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Analysis of Poem 'Sonnet' by Billy Collins

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Billy Collins

Billy Collins

'Sonnet' by Billy Collins Analysis

'Sonnet' is a witty, tongue-in-cheek poem that sends up the traditional forms of the sonnet by pretending to be a sonnet itself.

Collins pokes fun at the disciplines involved in the creation of the typical romantic sonnet, be it Petrarchan or Shakespearean. But by so doing, he subtley introduces the reader to the sonnet form as a field of fun, so that by the time the poem is finished, both speaker and reader are left to enjoy the outcome.

It is this clever manipulation of content and sense that makes the poem work. It's an accessible poem, almost conversational, and sort of leads the reader up the garden path, suggesting that the formal sonnet is ridiculous, with its rhymes and iambs.

By using charm, irony and one or two poetical devices, Collins allows the modern reader access to a form that might otherwise be daunting and intimidating. In this respect, he is successful, as many younger readers will enjoy the joking and the light-hearted approach in 'Sonnet'. Purists, however, will want to look away now!


All we need is fourteen lines, well, thirteen now,

and after this next one just a dozen

to launch a little ship on love's storm-tossed seas,

then only ten more left like rows of beans.

How easily it goes unless you get Elizabethan

and insist the iambic bongos must be played

and rhymes positioned at the ends of lines,

one for every station of the cross.

But hang on here while we make the turn

into the final six where all will be resolved,

where longing and heartache will find an end,

where Laura will tell Petrarch to put down his pen,

take off those crazy medieval tights,

blow out the lights, and come at last to bed.

Overview of the Poem

'Sonnet' is 14 lines long, made up of an octave and a sestet just like in a traditional Petrarchan sonnet, but this is where the similarity ends. There is no set end rhyme scheme and the iambic pentameter beat occurs in only two lines, instead of all fourteen.

The regular iambics are in line four and fourteen:

then on / ly ten / more left / like rows / of beans.

blow out / the lights, / and come / at last / to bed.

So whilst giving a slight nod to tradition with these iambics the poet's main aim is to mock the disciplines of the formal sonnet. Collins does this by using a conversational tone throughout, casual language and an acute sense of irony.

Alliteration is used in line three - to launch a little ship on love's storm-tossed seas, - and anaphora, the repetition of words and phrases, occurs in lines 2,6 and 7, plus 11 and 12 (and after, and insist, and rhymes...where longing, where Laura...) and there is a smidgeon of internal rhyme happening with:

  • need/fourteen/thirteen/seas/beans/easily/Elizabetha/be/medieval

Don't forget the simile in line four - like rows of beans - and the metaphor in line thirteen - crazy medieval tights - the old poetic forms of yesteryear.

Line by Line Analysis

Lines 1 - 4

From the word go this poem sets itself up as a satirical exercise in offhand mimicry. The first line, once complete in sense and syllable, is pure irony. If not common sense. You need fourteen lines for a sonnet but by stating that in the first line, you now need to minus one, a needless calculation to reach thirteen.

And a similar fate awaits the second line, the speaker stretching credibility and syllabic content (to ten) when using the word dozen instead of twelve.

Note the enjambment, carrying the reader into the alliterative line three where they have to witness the launching of a ship, a metaphor for the sonnet, sailing the wide unpredictable seas of relationships.

But what is this in line four? The poet couldn't help himself, he reverts back to numbers again, informing the reader (as if they didn't already know) that there are now only ten lines needed for the construction of the sonnet.

Line four is pure iambics, thumbs up from the purists, and has a simile full of beans, all in a row, a bit boring? Predictable? Is this why the speaker keeps mentioning numbers, a hint that he dislikes the formal repetitive field of the sonnet, never differing from the traditional fourteen.

By writing this poem in such a free and casual manner the poet is also rebelling against this established norm. He's playing a game, implying that technical know-how is one thing, a free spirit another.

Lines 5 - 8

The end stop, period, at line four readies the reader for the mammoth line five, all fifteen syllables of it, bubbling along lazily. The message here is that constructing a sonnet is simple until you hit William Shakespeare. William Shakespeare, the sonnet-meister, the Wizard of Iambics, creator of 154 perfect English sonnets, all about Love more or less.

Line six continues the theme. In the Elizabethan age, your rhythms had to be spot on, technically faultless, or else. The poet coins the term 'iambic bongos', to suggest the regular da-DUM da-DUM (i-AMB) of a drum, a hand-played double-drum in fact often associated with Afro-Cuban music.

Line seven introduces the tradition of rhyming, common to all types of sonnet, be it Petrarchan (abbaabbacdecde), Shakespearean (ababcdcdefefgg) or Spenserian (ababbcbccdcdee).

Line eight reinforces this idea of set rhymes to all 14 lines by paralleling the 14 stations of the cross, a catholic tradition, where the 14 stations represent the last day Jesus Christ spent on Earth. The speaker infers that these rhymes constitute a devotion to tradition and form, almost verging on a belief that they need to be there for a sonnet to be complete and true.

Lines 9 - 14

The tide turns. Eight lines make up the octave, now the ninth line starts the sestet, the conclusion to the octave's initial statement. The speaker makes note of this difference by instructing the reader to hang on as the little ship changes course and heads into resolvement, for home.

Again the language is somewhat mocking in tone as longing and heartache are to end (just like in the good old-fashioned sonnets, in the best of traditions) and the woman, Laura, advises the man, Petrarch, to stop his damn writing, get out of those restrictive tights and join her under the sheets.

Petrarch was a 14th-century Italian poet and scholar who wrote many poems to Laura and gave rise to the Petrarchan sonnet.


100Essential Modern Poems, Ivan Dee, Joseph Parisi, 2005

© 2017 Andrew Spacey