Reading Skills: Close Reading of Sonnets

“Close reading” is a phrase that makes many students cringe, and rightly so. Because a close reading of fiction or poetry or drama can expose even the most seasoned of readers as lacking in comprehension. That’s right; close readings expose your comprehension—or lack thereof—of a text like no other exercise. So what is it? Well, a close reading is an objective assessment of a text—usually regarding literature. And, as this reading tactic is purely objective, there is no room for subjective feelings (what you thought of the text personally), which means that you cannot use personal observations or say, “I took this to mean….” No. You need to be factual and thorough and always default to what I like to call Author’s Intent: What did the author mean when he said [insert quote here]. Below, I will attempt to give you a practical guide to close readings by actually doing one. On a sonnet. Here we go!

Before progressing, I’ll be using John Keats’s poem, “When I have Fears That I May Cease to Be,” so please read and enjoy this little beauty before progressing to the close reading guide.

When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,
Before high-pilèd books, in charactery,
Hold like rich garners the full ripened grain; (4)
When I behold, upon the night’s starred 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; (8)
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 (12)
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink. (14)

Close Reading Tip #1: Analyze the Structure

The structure (rhythm and rhyme) is the easiest part of any close reading and should be the first thing you look at. Even more fortunately, structure only really refers to poetry and drama (sorry fiction). In Keats’s poem, the structure is fairly straight-forward: There are three groups of four lines, each group following an ABAB, CDCD, EFEF rhyming scheme, followed by a rhyming couplet (“think, sink” 13-14) to finish the thing off. Each individual line is ten beats or syllables. If you are unfamiliar with this structure, it’s called a sonnet—specifically a Shakespearian sonnet. What is more, now that you have figured out that it is a Shakespearian sonnet, you know that the poem has a long exposition (the first 12 lines) that sets the stage and is resolved in the rhyming couplet (the last 2 lines).

Close Reading Tip # 2: Look at Each Quatrain Separately

A Quatrain is a group of four related lines. Quatrain, as in quad, as in four. Remember, these three quatrains should detail a problem and describe a setting or situation… It’s like a sonnet’s version of exposition. The first quatrain lays out that Keats, who is the speaker in this poem, has “fears that [he] may cease to be / before [his] pen has gleaned [his] teeming brain (1-2).” What could that possibly mean? “Cease to be?” Yes, you read that right; he is scared that he will die before he writes (or “gleans”) what is in his vivid (or “teeming”) imagination. What is more, Keats goes on to describe the contents of that massive imagination in the “high piled books that hold like rich garners” (3-4). So, these imaginary books are his vast imagination complete and are as valuable as diamonds. Pretty poetic stuff, eh? Do this for the final two quatrains and see how things go!

Close Reading Tip # 3: Identify Figurative Language

Metaphors run rampant in any sonnet, so it’s integral to identify them. I’ll do the second quatrain for you: “The night’s starred face” is a personification of the night sky. He sees, in the night sky, “huge cloudy symbols of a high romance” (5-6). Basically, he’s seeing stories in the shape of the clouds, kind of like how we see shapes in clouds sometimes. But instead of shapes, he sees tall tales to tell. Additionally, he, in the next lines, “may never live to trace / Their shadows with the magic hand of chance” (7-8), which essentially means he will never live to tell that tale, never trace the words of a story he has created and delve into its mysteries.

Close Reading Tip # 4: Understand the Poet

Keats is obviously dying. He would later be diagnosed with Tuberculosis and would die a pretty painful death. He likely knew that he would soon die upon the writing of this sonnet. However, if you look at the last quatrain, you can see his final regret: never having relished in “unreflecting love” (12). Keats, like many terminally ill people, regret what they didn’t do the most. And for Keats, he saved his greatest regret for the last—greater than even his untold stories. He lost his “fair creature of an hour,” which is the time he spent with this mystery woman.

Close Reading Tip # 5: Find the Turn!

Read that final couplet! Keats has a nihilistic view, here. He feels that he is alone and will sink to nothingness after his death. It’s not a pretty ending; not all poetry has happy endings or is romantic, even. And this certainly isn’t that. This sonnet is a lament.

So there you go. Five close reading tips for sonnets are laid out for you. I apologize if I’ve missed anything, but I could have easily gone on for another thousand words and bored you to death. So the next time you read a sonnet and are forced to do a close reading, first identify the structure, then break down each quatrain individually, identify the figurative language and understand the poet you find yourself reading by looking at some of his/her history, and look at the turn for the resolution. Try a sonnet by yourself and see if you can increase your comprehension!