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Taking your first steps into higher education
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3 Learning to engage with a poem

Here is a poem to illustrate how it is possible to engage with the poetic techniques of rhyme, repetition and imagery. Many of you may already know it. Read it through two or three times, with a degree of concentration and remember, in HE, sometimes you just have to jump and challenge yourself!

Sonnet 18

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

Thou art more lovely and more temperate.

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,

And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:

Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,

And often is his golden complexion dimmed;

And every fair from fair some time declines,

By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimmed

But thy eternal summer shall not fade

Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;

Nor shall Death brag thou wanderest in his shade,

When in eternal lines to time thou growest.

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see

So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

(William Shakespeare, 1608 [2002])

Activity 3 Shall I compare thee … ?

Timing: Allow approximately 10 minutes

Start by reading the poem out loud. Try it, and as you do so, think carefully about the punctuation and use it to help you with pauses/breaths as much as possible. Consider what your voice does at the question mark (line 1), and how to deal with the colon taking you from line 4 to 5. What is your voice doing in the final two lines? Now spend a couple of minutes concentrating on the written text – can you start to identify any poetic techniques such as rhyme, repetition, or use of language in which imaginative comparisons are made? Write some notes addressing these questions in this answer box (you don’t need to include these in your notebook, they are just for the purpose of this activity).

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Rhyming is particularly noticeable if the rhymes occur at the ends of consecutive lines – termed a rhyming couplet (note the final two lines of the sonnet). In many poetic forms, the poem is divided into verses (also called stanzas) with a set number of lines. Often, the poem features the same rhyming pattern in each stanza, and when analysing poetry in degree study it is customary to ascribe a different letter for each new rhyme in a stanza to describe the pattern, or rhyme scheme. The first four lines of this sonnet could be described in a pattern of abab (a = ‘day’ at the end of the opening line, which rhymes with ‘May’ at the end of the third line. b = ‘temperate’ at the end of the second line, which rhymes with ‘date’ at the end of the fourth line).

Sometimes, you will spot a rhyme within a line – this is referred to as internal rhyme, and can be an effective way to draw attention to an image, particularly if there is not an end rhyme. Strong or obvious rhymes can draw attention to an idea, especially if the rhyming words oppose one another in meaning. Less obvious or ‘half-rhymes’ may be used sparingly by poets to suggest uncertainty (‘Sometime/shines’ line 4).

Repetition in poetry can be a powerful technique, because the repeating of words or sounds can draw attention to a specific section, and thus impact on the reader’s response and the meaning we ascribe to it. In this sonnet, the repetition of ‘fair’ within line 7, and again in line 10, emphasises the poet’s feelings about his beautiful lover. Analysing the deliberate repetitions can be part of interpreting the intended meaning.

Being alert to the deliberate use of playful/surprising language is an important element of engaging with poetry in HE. Sometimes this can be through imagery, by which the writer uses language to convey a visual picture or represent a sensory experience. It is a key element in poetry, as it can communicate in a vivid and innovative way, generating a precise picture rather than a vague suggestion. Imagery can be literal: describing through the senses; or figurative – calling to the reader’s mind real things representing an abstract idea. Poets use metaphors (associating two unalike things, one representing the other). In this poem, Shakespeare plays on the idea that the sun is ‘the eye of heaven’, bringing a ‘golden complexion’. The sun represents the perfect summer – but our emotional response is undermined because, unlike his lover, the sun can be excessively hot, and the impact of the sun fades with autumn. His lover is more lovely even than that perfect summer’s day. Poets also use similes (comparing two essentially unalike things using a comparative: like or as) to intensify significance and appeal to the readers’ senses or emotions.

Shortly, I will introduce a powerful tool through which to approach a poem (and indeed other works of art) – but first, a challenge.

Activity 4 A challenge

Timing: Allow approximately 5 minutes

Listen to an actor reading the same sonnet. (It is David Tennant and I would encourage you to listen to this more than once!)

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Reflect on the extent to which your initial personal response changed the more you thought about how the poem worked. If it helps, it might be worth thinking about some specific uses of language which might be less familiar to us in the 21st century:

Line 2 ‘temperate’ = moderate/mild

Line 4 ‘date’ = period of a lease

Line 10 ‘that fair thou owest’ = the beauty that you possess (own)

Line 12 ‘lines’ = the lines of this poem. ‘Growest’ = become part of.

Activity 5 Reflecting on a poem

Timing: Allow approximately 20 minutes

Now, use your notebook to address the following prompts:

  1. What is the poem about – how would you sum up what it is trying to say?
  2. Does the rhyme scheme remain the same throughout? Write out the pattern (starting abab).
  3. Can you find examples of the repetition of words or sounds?
  4. What effect does the poem have on you?


The first response is likely to be to reflect on what the poem is about. Equally and inevitably your interpretation will differ from others’. This is a feature of learning in the arts, where, unlike learning in the sciences, there is no single ‘right way’ to read a poem – it is a matter of justifying your personal response, alongside a ‘critical’ interpretation through careful reading.

Shakespeare’s poem uses words in a more patterned way than prose, patterns which arise from rhyme, repetition and imagery. As readers, we are able to share in the experience described (which might be an event, or the poet’s inner thoughts, or feelings). I think poets make words work harder – by suggesting, in a concise manner, different layers of meaning. And crucially, as we will see shortly, what is said cannot be separated from the way it is said – so attention needs to be paid to the different ways words are used to create meaning. It is important to be conscious that a poet draws on the full potential of words and how they are placed in relation to one another, known technically as in juxtaposition. Poetic language can speak or refer back to itself, and learners need to become alert to the way that highly concentrated language amplifies and intensifies the effect of the poem.

This poem, is a lyric poem (a short poem expressing a poet’s feelings with particular intensity), written in the sonnet form. Sonnets almost always comprise of 14 lines, each line usually consisting of ten syllables (identifiable parts of pronunciation having a single vowel sound, for example ‘golden’ has two, ‘complexion’ has three) in a regular pattern of paired syllables termed iambic pentameters. The sonnet form originated in Italy in the 14th century, utilising a common rhyme scheme which we know as the Petrarchan (abbaabba cdcdcd). Shakespeare adapted the form to his own preferred structure, one closer to speech patterns in English: three quatrains (groupings of four lines within the single stanza) and a rhyming couplet (this is described as a rhyme scheme of abab bcbc cdcd ee, the different letters signify each new rhyme ending in the poem).

As you embark on your studies in HE, you will be challenged by many new words and technical terms (in the comment box above, I have already mentioned quatrains, couplets, lyric, iambic pentameter). Even if unfamiliar to you, these words can extend understanding and aid communication with others. You can utilise a good dictionary, some are available online [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] (press ctrl and click on link to open in a new window), to build up a glossary of key terms in your journal.

Next I introduce an analytical framework which can be used across the arts. It enables learners to move from a position of personal response (I really like/don’t like that … ) to a more structured critical engagement with the text. In so doing it allows well-argued conclusions to be reached when interpreting particular works of art. It is called the study diamond. If you go on to further study you will likely encounter it again, certainly if you take the Open University’s Y031 Arts and languages Access module you will meet it again there.