Stylistic Analysis of Robert Frost's 'The Secret Sits' and William Shakespeare's 'Sonnet 18'

Seminar Paper, 2004

9 Pages, Grade: 2,0


QUESTION 1. Do a stylistic analysis of the following poem by Robert Frost, and use your analysis to illustrate and state explicitly the aims of linguistic stylistics.


We dance round in a ring and suppose, (1)

But the secret sits in the middle and knows. (2)

As stylistics is “concerned with patterns of use in given texts” (Widdowson, 1996, 138) it is necessary to investigate the vocabulary Frost employed. There are only three nouns in the poem, namely “secret” (T, 2), “ring” (1) and “middle” (2) and the pronoun “we” (1). The fact that the term “secret” occurs twice suggests its importance. Concerning the verbs the action of guessing is demonstrated by the rather unsteady actions of “dance” and “suppose” (1), which stand in contrast to the steady actions “sit[…]” and “know[…]” (2).

Following Widdowson (1992, xiii) the “textual evidence might […] provide […] [a] validation”: The word order of the title is evident, because it includes the content of the whole poem: the word “secret” stands in the middle between “the” and “sits”. Furthermore, two alliterations stress the main actions, as “we dance round in a ring” (1) and “the secret sits” (T, 2). There is a linguistic framework in the poem: In verse 1 words with the high front vowel /i/, “in”, “ring”, gather in the middle of the verse while the words containing a lower sound, “dance”, “round”, “and” and “suppose” surround them. In the second verse the frame consists of the words “but” and “knows” and in the middle are “secret”, “sits”, “in” and “middle”. So the low sounds symbolize the dance and the high sounds the secret. Thus the first verse is symbolic for the dance and the second focuses on the secret.

The personification of the term “secret” throughout the whole poem illustrates that “literary messages manage to convey meaning because they organize their deviations from the code into patterns which are discernible in the texts themselves” (Widdowson, 1996: 141). The reader is not used to thinking of a secret as an acting thing. The “we” (1) supposing and the “secret” (2) sitting and knowing are linked by the use of the pair-rhyme. It is not clear what the secret consists of so the text makes sense only in thinking about the secret as a physical being, not a suggestion, which means to disregard conventional knowledge (cf. Widdowson, 1992: xiii).

The poem is a secret in itself. It uses the personification to cause the reader to deal with it and to think about it in terms of its meaning. In contrast to its shortness the poem is a good example how a secret is situated in human life. It draws a picture of a ritual of conjuring meaning into something by describing the dance. It is a metaphor for stylistic analysis which is concerned with the relation between the evidences given in the text and a possible interpretation. As Verdonk (2002, 4) says stylistics is “the analysis of distinctive expression in language and the description of its purpose and effect”. The aims are to provide an analysis of stylistic features in a text in order to give textual evidence to an interpretation due to the fact that “the meanings which literature conveys are of their nature elusive of precise description” (Widdowson, 1975: 116).

QUESTION 2. Explain the following principle and illustrate it with reference to precise linguistic patterns in any one of the texts which we have discussed during the course. The formulation is based on H.G. Widdowson (1992) Practical Stylistics. OUP, p. xii.

Stylistics requires “precision of reference to the text in support of a particular interpretation”, and emphatically not “precision of interpretation”.

This principle means that the aim of stylistics is to suggest an interpretation for a text with the help of textual evidence. Words used in a text convey a meaning which leads to this interpretation. As in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 it can be seen that looking at the linguistic features leads to a different interpretation than reading the literal content.

As said in our seminar, there are three main word fields in the sonnet: the time is referred to by “Summer” (1,4,9) “day” (1), “May” (3), “date” (4), “sometime” (5, 7), “often” (6), “eternal” (9, 12), “time” (12) and “long” (13,14). Secondly, nature is referred to with “temperate” (2), “rough winds” (3), “bud” (3), “eye of heaven” (5), which means the sun, and “nature” (8). Also, words belonging to the life and death word field occur: “shine” (5), “dimm” (6), “decline” (7), “eternal” (9, 12), “fade” (9), “Death” (11), “shade” (11) and “life” (14). Furthermore, trade and commerce vocabulary is used throughout the sonnet: “lease” (4), “gold” (6), “possession” (10), “ow’d” (10). Linked to this, as ships are commercial vehicles, is a nautical language: “rough winds” (3), “eye of heaven” (5), “changing course” (8) and “untrimm’d” (8). These word fields lead to different conclusions: the sonnet is about the endurance of an unknown ‘thou’ in time, which is symbolized by the changing in nature as it is described in the sonnet. A second way of interpreting, however, is possible, as the commercial and nautical word fields show another level of meaning in the sonnet.

The first interpretation – that the sonnet is a love poem – is supported by the comparison between the ‘thee’ who is more “temperate” (2) than a “Summer’s day” (1). This comparison is the starting point for the sonnet as it is indicated by the question mark at the end of verse 1. Following the idea that the sonnet is built as a “‘stair’ pattern” (Wildi, 1980: 75) and that each stanza equals a step leading to the next (cf. Wildi, 1980: 75), the comparison leads to a description of how ‘thou’ can be compared with nature. In addition the colons at the end of line 2, 4 and 12 and the semi-colons in lines 6, 8 and 10 underline the idea of a ‘stair’ pattern. The “rough winds” (3) in “May” (3) and the ending summer show how short the life of ‘thou’ is. This is the thesis of the sonnet and taking into account that Shakespearian sonnets are built up in an argumental structure the idea occurs, that after this thesis (propositio) a stanza with reasons (ratio) follows (cf. Wildi, 1980: 75).


Excerpt out of 9 pages


Stylistic Analysis of Robert Frost's 'The Secret Sits' and William Shakespeare's 'Sonnet 18'
University of Trier  (FB II Anglistik)
Stylistics (of literary texts)
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ISBN (Book)
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(zu Question 1): Several good observations. (zu Question 2): A lot of good points.
Robert Frost, William Shakespeare, The Secret Sits, Sonnet 18, Stylistics, Widdowson, Linguistics, Literature
Quote paper
Magister Artium Christoph Höbel (Author), 2004, Stylistic Analysis of Robert Frost's 'The Secret Sits' and William Shakespeare's 'Sonnet 18', Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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