William Shakespeare (1564-1616), one of the world's most prolific writers of poems and sonnets.
Credit: Credit: Image courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress.
Students are often gleeful to discover that their reading homework involves only a few short poems. Yet the attentive student realizes that carefully reading a poem involves as much work as reading a short story, article, or passage from a novel. Reading through a poem once might count for the letter of the assignment, but certainly not the spirit. A careful review of a poem involves diligent attention to form, language, and technique—all items students are often unprepared to examine on their own. This EDSITEment lesson teaches students how to read a poem so that they are prepared, rather than simply present, for class discussion.
This lesson will begin with a discussion on differentiating literal and figurative language, showing how students will determine denotation and connotation in language. With an emphasis on creating arguments using evidence from the poem, they will next learn how to annotate and paraphrase a poem. They will decipher who the speaker is and how tone and setting establish tension and dramatic context. Finally, students will explore the poem's structure, with attention to rhyme, use of line, and form. Through these exercises, which center on William Shakespeare's Sonnet 130, "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun," students will learn how to create a thesis about the poem rooted in textual evidence.
Upon first encountering a poem, students often read through once, perhaps note a few oddities, maybe read a footnote or two, and then put their book aside until the following day, when they expect their teacher will enlighten them on the poem's meaning. Unfortunately, this process does not do justice to the teacher, the student, or the various nuances of the poetic work at hand. The following strategies can be adapted in a variety of ways to help a student adequately prepare for the following day's discussion of a poem or series of poems.
Discuss with students their normal strategies for reading a poem for homework (you might consider assigning a poem the day before so that everyone has a common reference point). Ask students how many times they read the poem, if they read the footnotes, if they have a dictionary nearby, if they read the poem aloud, or if they take notes. Finally, ask students what problems they often encounter when reading a poem.
Tell students that they are going to learn some basic strategies to help them approach poetry in a manner that will allow them to begin discussions in an informed and confident way. Discuss briefly with them that while literature allows for more than one "answer"—or, more appropriately, thesis—about a text, there are also wrong readings that are not supported by the poet's words. Just as with any kind of investigation, students must use the clues that are available to them, and must not make faulty assumptions based on vague evidence. While some clues exist outside a work of literature—in the historical and cultural landscape of its writing—the first step of any literary investigation must be with the text itself.
An effective way to begin to understand poetry is to try to paraphrase the poem. For the purposes of this lesson, students can examine William Shakespeare's "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun (Sonnet 130)," available online and in many textbooks. If students do not have access to computers, make sure each student has a copy of the poem.
Share with students that while understanding line breaks and other formal features of poetry is very important, the first stage of interpretation should focus on comprehension. An easy exercise towards this goal involves paraphrasing the poem, following these strategies:
Students may benefit from reconsidering the difference between literal and figurative language. Consider, for example, the first line of Shakespeare's Sonnet 130: "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun." Clearly, this line is not meant to be read literally: "My mistresses eyes are not giant stars that provide the Earth with warmth and light." Rather, the line is a figure of speech, an inversion of a simile, one of the more common types of figurative language. Ask students to ignore the negative "not" for the time being and consider instead the positive phrase: "My mistresses eyes are like the sun." What does this remind students of? Some students might call it a "pick-up line," or a "come-on." Why then, does Shakespeare reverse this trend? Is he trying to insult his lady?
Share with students that the speaker's attitude or tone tells the reader a great deal about the poem. Any shifts in attitude are also particularly revelatory. In the above example, students might be left wondering, as they paraphrase the poem, why Shakespeare would write against his mistress by using figurative language common to romantic overtures in a negative way. As these thoughts germinate, students should consider the speaker and tone of the poem.
In considering Sonnet 130, students might point out that the speaker is a lover that seems to be praising his "dark mistress," even though those praises come across as though they might be criticisms. Ask students to consider how word choice may affect a speaker's tone. Here, his tone is not sarcastic towards his mistress, however, since the last two lines re-emphasize the speaker's admiration of his love.
If the glib portrayal of his mistress is not directed towards his lover, then who is it directed towards? What other clues might be available in a poem? Discuss with students what possible hints might be present. Students may suggest some of the following:
Sonnet 130 does not have an explicit setting, although some students might take into consideration Shakespeare's place in Elizabethan England. In terms of audience, students might suggest that the dark mistress is the audience. Others might wonder who or what the poem is critical of, since Sonnet 130 seems to be critical of something in its tone—indicate that this is a good question to remember when they come to developing questions and a thesis for the poem at the end of the activities.
Finally, ask students to review the structure of the poem. Reading the poem aloud is a useful approach to analyzing structure, so encourage students to read the poem out loud to themselves or to a friend or relative. When students paraphrased the poem, they read it without considering the line breaks, rhyme scheme, and other such features. As they reread the poem a final time in preparation for class, encourage them to map these elements of the poem, which will likely be more obvious as they reread the poem out loud. Note: For more practice with sonnets, and experiments with how a poem sounds, consider using the EDSITEment lesson plan Listening to Poetry: Sounds of the Sonnet.
First, ask students to note any rhyme pattern of Sonnet 130, which they should note using the traditional method of annotating the rhyme with lower-case letters. Ask students what the rhyme scheme of Shakespeare's Sonnet 130 is. They should be able to quickly show that the poem follows this rhyme scheme:
a b a b
c d c d
e f e f
After writing this pattern down, ask students to speculate on the arrangement of the poem's rhyme. Can we tell anything about the poem's form from this rhyme scheme? Students should note the 3 stanzas of 4 lines each, followed by a couplet. Some students might notice the turn of the argument at the couplet, which is highlighted by "And yet" to show a change or advancement of the argument.
Students are likely to point out that the common title—Sonnet 130—gives the poem's form away. Ask students how they can determine what kind of sonnet is being used. Ask students to visit the Academy of American Poets website, which details the various forms of the sonnet extensively. Have them review the descriptions of the various sonnets and ask them to determine which one Shakespeare's follows and, more importantly, why. Students should be able to detail the differences in form, rather than simply stating, "Because the English sonnet is also called the Shakespearian sonnet."
Be sure to ask students if there are any inconsistencies in rhythm/meter that they hear when reading the poem out loud. Point out to students that any "odd" sounding lines often represent moments in a poem at which form mirrors content. For example, the 12th line ("My mistress when she walks treads on the ground.") disrupts the flow of the preceding lines via the monosyllabic words. Here in the poem, Shakespeare reveals that he needs no superficial conventions of love and beauty to express how great his own love is. This line formally and contextually "grounds" the mistress via its weighted-down meter.
Next, ask students to consider the length of the lines. How many syllables does each line have? When they answer "ten," point out that they have already arrived at clues as to the rhythm and meter of the poem. Should you wish to investigate meter in more depth, ask students to read this overview of rhythm and meter at Emory University, via the Academy of American Poets, and pick out which meter Shakespeare's sonnet follows.
Finally, remind students that poetic form does not always follow expected conventions of prose. Even though they paraphrased the poem on this basic level, students should now examine the length of poetic lines, and how lines often break or end abruptly at times, while at other times they maintain a certain orderly convention. Ask students to review Sonnet 130 and comment on the role of line breaks. Students might note, for example, that the first four lines of Sonnet 130 are full statements, with semi-colons indicating a full stop. The rest of the lines, however, are coupled together, such as:
I have seen roses damask'd, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
The first four brief lines lead into these longer end-stoped lines, creating the sense of tension and structure of a building argument. An end-stopped line's meaning or sense matches the length of the line (as above, where each phrase completes a line), whereas in an enjambed line, the sense or meaning does not match the line length. Point students to the definition of enjambment at the Norton LitWeb Glossary, which will aid them when considering future poems. By the time readers reach the final couplet of Sonnet 130, the argument has built so greatly that the final couplet is a surprise. This surprise might prompt students to question the rationale behind the poet's approach, leading to their final stage of preparation: developing a theory.
Reassure students that they are not expected to have all of the answers before walking in to class after a night of reading poetry. These basic strategies, however, do afford students the opportunity to begin class prepared with both insights and questions. At this point, students should have
With all of this information, ask students (individually or in groups) to come up with three questions about Sonnet 130 that they feel would foster class discussion. Questions need not be easily answered—in fact, the better questions are open-ended and may require historical research and actively investigating other poems of the time period. Questions should, therefore, be thought-provoking and even speculative. Some examples of questions are:
Keep in mind—the students should come up with questions and should be pushed to ask difficult questions that foster class discussion rather than facile questions than are quickly answered. Students would be unlikely to know, for example, exactly the kind of love poem Shakespeare is criticizing with his sonnet, but the questions that they bring to class from their homework reading should help lead to this kind of informed answer during class discussion.
After asking a few questions about the poem, students should state what they think the theme of the poem is. With their questions, the theme, and knowledge gained from the earlier exercises, students are well on their way to developing a thesis about the poem. For this exercise, ask students to use one of their questions and turn it into a thesis statement about Shakespeare's sonnet. The thesis does not have to be fully formulated, but can function more like a postulation. Students should then write down two references from the text of the poem that they would use to support their claim.
Using these basic strategies, students can enter class prepared to discuss the poem. One possible strategy involves collecting students' reading questions in a hat at the beginning of each class period and choosing two or three to start class discussion.
Ask students to use this strategy as they prepare a new poem (or more) that they are assigned to read for the next class period (the poem should be relevant to whatever time period your class is studying at the time). Students should turn in their preparation worksheets (feel free to reuse the PDF included for this lesson plan, which includes space for the poem paraphrase, student annotations, questions, and thesis) for this new poem. Also, ask students to bring in their best question about this new poem on a separate piece of paper. Collect the questions and select two or three randomly, using the student questions as a way to begin class discussion. The EDSITEment-reviewed Academy of American Poets has a wealth of poems available for classroom use.
Note: EDSITEment has several lesson plans on various poems and poets that will complement these activities well.
For more practice with sonnets, and experiments with how a poem sounds, lead students through the EDSITEment lesson plan Listening to Poetry: Sounds of the Sonnet.
The EDSITEment lesson plan Robert Browning's "My Last Duchess" complements this lesson plan well, and is suitable as a continuation of a student's exploration of poetry.
1 class periods