Poetic Closure and the Sonnets of William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

posh_gold_frame_stock_by_sockmonkeystockPoetic Form and Content

According to Barbara Hernstein Smith’s definition in Poetic Closure, “Formal elements [of a poem] are defined as those which arise from the physical nature of words, and would include all such features as rhyme, alliteration, and syllabic meter. The thematic elements [elements relating to content] of a poem are those which arise from the symbolic of conventional nature of words, and to which someone familiar with the language could respond; they would include everything from reference to syntax to tone” (Smith 1968, 6).

In essence, form is all of that which comes from the sensory experience of the poem or how the poem conveys its message. “Thematic elements,” which we can tentatively call content, is all that comes from the intellectual experience of the ideas, references, symbols, and other cultural conventions in the poem, or what the poem is about.

Poetic Forms

Poetic form, in the general sense, is not to be confused with what we call forms, for example, the Sonnet, Sestina, Villanelle, or Haiku. These are particular formal patterns that have become popularized by various poets over time. Sometimes, specific forms are given to certain tendencies in their effects, tendencies that then, as the forms develop over the course of history, make different thematic concerns common to them respectively. Haiku, because they are short and because of the development of  Japanese Haiku conventions, are often meditative descriptions of the natural world. Sonnets are associated with love poetry. Sestina’s with the speech act of complaint.


Closure is the affect that produces a feeling of completion in one’s experience of a poem or work of art. Smith writes, “Closure, then, may be regarded as a modification of structure that makes stasis, or the absence of further continuation, the most probable succeeding event. Closure allows the reader to be satisfied by the failure of continuation or, put another way, it creates in the reader the expectation of nothing” (Smith, 1968, 34). Closure can be both thematic and formal. A good example of formal closure is the affect of the final rhyming couplet in an English sonnet. The rhyme and stanzaic pattern leading up to the final couplet is modified in the last two lines. That modification lets us know we’ve come to an end. Thematic closure occurs when a poem comes to an intellectual conclusion or a statement with apparent finality. A death occurring at the close of a poem would produce great closure, as in Dickinson’s  “[The Heart asks Pleasure–first–].”

Closure implies the neat wrapping up of experience or thought in a poem, a kind of completion that also separates the poem from actual life, in which we seldom achieve true conclusions. As such, there has been a negative reaction to closure in the 20th Century, largely because many poets feel that it does not adequately represent lived experience, or because it divides the realm of art from that of life, where many artists want there to be no distinction. Ted Berrigan’s book The Sonnets is an example of a text that seems to attempt formal closure, in part by referencing the sonnet form, while working against the forces of thematic closure, through a cut-up or remixing technique that involves recycling lines and generates poems that may seem nonsensical or difficult to paraphrase.


The Petrarchan Sonnet

  • Petrarch (1304-1374)
  • Rhyme ABBA ABBA then either CDE CDE or CDC DCD
  • Octave lines 1-8 / Sestet lines 8-14
  • Volta comes after line 8
  • Petrarch wrote sonnets to and about a beautiful woman called Laura
  • He drew on the tradition of courtly love poetry; his poems praise and idealize the beloved while they also reflect on the torment of unrequited love for the unreachable Laura and the unbearable desire that conflicts with Christian chastity
  • Petrarch: “I find no peace, and yet I make no war: and fear, and hope: and burn, and I am ice”

Sonnet 159

In what bright realm, what sphere of radiant thought
Did Nature find the model whence she drew
That delicate dazzling image where we view
Here on this earth what she in heaven wrought?
What fountain-haunting nymph, what dryad, sought
In groves, such golden tresses ever threw
Upon the gust? What heart such virtues knew?—
Though her chief virtue with my death is frought.
He looks in vain for heavenly beauty, he
Who never looked upon her perfect eyes,
The vivid blue orbs turning brilliantly –
He does not know how Love yields and denies;
He only knows, who knows how sweetly she
Can talk and laugh, the sweetness of her sighs.

Sonnet 227

Breeze, blowing that blonde curling hair,
Stirring it, and being softly stirred in turn,
Scattering that sweet gold about, then
Gathering it, in a lovely knot of curls again,

You linger around bright eyes whose loving sting
Pierces me so, till I feel it and weep,
And I wander searching for my treasure,
Like a creature that often shies and kicks:

Now I seem to find her, now I realize
She’s far away, now I’m comforted, now despair,
Now longing for her, now truly seeing her.

Happy air, remain here with your
Living rays: and you, clear running stream,
Why can’t I exchange my path for yours?

William Shakespeare

William_Shakespeares_birthplace,_Stratford-upon-Avon_26l2007Rebuilt Globe Theater, LondonInside the Globe Theater

Title Page of the 1609 edition of the sonnetsDedication

Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, 1594First page

The Shakespearian Sonnet

  • Shakespeare (1564-1616)
  • 14 lines (some exceptions) 3 quatrains and a closing couplet
  • Rhyme: abab cdcd efef gg
  • Iambic pentameter
  • Argument develops in first two quatrains. Sometimes a question is asked or a thesis or hypothetical situation is considered
  • Volta usually at third quatrain – an intellectual, argumentative, or tonal turn
  • Intensely closural
  • Yes, Shakespeare wrote sonnets about love. However, this was not his only subject. You may also be surprised to note that many of his amorous sonnets are addressed to a man.
  • Shakespeare also played with the thematic conventions of the love sonnet as it was conceived by Petrarch. So you will discover sonnets, like #130 (“My Mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun”) that seem to subvert to Petrarchan tendency of uncompromising adulation of the beloved.
  • Shakespeare also was attentive to what we could call the immortalizing technology of the poem, the ability of the poem to reach into the future like a sort of time-capsule.

Sonnet 18

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate;
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date;
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.


The Modern Sonnet

  • No fixed requirements, though often Modern sonnets will be 14 lines long.
  • Modern sonnets tend to do away with rhyme and meter
  • But writers of modern sonnets often still engage somehow with the tradition of the form. At the simplest level, this may mean that modern sonnets also attempt to present the complexities of developing thought or are concerned with the generation of closural effects.
  • Ted Berrigan’s book The Sonnets (1964) is a very interesting, and not all that representative, example of a sequence of modern sonnets. These poems may also be considered examples of “cut-ups,” meaning that it often seems as if lines have simply been cut out of other contexts and inserted with no clear regard for making sense. Yet at the same time, you’ll discover that the poems feel complete and that closure is, in a way, achieved. And while the poems can present as non-sense, they are nonetheless exciting, pleasurable events that appear full of references to the poet’s daily experiences. The Sonnets could be read as an early example of the kind of re-mixing and sampling that is common in popular music today.


His piercing pince-nez. Some dim frieze
Hands point to a dim frieze, in the dark night.
In the book of his music the corners have straightened:
Which owe their presence to our sleeping hands.
The ox-blood from the hands which play
For fire for warmth for hands for growth
Is there room in the room that you room in?
Upon his structured tomb:
Still they mean something. For the dance
And the architecture.
Weave among incidents
May be portentous to him
We are the sleeping fragments of his sky,
Wind giving presence to fragments.

Listen to Ted Berrigan reading sonnet I


Dear Margie, hello. It is 5:15 a.m
dear Berrigan. He died
Back to books. I read
It’s 8:30 p.m. in New York and I’ve been running around all day
old come-all-ye’s streel into the streets. Yes, it is now,
How Much Longer Shall I Be Able To Inhabit the Divine
and the day a bright gray turning green
feminine marvelous and tough
watching the sun come up over the Navy Yard
to write scotch-tape body in a notebook
had 17 and 1/2 milligrams
Dear Margie, hello. It is 5:15 a.m.
****ed til 7 now she’s late to work and I’m
18 so why are my hands shaking I should know better

Listen to Ted Berrigan reading sonnet II



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