Sonnet vs. Free Verse - poetry review

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Poetry  |  House: Booksie Classic
An excellence essay I wrote for English on Shakespeare's sonnet 116 and ee Cummings 'if i have made, my lady...'. Please read.

Submitted: April 13, 2013

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Submitted: April 13, 2013



Poetry does not have to be bleak to memorable”


The quote above may possibly be in answer to the former statement: ‘all poetry is bleak’. This sweeping generalization suggests that people are prone to respond to bleak poetry and have an almost perverse fascination of the dark side; particularly when one is in a state of despondency. Are we fascinated by the sadness which emanates from ‘bleak’ poems? Could it be that we are drawn to melancholy? How may it be, then, that anything other than ‘bleak’ poems could be memorable? Poetry is not only the voice of anguish and despair but is also often the celebration of life and love and of poetry itself. Poets often use poetic technique and layout to cleverly portraying their ideas and the relationships between their techniques. These are what make poetry memorable.


The tone Shakespeare has used in sonnet 116 is formal and solemn with a religious quality in the introduction, emphasising an elusion to marriage. This tribute to eternal love can be seen in the first two lines which are commonly used in marital services today: “Let me not to the marriage of true minds/Admit impediments...” This beginning of the sonnet is in first person which includes the reader and suggest that Shakespeare does not want the 'reader' to let him “Admit impediments: love is not love/” - admit that there could be anything else other than 'true' love in the world. He asks the reader not to see that love changes, creating a tension in the poem. This atmosphere is intended to draw the reader in, making the poem memorable as a debate about love.


This second quatrain and image explores the idea of true love being an “ever-fix'd mark/”, possibly eluding to a lighthouse or star. This image and rhythm suggests constancy, something that is always there to guide us. Through life we are often 'guided' by something like belief and/or etiquette – love is a contributing factor to this guide we use to navigate our lives. This unwavering, constant, unchanging love is emphasised by suggesting that love “...looks on tempests and is never shaken/” This is where we search for the metaphor of true love (the star/lighthouse) in our lives to find our way through the “tempests” of life. The image allows us to believe that true love can be found; it's gentle reference to our lives alluring. This metaphor for true love, a mysterious abstract idea, creates a memorable fixture in the readers' life.


As well as confirming love, Shakespeare often subverts it. When looking at the last word of line 6 and 8 we can see what he is alluding to: “...shaken/...taken/”. This suggests that when love; not true love, is shaken it can be taken. The idea is emphasised using “tempest” (storm), creating uncertainty through the image of rough and unstable water. In the above paragraph, I explored the idea of true love being a 'guide' through life, but now Shakespeare has “shaken” that image by subverting it with the rhyme at the end of the lines 6 and 8. This creates, in the reader, a sense of witlessness as he has contradicted what he has said; this leaves us with doubt about what it ideal and real (true) love.


The second quatrain explores the idea that “Love's not Time's fool...” This is the rock in the flowing tide of the poem that suggests that true love can live on even “... though rosy lips and cheeks/within his bending sickle's compass come/”. Physical, skin deep youth and beauty dies but true love of true minds survives. This gives the reader hope that though we may die our true love continues to live for others to experience making the poem memorable through defying something that is inevitable. The rhyming word at the end of lines 10 and 12 say “... come/... doom/”. Shakespeare is quietly laughing in the face of death, almost egging him on to take the physical form of love, but only because he knows that his idea of true love will survive in this poem.


A lot of the ideas and images portrayed in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 are an affirmation of true love. They go on to articulate the idea that 'true love' transcends time and space, and is constant like the regularity of the sonnet form. The iambic pentameter used through out the poem emphasises this constancy, though in quatrain three the rhythm flutters to describe the fluttering heart. Though the idea that ‘true love’ exists is stressed, Shakespeare constantly challenges his own discoveries through rhyme and rhythm, defining it with what it is not. The 16th century poet proclaims that love is not true love when it changes, using repetition to lace doubt into his proclamations ie: “Alters, Alteration; Remover, Remove” and the iambic pentameter to break from the constancy.


e e Cummings, a most prominent 20th century poet openly challenges the traditional conventions of poetry, similar to Shakespeare subverting true love to make their poems memorable. He has revised grammatical and linguistic rules to suit his purposes, releasing his verse from the traditional constraints of form and metre. Cummings ideas, expressed in his free verse poem “if i have made, my lady, intricate/” is not entirely about true love but his failure “ snare/the glance too shy...” The tone in his poem is apologetic, tender and gentle as he explains to his modest, demure 'Lady' that he could never truly capture her beauty in his poetry.


Cummings uses a first person narrative positioning, creating an atmosphere which allows us to believe that we are listening in on a very intimate conversation: this is very alluring as we are given a snap shot of true love escaping from his poetry: he never truly was able to capture it, blaming his talent as a poet. The first person also allows the reader to imagine being spoken to: “if i have made, my Lady...” this technique helps to make the poetry memorable as the reader can engage with the poem and the ideas expressed.


Cummings echoes the classical conventions of the love lyric by modestly praising his 'lady's' eyes, body and hair, sustaining the imagery by associating it with music and song “...your body's whitest song/... keen primeval silence of your hair/”. The “keen primeval silence” creates a tension, shyly alluding to the self-preservation instincts that were prominent before civilisation and still are present in our actions today. The tension is created by accenting the “keen primeval”, which are harsh words in comparison to the rest of the poem, with silence. The “silence” gives a softer touch to the other words suggesting that his Lady seduces him by silencing her keen primeval instincts. This alluring image entices the reader to imagine the dilemma of the man, making Cummings poetry memorable in the sense that this poem is a private conversation or thought that we have stumbled upon.


A metaphor is also used, expressing love as “...the sweet small clumsy feet of April...” to describe how Cummings perceives true love.’April' in the northern hemisphere (as Cummings is American) is a personified spring, a representative for new life, growth, and love. This, as in Shakespeare's sonnet, suggests an underlying doubt about the lasting of true love. Where there is one season, there are others, so what eventually follows spring is winter. Cummings subverts the idea that love lasts, suggesting that eventually is will leave him, leaving his soul a “ragged meadow” once again.


The possibility that he 'might' have captured his Lady's beauty in his poem means that he has not cheated death as Shakespeare had. His poem is conditional, he does not own his lady and she slips away from him, often, in his “dreams/mind”. The 'what ifs' in this poem emphasises the tension already expressed through his lady's “keen primeval silence” and the imperfections of feelings and his poetry which is written from the heart.


This poem is memorable because Cummings quietly expresses his knowledge/experience of love, plainly outlining his own doubt and inexperience when trying to capture the image of love in his poem. We have not yet experienced true love, so are extremely unsure about it; with Cummings unashamedly expressing his doubt gives us a sense of security that we are not the only ones with insecurities.


Cummings has shattered the rules of free verse, following his heart and not his head, playing within the text and bending it to suit himself. Writing in free verse has allowed him this freedom to express his doubt as a poet and inability to capture his Lady's beauty in his words. We are drawn to the possibility of rebellion and as we are already curious creatures we feel the need to investigate this new style of writing, these newly invented poetic techniques.


These poems are not bleak but memorable as Shakespeare and Cummings are both influential poets, though centuries apart, their poetry experiments with the same societal issue: what is 'true' love. They use memorable poetic techniques to express their ideas: Cummings shatters the rules of verse, following his heart, while Shakespeare still restricts himself with the confines of the sonnet but subverts and challenges the form and its ideas. With this underlying doubt in each poem, we are curious to discover what the poets believe in, and what we believe in as well. Is there such thing as true love? Will we eventually find it?

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