ENG 150 -- Literary Analysis

Mr. Spurgin, Fall 2004



• Mark Strand and Eavan Boland, “The Sonnet at a Glance,” “The History of the Form,” and “The Contemporary Context,” The Making of a Poem: pp. 55-9.

• NOTE: If Strand and Boland use an unfamiliar term, don’t despair. There’s a useful glossary in the back of the book, along with biographical information about each poet.

• William Shakespeare, sonnets 29, 73, 116, 129, and 138

Background information

• Shakespeare’s sonnets were first published in 1609, at the end of what literary historians describe as a “vogue of sonnet sequences.”

• Earlier sonnet sequences had almost always been addressed to a single person—an idealized, unattainable woman. Shakespeare’s sequence is different. Of his 154 sonnets, the first 126 are addressed to a young man, the final 28 to a dark-haired lady.

• There are a few basic points to keep in mind as you consider the speaker’s relationship to each of these audiences.

• The young man seems to be a good deal younger and of considerably higher social rank than Shakespeare’s speaker.

• The “dark lady” is closer to the speaker’s age. In other words, she’s hardly young and innocent.

• There are issues of constancy and fidelity in both relationships.

• At some points, the speaker suggests that the young man has come to prefer the work of another poet. At other points, the speaker accuses the young man and dark-haired lady of having an affair behind his back.

Study questions

• Critics have often said that lyric poems are not personal statements so much as imitations of such statements. The fact that Shakespeare addressed some of his greatest sonnets to a dark lady doesn’t mean that he was actually in love with such a person, right? Building on that insight, we might ask ourselves what kinds of utterances—or “speech acts”—are being imitated in these sonnets. Here are just a few possibilities:


Using the items on this list—and others you might add to the list—come to some decisions about which speech acts are being imitated in each of our sonnets. Remember that a good sonnet might imitate several distinct speech acts in succession: it might start out disputing and end up lamenting.

• In addition to thinking about the sonnets as imitations of speech acts, we might think of them as responses to earlier speech acts. What has happened, what has been said, to prompt each of these sonnets? (FOR EXAMPLE: Helen Vendler, author of a book length study of the sonnets, suggests that 116 responds to the young man’s assertion that love can and almost always does fade. Do you see why she’d make that suggestion? And if so, can you imagine a similar sort of context for some of the other sonnets?)

• Finally, think about the structure of these sonnets. Here are a few more specific questions to keep in mind:

• In which sonnets are the quatrains most distinct? And in which do the quatrains seem to run together?

• What functions does the couplet seem to serve in each sonnet? What would each sonnet be like without its final couplet?

• Where does the “turn” seem to come in each sonnet? In which sonnets is there some sort of decisive turn at line 9?

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last modified 10-15-04