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Essay on American Poetry

In this essay, I am going to look in detail at three sonnets showing very different feelings. I will show all the main features and try to explain what the writers were trying to show and underline in their sonnets. Each of the three sonnets I have chosen is by different writers and also from different centuries, I have decided to look at ‘God’s Grandeur’ by G.M Hopkins, ‘Death be Not Proud’ by John Donne and also ‘Shall I Compare thee to a Summer’s Day’ by William Shakespeare.

The reasons the poems were written and also the time is they were written is different but the range of emotions and feelings shown throughout is amazing; the sonnets have also been written in different centuries and all three poets come from very different backgrounds.

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Before I go on, I would like to explain the features and describe what a sonnet is. A sonnet is a poem of 14 lines with a formal rhyme scheme, expressing different aspects of a single mood, or feeling, is then resolved or summed up in the last lines of the poem. The two main forms of the sonnet are the Petrarchan and Shakespearean. Petrarchan is split into two stanzas an octave followed by a sestet with the sestet being used to reflect or sum up the octave of the sonnet. In contrast, the Shakespearian style of sonnet was to divide the 14 lines into three quatrains and a couplet but like the Petrarchan style, it has the change in emphasis, although it is a shorter couplet used for summing the sonnet up.

This poem ‘Shall I Compare thee to a Summer’s Day?’ is one of Shakespeare’s most famous sonnets and also one of his finest, throughout the centuries since Shakespeare wrote the sonnet people have been using his style vary widely, even in the present day authors are still using the Shakespearian style sonnet. The earliest of my three sonnets ‘Shall I Compare thee to a summer’s Day’, by Shakespeare is written around 1599. The sonnet is addressed to a young boy as Shakespeare tries to compare the boy to summer. Shakespeare was asked to write the sonnet by the boy’s mother who wanted her son to be shown in the light that she seen him and also showed the love that the mother had for her son. The title of the sonnet is also the first line

“Shall I Compare thee to a Summer’s Day?”

It’s from here that Shakespeare goes on to try to answer this question and show that the comparison Shakespeare has made with the boy to the summer is relevant but by the second line we find Shakespeare contradicting himself by saying the boy is

“Thou art more lovely and more temperate:”

This suggests the boy is lovelier and more temperate than summer, so why compare the boy to summer. Shakespeare goes on from this to point even more bad points in summer and contradict himself as Shakespeare says in the fourth line summer as a season is

“And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:”

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We later see Shakespeare go on to say

“But thy eternal summer shall not fade”

How can summer be both too short and everlasting or eternal? Throughout the sonnet Shakespeare makes these comparisons which he goes on to contradict but when doing so can make you see how the summer can be both eternal and to short. As when Shakespeare says summer is too short I think he is referring to it as a season while when he says it is eternal he is talking of it in terms of a season, which will always come back as beautiful.

Shakespeare also uses a lot of personification to relate the summer to the young boy he has written the sonnet to, you see Shakespeare using this

“Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines”

Here Shakespeare calls the sun the eye of heaven as we often say God looks down from heaven we see how this is relevant of the sun being God looking over us.

“And often his gold complexion dimmed;”

I personally think that with the line Shakespeare was trying to personify the summer and the sun as the boy as Shakespeare says the ‘gold complexion dimmed’ with this, he is referring to the cloud cover which would hide the sun. A person when they die will go pale and lose the colour in their face just as the boy’s face would lose the colour.

Shakespeare moves on still putting the quite annoying emotion across, develops the line to explain that in life all things in life must change, and says the reasons these things will change even if we would prefer for them not to. Shakespeare uses small amounts of repetition to build up to the reasons why even if the boy Shakespeare was writing about dies, the spirit of the boy will always live on,

“So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,

So long lives this and this gives life to thee.”

This means as long as people can read this sonnet so people will remember the boy and his spirit shall always live on in this poem.

In contrast to this sonnet remembering a young boy and trying to describe him in his glory, my next poem ‘Death Be Not Proud’ by John Donne a metaphysical poet from the 17th century; this means he would write his poems based on thought, reason and go on till argue his case. Donne begins ‘Death Be Not Proud’ by addressing Death with a serious yet cynical attitude. His tone is straight forward and appears to be very confident when he tells death that it has nothing to be proud of, even though

“Many have called thee Mighty and dreadful”

Donne tells Death that this fact is simply “not so” and goes on from here to set a strong angry tone for him. Again, we get a sense for Donne’s tone with the line he is meeting Death face to face without fear or intimidation and we should do so. Donne then introduces us to an interesting paradox when he says,

“For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow,

Die not”

This is important because it sets the mood for the entire poem. The use of ‘And’ at the start of three separate lines sets out the lines like points in an argument, or simple statements. There is an accusation in the 12th line, Death has been proud, has “swell’st” but with no justification. Death is made to look powerless in preventing life. However, the Octave could be a scene of sorrow and mourning, a funeral service for, possibly, one of ‘our best men.’ This ceremony is designed to blame and dishonour Death but also to lower him to the status of ‘desperate men’ earlier in the sonnet. Donne is speaking to Death without any reservation. He points out that even those who do die, have not been actually overthrown by Death. Donne has absolutely no respect for Death and goes on till go it

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“One short sleep past, we wake eternally”

This is to say that sleep of Death is short-lived in comparison to that of sleep due to our awakening to the afterlife. In the final couplet, Donne explains what becomes of Death once it has taken our life. Donne says,

“And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.”

Clearly expressing the fact that once Death delivers us through a short sleep to eternal life, Death itself is rendered useless and will “die” throughout the poem. John Donne gives us power over death and reassurance that it is not to be feared with the language used in the sonnet. In the poem, we are given reasons why Death is so insignificant and why it should be humbled. Why should we fear something that makes us sleep like drugs and caters to the orders of others? Death claims the greatest men when they are too tired to live. Death, humble yourself because you are a small part of life. When everyone has gone through their moment of death and then has risen,

“Death, thou shalt die”.

It is on this line I would like to introduce my third and final sonnet ‘Composed Upon Westminster Bridge’ by William Wordsworth, this sonnet in contrast to ‘Death be not proud’ shows the beauty and live which there is in the world. William Wordsworth wrote ‘Composed Upon Westminster Bridge’ in June 1802 when his sister was inspired by the beauty of London just before sunrise, Wordsworth’s sister then asked him to come and see the view and so Wordsworth wrote.

The sonnet shows Wordsworth’s amazement and happiness at the spectacular view all around him. The sonnet is written in Petrarchan style but doesn’t have the Volta after the 8th line, it is simply set out in block form with the change still there but not quite as clear.

Wordsworth was always known to celebrate nature as a source of joy and inspiration but when he wrote

“Earth has not anything to show more fair:”

As the first lines go this one if you know, the poet is very strong and sets the tone of amazement and splendour for the whole sonnet. Wordsworth goes on to say if someone could pass by without noticing how great the city is then that person’s soul would be sad. The power of the sight continues to touch him as he uses words such as

“A sight so touching in its majesty:”

The word ‘majesty’ is normally used to describe royal figures and high-class people; by using the word ‘majesty’ it would make you believe his breath was taken from Wordsworth. Like Shakespeare Wordsworth also personification to try to get you to understand the beauty of sight or object.

“The City now doth, like a garment, wear

The beauty of the morning;”

This personifies the City as a person just woken up in a dressing gown trying to wake up and they will change clothes and like person changing for work the City changes by the time people start work and start destroying the City. Wordsworth uses a list to create an image of what he seen just as he looked up from one object to another going from him right out to the fields in the distance,

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“Silent, bare,

Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie

Open unto the fields, and to the sky;”

In the 17th century when Wordsworth was writing this sonnet, you could imagine the famous buildings. Now if you were looking out from Westminster Bridge you could not see the edge of the city but back then Wordsworth could see for miles and this brought him on to his next line

“All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.”

This brings your mind back to the fact that this is in the morning before any work has started and the pollution of the big factories has not started yet.

It is at this point Wordsworth has a change in emphasis and the rhythm pattern at the end of the line changes with it becoming C-D-C-D-C.

Wordsworth with the final five lines reminds us of his attachment and love of writing about nature but also the effect that the city has had on him compared with that of “Valley, rock, or hill;”

In the final line I think that he is going back to the power and majesty of the City by using the words ‘mighty heart’ but also personifies the City as a sleeping animal such as the king of the animal kingdom the Lion. As the lion has the potential power and strength but now the Lion is sleeping and harmless just like the City is harmless when no work has started.

From reading the sonnets from the three great authors; I have learned so much but in particular, I have to say my favourite was ‘Shall I compare thee to a Summers day?’. Before reading this sonnet, I could not relate to Shakespeare, but from the sonnet and the background to the sonnet, I saw both the love the lady had for her son and the love Shakespeare had for nature and the power of words. As Shakespeare wrote

“So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,

So long lives this and this gives life to thee.”

Now that boy is still living and not only the boy’s spirit lives on but also Shakespeare’s spirit goes on.

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