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A Lesson in Close Reading: The Sonnet and CCSS RL.7.5

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Common Core Standard RL.7.5 expects students to analyze the effect of the sonnet form on a poem's meaning. Let's get started!

Common Core Standard RL.7.5 expects students to analyze the effect of the sonnet form on a poem’s meaning. Let’s get started!

I’ve been blogging about the Common Core for a couple years and many of my recent posts have focused on close reading: Searching for Meaning, Close Reading & MotifsClose Reading, An Outcome NOT a Reading Strategy; Conversations on Close Reading & the Common Core Standards to mention three. In each of these blogs, I try to provide practitioners with instructional tips using actual texts (often cited in Appendix B) as examples for instructional use. My hope is that teachers can take the examples I provide and craft a lesson that they, too, find successful.

Today is no different, though my focus is more highly sharpened. Today I focus on a specific grade level standard that challenges middle school ELA teachers…and rightfully so. This standard asks ELA teachers to achieve something that was typically a goal of high school literature teachers: instill in students the skill to analyze how a dramatic or literary form contributes to literary meaning. However, the seventh grade standard does not leave its language that general; rather, the standard’s parenthetical reference specifies that students analyze how the form of a soliloquy or sonnet contribute to literary meaning of a drama or poem respectively: CCSS.RL.7.5: Analyze how a drama’s or poem’s form or structure (e.g., soliloquy, sonnet) contributes to its meaning (2010, p. 36). And so today, I focus on the sonnet.

The sonnet, though typically defined as a 14-line poem written in iambic pentameter, is anything but typical. Throughout literary history, poets have played with the rules and stretched the sonnet form. But that is for later learning and analysis. One cannot understand manipulations of the form without first understanding the conventional form.  In my world, the easiest sonnet form to introduce was the English Sonnet, not only because Shakespeare provides us with lots of examples, but also because it follows a set of rigid rules which in many ways, makes it easier to analyze.

The form of the English sonnet is simply 3 quatrains (four verse lines) of alternating rhyme followed by a couplet: voila, fourteen lines. Often, each quatrain develops a singular image representative of the larger motif and the rhymed couplet speaks universally or thematically about that motif. That speaks for the first twelve lines of the English sonnet. The volta, or turn of thought, is often a feature of the thirteenth line which unites the comparisons of the three quatrains to the pointed theme or message of sonnet as a whole. But explaining the structure does little in teaching kids or teachers how to dive into and appreciate even LOVE the process of analyzing a particular sonnet.

So let’s dive into Shakespeare’s sonnets, a generous body of lyric poems that can provide sources for instruction, entertainment, and evaluation. Albeit, the problem is somewhat in the author. The name of Shakespeare can be intimidating…for teachers and students alike. As a performance task, an assessment measuring student proficiency in understanding the effect of the sonnets form on meaning, I suggest the text of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130: “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun..” But first, you have to model how to think about a sonnet as well as allow students time for facilitated practice and independent practice applying close reading to a Shakespearean sonnet.

Here I suggest you prepare students for the entertaining Sonnet 130 by modeling with a slightly more elevated sonnet that will allow you to model for students the use of grappling tools for the sonnet form and practice at using those tools. That being said, I’m going to share with you a means by which to get students looking at both the quatrain form and the development of images within the sonnet by modeling a walk-through of Sonnet 73, one of my personal favorite Shakespearean sonnets: “That time of year thou mayst in me behold…”

For the first read, I have students read the text to themselves, either silently or whisper reading. I ask them to mark any words that are unknown. My boldface suggest some words students may mark:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see'st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west;
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death's second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the deathbed whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was nourished by.
This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

After two or three minutes, sufficient time for everyone to have read the fourteen lines and underlined unknown words, I ask them to turn and talk in triads about the words that are unknown. My goal here is that through small group discussion (speaking & listening standard #1), students will be able to independently discern word meaning without depending on me supply a definition: reading standard #4. We are now only five minutes into the class and are already talking about poetry!

Next step: I read the poem aloud, fluently. Upon finishing, we talk about whether fluent reading of a poem helps listeners to better understand the language. This is the time to discuss any words that are not yet clear in their meaning AND words that though they seemed unknown before the readings have now become meaningful. In other words, how has context help define the words for readers.  This needs to be a discussion because the evolution of word meaning from nothingness to meaningful may come in varying degrees to varying readers. Language understood, we can now turn our attention to the sonnet’s form and the poetic language.

When considering how to purposefully annotate text, genre and its specific form can guide our thinking. The classic English sonnet is a lyric poem comprised of three quatrains culminating in thematically expressive couplet.  When reading poetry, especially lyric poetry (poetry designed to appeal to our emotions), one portal for analysis is through the language of description or imagery. Having clarified with students that imagery is the use of diction (word choice) that appeals to the five senses (sight, touch, taste, smell, hearing), we can read closely, first identifying the quatrains and then examining the language of imagery expressed within each quatrain in order to analyze its effect on the reader and its purpose in the poem. To identify the language of imagery, I suggest students mark it on the page using highlighters, colored pencils, or some other kind of code, drawing attention to the language they will later annotate with thoughts about effect and purpose.

If this is the first time I have asked students to mark imagery, I model my thinking through the first quatrain:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
  • The first verse line of the quatrain draws no clear image or picture in my mind, but it does provide a clue that the poem is a comparison: “That time of year” is seen in the “me” by the audience or reader of the poem.
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
  • In the second verse line of the quatrain, the speaker describes the time of year when “yellow leaves or non, or few do hang/Upon those boughs.” I mark these words in orange to note the image appeals to vision.
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
  • As I read on, I mark the words “which shake against the cold” in green to note they appeal to the sense of touch. Here I annotate the poem noting the trees are nearly bare of leaves and the time of year is fall. I note the tree limbs are shaking, a movement I can see, perhaps in the wind, “against the cold” and conclude the speaker is talking of late fall when there are few leaves left on the trees and winter is coming.

Bare ruin’ed choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.

  • The final verse line in the quatrain describes the absence of the birds and the quiet that is now in the trees that were once alive with green leaves and singing birds.

Next, I ask students to work in pairs and conduct a close reading of the second and third quatrains, marking the imagery within each set of the four lines: sight marked in orange; sound in blue; touch in green and taste in yellow. Beyond marking the imagery, I encourage them to share with one another a discussion about what concept each quatrain develops and what message the images attempt to convey. More than highlighting or marking, I ask them to annotate or jot notes in the margin as they think and share so they will each have a record of their discussion, a documentation of their own thinking.

In me thou seest the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death's second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consumed with that which it was nourish'd by.

There may be discussion; there may be disagreement.  What I may see, someone else may feel. For example, many students feel “the glowing of such fire” and though I could argue “glow” is a vision word, the point is not to narrow our thinking but to broaden it and understand why the writer chooses specific words in conveying a set of images for each quatrain. The students pretty quickly see the first quatrain is about fall, the second about the end of day, and the third about the dieing of a fire. And once I have shared with them the comparison of the first quatrain, they too identify the langauge that extends the comparison in each quatrain using the words, “In me thou see’st.”

Having examined the imagery of each quatrain, I encourage the students to classify the language of the images into a single motif. Our discussion proceeds logically through the poem; no need to jump around (especially in a sonnet when structure is vital to understanding, CC Literacy Standard 7.5. Fall, the coming of night, and the embers of a once bright fire all suggest a motif of time’s passage: seasons, days, life’s passion or fire.

The final step is to consider how these images, now understood as a motif of time’s passage, influence the meaning of the closing couplet:

This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

The couplet begins with a turn on “In me thou see’st” by using a less direct word, “perceivest,” reiterating the reader of the poem not only senses passage of time but also understands the effects of time’s passing. As a result, the speaker concludes that in such knowledge, we “love that well” that we must leave before too long. Although this poem may have been written about about romantic love, a close reading of the verse lines reminds us of life’s ephemeral nature, a theme some may think not accessible to for seventh graders immune to thoughts of mortality. However, I would like to believe the applications of this poem to nature of human spirit is not lost on youth.

And though there may be more to say about this poem, if we can get seventh graders this far, I think we’ve done our work.  Now, having helped them through this more difficult Shakespearean sonnet, why not bring a little levity to the classroom? Follow this close reading of Sonnet 73 with that of Sonnet 130: “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun…” a sonnet I’ve found shockingly amusing to my students who have thought Shakespeare a dramatist without humor.

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