With that, Medusa's ugly head he drew, His owne reversed. Forthwith, Atlas grew Into a Mountaine equall to the man.
George Sandys's translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses
"If by Dull Rhymes" is one of the last sonnets Keats ever composed, and by critical consensus one of the most stylistically anomalous. Taken together, the three that followed in June, October, and November of 1819 constituted a return to traditional forms: "The House of Mourning" is roughly Petrarchan, and both "The Day Is Gone" and "I Cry Your Mercy, Pity, Love" are programmatically Shakespearean. If the form of these sonnets is conventional, their internal dynamics are anything but. The poems are syntactically garbled; they read like catalogues and lend the impression of being written rapidly and carelessly. The last sonnets strain at the edge of sense and indicate that by this time in his career Keats had exhausted the sonnet as a vehicle for expressing coherent poetic meaning. Indeed, they echo the free style of Keats's letters; one feels that the speaker of his earlier works has given way to the poet himself, who now speaks in propria persona.
"If by Dull Rhymes," one of Keats's most carefully wrought and least-inspected sonnets, appears to function in precisely the opposite way. What emerges inside this sonnet is strictly controlled and arranged. Havoc is wreaked instead on its rhyme scheme, where the poet teases us with echoes of the Petrarchan and Shakespearean forms only to confound our expectations by jumbling the end rhymes into a slyly subversive nonpattern:
If by dull rhymes our English must be chain'd, And, like Andromeda, the sonnet sweet Fetter'd, in spite of pained loveliness; Let us find out, if we must be constrain'd, Sandals more interwoven and complete To fit the naked foot of Poesy; Let us inspect the lyre, and weigh the stress Of every chord, and see what may be gain'd By ear industrious, and attention meet; Misers of sound and syllable, no less Than Midas of his coinage, let us be Jealous of dead leaves in the bay wreath crown; So, if we may not let the muse be free, She will be bound with garlands of her own.(1)
If we are anticipating Wordsworth's comfortable "pastime," the peaceful and reassuring space of "brief solace" that he delineates in his own manifesto on sonnets, "Nuns Fret Not" (1807; lines 10, 14), we will be sorely disappointed here. Where Wordsworth describes a happy capitulation to the sonnet form (even naturalizing its artificial structure by alluding to the bees in their "foxglove bells" [line 7]), Keats attempts to write his way out of the sonnet, as if it was indeed the prison Wordsworth so blithely denies it to be. Where Wordsworth retires to "the Sonnet's scanty plot of ground" (line 11) as if it were a cottage, or the peaceful confines of an English garden, Keats is far more ambivalent about the prospects of poetic structure. He appears to take up the sonnet only grudgingly ("If by dull rhymes our English must be chain'd" [italics mine]) and advocates experimentation and bard work. His rhyme scheme, abcabdcabcdede, is purposefully muddled, promising a Shakespearean beginning and a Petrarchan end, but deceiving us in both instances. The abc rhymes chase each other down the edge of the poem but never really amount to anything. The Shakespearean f and g rhymes are abandoned, and the concluding two lines confuse rather than sum up or enlighten. In fact, if we are looking for reassurance at line's end, we will seldom find it. Most of the sonnet's excitement happens inside and involves internal rhymes, half rhymes, echoings, alliteration, assonance, and consonance. The poem works by subtle similarities of sound, rather than by formal, "chiming" rhyme.(2)
What is interesting about the sonnet's critical history is the extent to which--guided by Keats's own gloss of the poem(3) in his letter to his brother George--readers have focused exclusively on the poem's technical …