intention, of the words used, in a facetious way.

The first type of poem that we’re going to examine is the sonnet.  There are different types of sonnets, the most famous being the Shakespearean, but all have several things in common – they consist of 14 lines; follow specific rhyming patterns; typically have a rhythm of 5 beats (or 10 syllables) per line, though they can have more; and usually, though not always, have some sort of twist in the final two lines.  The four sonnets chosen here are famous, and some of my favorites.  More than anything else, I hope you enjoy reading them.  If you’d like to join in the discussion, then please take note of Shakespeare’s brilliant use of irony; that Milton uses several of the devices in one sonnet; that Elizabeth Browning appears not to use any at all; and Sydney’s use of personification and metaphor.  Also note the twists that are found at the end of each sonnet.

When I Consider How My Light Is Spent
by John Milton

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
Lodg’d 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-labor, 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.”

Sonnets from the Portuguese #43
by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

How do I love thee?  Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of everyday’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints, – I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life! – and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

Sonnet #130
by William Shakespeare

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 damasked, 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.

From Asphodel and Stella
by Philip Sydney

Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show,
That she, dear she, might take some pleasure of my pain,
Pleasure might cause her read, reading might make her know,
Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain,
I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe:
Studying inventions fine, her wits to entertain,
Oft turning others’ leaves, to see if thence would flow
Some fresh and fruitful showers upon my sunburned brain.
But words came halting forth, wanting Invention’s stay,
Invention, Nature’s child, fled stepdame Study’s blows;
And others’ feet still seemed but strangers in my way.
Thus, great with child to speak, and helpless in my throes,
Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite:
“Fool,” said my Muse to me, “look in thy heart, and write.”


18 thoughts on “Poetry Discussions, Part 1: Sonnets

  1. Hate to jump in first, but I have to get in my two cents before I go out of town for the weekend. *sheepish*

    I don’t quite understand synecdoche. Can you point out an example in one of the poems?

    Are the twists typical of most sonnets, or is it just a coincidence that these four ended that way?

    If Browning doesn’t use any tropes, is that considered a subpar sonnet? Cause I have to admit . . . I love it. 😀 Maybe I’m too black & white, LOL. My favorite line is the last one.

    William’s irony—brilliant. Nearly as brilliant as his twist.

    Milton . . . I will have to tackle him at a non-midnight time. At the moment I can barely comprehend him.

    I’ll have to reread Sydney as well. But I sympathize with the search for words! Another fabulous last line.

    Sorry for the lack of stimulating discussion on my end! I’ll be back with more in a couple days! Thanks again, Pat! Everyone play nicely while I’m gone, LOL.

  2. I don’t believe any of these poems use synecdoche, but we’ll get some in later posts. Sorry about that. Let me try to explain it more in more detail.
    People have hands, but we don’t only have hands. So when you call a Prince’s agent his right hand, you are using synecdoche, which is using part of something to name or represent that something. Does that clear it up, or muddy the waters more?

    A twist at the end is very typical of sonnets. They don’t have to have them, but most of the better ones do have some sort of twist at the end.

    As for Browning’s poem, it is considered a sub-par poem by a lot of critics, but happens to be a favorite of those who simply enjoy poetry. Her poem is considered to be more shallow than the other three, because she doesn’t use any of the tropes, but I think that her tiny twist at the end lends a lot of depth to her poem.

    Shakespeare’s #130 happens to be my favorite of many favorites of his. I laugh every time I read it, and then nod my head in agreement with his last line, which is absolutely brilliant. There is very little wonder he is considered the greatest English poet of all time.

    I’ll talk about Milton’s poem, which is my favorite of the 4, a little later. I’ll let other’s make comments now.

  3. Your explanation of synecdoche did clear up the waters—thank you! I also looked it up in the dictionary, and it oddly gave a baseball example, LOL: “Cleveland won by six runs” (meaning “Cleveland’s baseball team”). And I’ve obviously seen/heard such examples before, but never knew it was called a synecdoche!

    I agree with Browning’s end adding a lot of depth, and with #130 being hilarious!

    Okay, I’ve been reading and rereading Milton . . . his depths are very deep. I’ll take a wild stab at the tropes he uses. Metaphor: comparing a mild yoke to following God’s Word. Personification: that Patience can reply. Irony: And that one talent which is death to hide/Lodg’d with me useless (?? not at all sure if this is supposed to be ironic). Metonymy: no idea, unless “light” represents “goodness” or something like that.

    I think I understand the second half (from “Patience” onwards), but I’m still struggling with the first half, especially: “Doth God exact day-labor, light denied?” I’m probably missing the obvious, but I just don’t understand what it means.

    I always seem to get caught up in the meaning of the poem, which may or may not be the point. What do you appreciate the most about poetry? The meaning, the structure, the way it sounds, or something else entirely?

  4. Okay, let’s tackle a little bit of Milton first. It might help to know that he wrote this poem shortly after going blind. He is lamenting the fact that he cannot write like he used to, but by the end of the poem realizes that God doesn’t need his works. Those who stand and wait and bear God’s mild yoke (his blindness in this case) serve God just as much.

    As for the tropes he uses: He uses irony when talking about the kingly state of those bearing God’s mild yoke. Metaphor with light and dark. He uses menomony with Patience; either that or personification; or both. =)

    Your question about “Doth God exact day-labor; light denied?” The light denied that he is referring to is his ability to write has been taken from him. He has been reduced to dictating, which Milton never liked. He wanted to see what he was writing. The first half of the sentence is one of my favorites. Many people talk about how God expects us to do this and this and that; but Milton is asking if God really does make us work like a day-laborer?

    To answer your questions at the end; all of it. I love the meaning, the structure, the rythm, all of it. But if I had to pick one it would be the meaning.

    • Wow, that explains a lot. I had no idea Milton went blind. See, that is my biggest problem with poetry—not knowing the backstory. Are we just expected to research the poet and learn all these details in order to interpret the poem? Or does the poet prefer to be ambiguous and vague? Or maybe most people could understand the meaning and I am the exception, LOL.

      Anyway, despite that rant, I have grown to love Milton’s poem. I love the religious thoughts and the spiritual conclusion. Thanks for explaining it to me. 😀

      • One reason I don’t explain the backstory to the poems is because first and foremost, you are supposed to interpret the poem in and of itself, within the context of your life. The beauty of poetry, and all literature, is that there is a writer, but there’s also a reader. And each reader brings their own backstory to the poem.

        Then you can bring in the poet’s backstory, and add another layer to your own interpretation of the poem.

        And I don’t think that poets like to be ambigous and vague. They just come across that way. =)

      • Thus the saying, “The reader is always right.” Still, it’s hard to apply a poem to my life when I don’t understand it! But I see your point. I will keep trying to interpret poems in and of themselves. Thanks for not being vague. 😀

  5. Wow! I learned several things I didn’t know. I found this very interesting. I also like Shakespeare. Do you think he had any hidden messages for Christians who were being persecuted at the time?

  6. Tackling Sydney now. Is he trying to write something for the woman he loves in the hope that she’ll, um, PITY him?? I think I totally missed the point. I want to believe the whole poem is ironic, that he can’t possibly be this torn up about wooing his lady with words, but I fear he’s serious.

    The personification of Invention and Study confused me a little. Plus this line: “Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain” has so many words that can be either verbs or nouns, that I had to read it ten times before I (maybe) figured it out. Don’t get me wrong—I don’t dislike a poem simply because it’s confusing. I like the challenge. 😀 And his love of words—and writing—shines through. I like the image of “Some fresh and fruitful showers upon my sunburned brain.” And the last line is still my favorite. How many times have I heard that? LOL.

    So I guess my overall opinion is that I love the rhythm and the idea behind this poem, but I’m having a hard time taking it seriously (unless I’m misunderstanding it, which is very possible).

  7. I always took the ‘she’ as Sydney’s Muse. He was trying to impress ‘her.’ Thus the knowledge that he was struggling might get his Muse to pity him, and in pity she would ‘graciously’ give him inspiration to write.

    This was the introductory sonnet to a large piece of work as well, which means that it was not meant to stand alone, and that may add to our confusion as well.

    My favorite line is, “Great with child to speak, and helpless in my woes.” It so perfectly shows how I feel a lot of times – that I feel I have a poem or story that just wants to burst out of me, but I can’t get it to come out right.

    • OH . . . “she” being the Muse makes a lot more sense. I knew I had to be misinterpreting it! LOL

      I agree—that line is awesome, and so true. It really is a great poem for all writers.

  8. A couple of other random thoughts before we go on to the next blog.

    Milton is probably the second most critically acclaimed English poet in the world, after Shakespeare. Together with Chaucer, the three of them are considered the best.

    Browning called her sonnets “From the Portuguese” because her future husband, Robert, when they first met, thought she looked Portuguese.

    Philip Sidney was a knight who was beloved by all for his personality and chivalry. He died in battle at the age of 32 defending Holland from Spain.

    Shakespeare was terrified by Christopher Marlowe (a contemporary poet) because of his violent reputation.

    Okay, I’m done with the history lessons.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s