Analysis of Billy Collins' sonnet "Sonnet"

Essay, 2010
5 Pages, Grade: 2,0

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Third assessed analysis

Billy Collins „Sonnet“

The sonnet „Sonnet”, written by Billy Collins, consists of fourteen lines, which is typical for the form of a sonnet. Moreover, the sonnet has two quatrains and one sestet which is neither typical for a Shakespearean sonnet, nor for a Petrarchan sonnet, but makes it a mixture of both forms.

There are no recognizable rhymes throughout the poem. There are neither full rhymes, nor eye rhymes at the end of the lines, therefore there is no rhyme scheme in the sonnet. One internal rhyme can be found in lines thirteen and fourteen (tights – lights).

The number of syllables in each line differs from nine syllables to fourteen and there is no scheme recognizable. Because of the fact that there is no ongoing number of syllables it makes it impossible to determine a metre in this poem.

There are four enjambments in this sonnet, which means that there is no punctuation at the end of the line and the meaning of the first line is carried into the following one. All in all four enjambments can be found throughout the sonnet (lines 2-3, 5-6, 6-7, 9-10).

Billy Collins uses two anaphoras during his sonnet, which means that two following lines begin with the same word. These anaphoras can be found in lines six and seven, where both lines begin with the conjunction “and”, and in lines eleven and twelve, where both lines begin with the adverb “where”.

The next stylistic device that can be found in this sonnet is the alliteration, which the author uses three times in this sonnet. The first alliteration can be found in line three ('s). The second one is in line six (insist...iambic), and the last one can be found in line nine (

The speaker in this sonnet is clearly a first person speaker due to the frequent use of the pronoun “we” (line 1 and 9). He clearly addresses to the reader of this sonnet, which is due to the use of “we” again. Telling from the sonnet there is no clue of the speakers gender, but we can assume that he is a male, because a male author has written it, as well as we can assume that the speaker is the author himself.

The tone of this sonnet is quite positive. Nevertheless it is a kind of a swan-song for old fashioned sonnet types. The author wants to change and to renew the sonnet itself and everything surrounding it, like the rhyme scheme, the metre etc. The mood of the author is on the one hand thankful for all the sonnets that have been written in the past. On the other hand he wants all the boundaries, that come with the writing of a sonnet, to vanish and he wants to somehow reinvent the sonnet.

In my opinion Billy Collins “Sonnet” begins as some kind of construction manual for typical sonnets. The author begins with a quite general introduction in lines one and two, where he briefly mentions the typical length of a sonnet (“All we need is fourteen lines, well, thirteen now, and after this next one just a dozen”). He carries on in line three by saying that the old sonnets all have the same content and the same theme, namely love, and that every sonnet, that stands as a declaration of love for someone is only a tiny, unimportant, little ship on the big ocean of love sonnets (“to launch a little ship on love's storm-tossed seas”). The metaphor he uses (“love's storm-tossed seas”) is presumably an analogy to the thousands of love sonnets that have been written in the past. These sonnets are so full of passion and emotions that no little ship could ever get through this storm-tossed sea to its save haven.

In line four the author ends his first couplet by saying that a typical sonnet needs just ten more lines to be done. He compares the upcoming ten lines of a typical sonnet with (“rows of beans”), which means that the upcoming lines are not different from each other. Rows of beans only differ in very little points from each other, and so do the next ten lines. The sentences and the rhymes may differ, but the content stays the same over and over again (“then only ten more left like rows of beans.”)

In line five Collins not only introduces the next quatrain but also puts his stress on the Elizabethan sonnet form. He mentions that it would be easier for a poet if he had not have to stick to the Elizabethan sonnet rules (“How easily it goes unless you get Elizabethan”).

Line six adds another point to the theory of a difficult Elizabethan sonnet (“and insist the iambic bongos must be played”). That is a clear reference to the metre in the Elizabethan sonnet form, which is strictly structured throughout the whole poem. The fact that he uses the word “bongo” in this context means that he sees the metre of a sonnet as a kind of a drum that gives rhythms. Thereby he stresses the importance of a metre in the typical Elizabethan sonnets.

The next point the author makes is a reference to the rhyme scheme of a typical Elizabethan sonnet (“and rhymes positioned at the end of lines”). A typical Elizabethan sonnet has to have a certain rhyme scheme at the end of its lines, which makes it hard for an author not only to find words that fit into his context which also rhyme, but to watch his rhyme scheme as well. This is another fact for the difficulties for an author of writing an Elizabethan sonnet.

Collins has written line eight, which is the last line in the second quatrain, in a very metaphorical sense (“one for every station of the cross.”). A cross always has four “stations”, which also means four directions. A typical Elizabethan sonnet has four different “chapters”: the first three quatrains and the heroic couplet. And in these four chapters are four different segments of rhymes (Quatrain 1 includes a and b, quatrain 2 includes c and d, quatrain 3 includes e and f, and the heroic couplet includes g). These four chapters with its four segments of rhymes explain his cross-metaphor.

Collins makes an interesting turn in line nine. Not only is line nine the beginning of a sestet, which is typical for a Petrarchan sonnet and nor for an Elizabethan one, but he also stops speaking about the Elizabethan sonnet and begins to talk about the Petrarchan one (“But hang on here while we make the turn”). In a typical Petrarchan sonnet line nine is the turning point of the sonnet, which can change the meaning of the whole poem. Collins stresses the importance of the turning point in the Petrarchan sonnet with his own turning point, which goes on in line ten (into the final six where all will be resolved,”). “The final six” is a clear reference to the last sestet in a Petrarchan sonnet, which as I said can change the whole meaning and the whole tone of the sonnet. This is another indicator for Billy Collins himself turning the form of his sonnet from Elizabethan into Petrarchan.

The author changes his content as well. There is no construction manual for a Petrarchan sonnet now. Instead he uses the final sestet as his own organ and tells the reader what is to change. In line eleven he starts with the content of a renewed sonnet (“where longing and heartache will find an end,”). He clearly wants sonnets to focus on other important things than love. He wants the content to be wide-spread in every direction and not to always stick to the same thing over and over again.

Billy Collins moves on with his revolution of the sonnet forms in a very figurative way. In line twelve he introduces two of the most popular characters in the history of the Petrarchan sonnet: Petrarch himself and his muse Laura (“where Laura will tell Petrarch to put down his pen,”). This is a symbol that stands for the content of a sonnet again. The authors of sonnets should not only write about how much they love somebody and what they would do for this person; they should just show it to this person through deeds and not only through words. According to the fact that it is Laura who tells Petrarch to put down his pen, the author implicates that authors will not be able to change it on their own. They are going to need their muses, the ones they love, to help them.

The final two lines of Billy Collins sonnet are very special again. Although he has changed the form of his sonnet from Elizabethan to Petrarchan throughout the poem he does not stick to it in the end. The last two lines, which are in the Petrarchan part of the sonnet act like a heroic couplet, which does not exist in a Petrarchan sonnet and is found in Elizabethan ones. Speaking about the content these heroic couplet underline the message that Billy Collins has given throughout his sestet of the sonnet (“take off those crazy medieval tights, blow out the lights, and come at last to bed.”).

The crazy medieval tights he mentions is a clear metaphor for what he wants to change. He himself thinks that these old rules and prescriptions for writing a sonnet are crazy and old fashioned. Another indicator for that is the use of the word tights, because an author nowadays would probably wear pants and not tights. The last line is a quite forgiving one, which shows that the author nevertheless feels a deep love for these old sonnets. He wants the old sonnet forms just to lie down and take a rest, so that new ones can evolve. He does not want to extinct these old forms, he just wants them to sleep.

At first glance Billy Collins sonnet “Sonnet” is a complete mess. There is no rhyme scheme, no metre, he has not been able to decide what sonnet form he wants to use in his sonnet, etc.

If we look close enough we can find an author whose love for sonnets is so big that he wrote this declaration of love to the two big sonnet forms that exists, but also says that he wants to have more freedom in writing a sonnet. It is interesting to see that his style goes hand in hand with his content. Every quatrain ends with a full stop and every quatrain has a different content. The first four lines are all about the construction of a sonnet and a little bit of the typical content has been given.

The next four lines (5-8) deal with the typical Shakespearean or Elizabethan sonnet and its difficulties while writing it. After these two quatrains he suddenly changes his form and his content from Elizabethan to Petrarchan. He all of a sudden comes up with a sestet that deals with the old fashioned sonnets and what Collins would like to change.

Another interesting stylistic point is the fact that his alliterations and his enjambments are connected. An Enjambment goes over two lines, and in this sonnet one of these lines is build with an alliteration. This stresses both, the importance of the enjambments and the importance of the alliterations. These two stylistic devices are always within the quatrains or the sestet. They are never at the end of one another.

All in all it is to say that Billy Collins is a very intelligent author, who understands that old fashioned rules and prescriptions have to be updated from time to time. This sonnet is both, a declaration of love to every sonnet that has been written and a will to renew the sonnet form and breathe new life into it. That is why I think that Billy Collins “Sonnet” is a very special sonnet.

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Analysis of Billy Collins' sonnet "Sonnet"
Technical University of Darmstadt  (Institut für Sprach- und Literaturwissenschaft)
The Sonnet
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Billy Collins, Sonnet, rhyme scheme, Collins, Petrarchan sonnet, Shakespearean sonnet, mixture
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Rouven Dirb (Author), 2010, Analysis of Billy Collins' sonnet "Sonnet", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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