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Contributors:Dana Bisignani.
Summary:

This resource will help you perform a close reading of poetry and begin developing ideas for writing papers based on close readings.

Poetry: Close Reading

Introduction

Once somewhat ignored in scholarly circles, close reading of poetry is making something of a comeback. By learning how to close read a poem you can significantly increase both your understanding and enjoyment of the poem. You may also increase your ability to write convincingly about the poem.

The following exercise uses one of William Shakespeare’s sonnets (#116) as an example. This close read process can also be used on many different verse forms. This resource first presents the entire sonnet and then presents a close reading of the poem below. Read the sonnet a few times to get a feel for it and then move down to the close reading.

CXVI

Let me not to the marriage of true minds

Admit impediments. Love is not love

Which alters when it alteration finds,

Or bends with the remover to remove:

O no! it is an ever-fixed mark

That looks on tempests and is never shaken;

It is the star to every wandering bark,

Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.

Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks

Within his bending sickle's compass come:

Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,

But bears it out even to the edge of doom.

If this be error and upon me proved,

I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

Performing the close read

CXVI.

The number indicates the sonnet’s place in a cycle or sequence of sonnets. Although you may examine the poem on its own terms, realize that it is connected to the other poems in the cycle.

Let me not to the marriage of true minds

Admit impediments.

Form is one of the first things you should note about a poem. Here it is easy to see that the poem is fourteen lines long and follows some sort of rhyme scheme (which you can see by looking at how the final words in each line). The rhyme of words makes a connection between them. Our first rhyme combination is “minds/finds.” What do you make of this pairing of words?

The first phrase (in this case a full sentence) of the poem flows into the next line of the poem. This is called enjambment, and though it is often made necessary by the form of the verse, it also serves to break up the reader’s expectations. In this case, the word “impediments” is placed directly before the bleak and confusing phrase “love is not love,” itself an enjambment. How does this disconnection between phrase and line affect the reader? How does it emphasize or change the lines around it?

Love is not love

Which alters when it alteration finds,

Or bends with the remover to remove:

Notice all of the repetition or use of similar words in the last two and a half lines. When close reading a poem, especially a fixed verse form like the sonnet, remember the economy of the poem: there’s only so much space at the poet’s disposal. This makes repetition very important, because it places even more emphasis on the repeated word than does prose. What does the repetition in these lines suggest? Also, note that we’ve come to the end of our first quatrain (four-line stanza): usually the first stanza of a sonnet proposes the problem for the poem. What is this problem?

O no! it is an ever-fixed mark

That looks on tempests and is never shaken;

It is the star to every wandering bark,

Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.

Our next quatrain gives a pair of metaphors (click here to read about metaphors, or click here) for the “thesis” argued in the first stanza. Look carefully at these images as they relate to the subject of the poem. What actual objects do they describe? Do they bear any similarity to each other? Is there a connection between the use of “ever-“ in line 5 and “every” in line seven?

The image in lines 5-6 is especially complex: What is the “mark” Shakespeare is talking about and how does it “look?” Answers to some of these questions may require some research into older definitions of words in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks

Within his bending sickle's compass come:

Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,

But bears it out even to the edge of doom.

Our third and final quatrain uses all of its four lines to expand a single metaphor. Consider how this metaphor relates to the previous ones, and why so much space in the poem is devoted to it, especially as it relates to the poem’s argument. Also, look at similarity of phrasing between line 9’s “rosy lips and cheeks” and line 11’s “brief hours and weeks.” They certainly rhyme, but how does the similar construction affect the reading?

If this be error and upon me proved,

I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

This is our closing couplet (two-line stanza), meant to “resolve” the problem addressed in the poem. Look carefully at the way the couplet starts. Does it provide resolution or not? Note that the first person (“me/I”) has returned (last seen in the first line of the poem). Consider also the negations in the final statement. Have we seen something similar in the poem before? Where and why are the connections made?

From reading to writing

The observations and questions in the close reading notes are by no means complete, but a look over them suggests several possibilities for a paper. Among these possibilities are:

These ideas need not be exclusive, either. The observations gained from the close reading should provide you with examples and insight for anyone of the proposed essays listed above.