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Analysis of Structuralism in Sonnets

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1723 words Published: 10th Aug 2021

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Structuralism is a movement that gives importance to the underlying structure of a literary text. It pays great importance to the structural similarities within various texts, whereas the individual work content are neglected. This school of thought sees the world in two fundamental levels. Firstly as visible or a surface phenomenon for example activities and objects of everyday life. Secondly, Structuralist see the world as invisible where there are structures underlying all the phenomena to make understanding of the world. For an example, weddings, choices of partners and the focus of bearing children are the main structure within a marriage and will not change even though the surface components (love or arranged marriages) differ. Furthermore in Structuralist theory, a text is free from context, history, readers interpretation and isolated from the author itself. Meaning of any text then solely comes from rules and underlying system which governs it. ” What we see on the surface are the traces of a deeper history;only by excavating beneath the surface will we discover the geological strata or the ground planes which provide true explanations of what we see above” ( Selden 69). Structuralist also see language as scientific where sign is made of both signifier and the signified. ” Words are not symbols which correspond to referents, but rather are signs which are made up of two parts : a mark either written or spoken, called the signifier and a concept called signified” (Selden 53).


When we examine the poems “To My Wife” by Phillip Larkin, “Sonnets are full of love…” by Christian Rossetti and “Not at the first sight…” by Sir Phillip Sidney using Structuralism, the individual meaning and authorial intention of each of these sonnets are not taken into account. For a structuralist critic, these are sonnets and sonnets have structures and system of their own which contributes meaning for the readers. Underlying structure is important because ” A structure is both like a skeleton and like a genetic code”(Rivkin and Ryan 53) which brings about stability and meaning to a literary work . Structuralist Roland Barthes for instance believes that it’s the”anterior language” (Ames 91) which aids the understanding of communication and literature and ” his concern is not with the message but with what system or structure makes message available”(Ames 91).So for an example we can expect that all sonnets have fourteen lines and gives rhythmic effect which pleases the reader. In addition sonnets are expected to have certain repeating rhyme scheme which we understand contributes to the beauty of the overall sonnets.”To My Wife” for instance has the rhyme scheme of a-b-a-b-c-d-c-d -e-f-g-h-f-e, “Not at the first sight…” has a-b-b-a-a-b-b-a-c-d-c-e-f-f and “Sonnets are full of love…” has a-b-b-a-b-a-b-a-c-d-a-a-e-d. ” Certain qualities common to the sonnet as a form should be noted. The more or less set rhyme patterns occurring regularly within the short space of fourteen lines afford a pleasant effect on the ear of the reader, and can Create truly musical effects. The rigidity of the form precludes a too great economy or too great prodigality of words. Emphasis is placed on exactness and perfection of expression” ( writing.upenn.edu). In my opinion, structure does bring familiarity and make readers have adequate knowledge, capacity and understanding in a literary work (literary competence). Framework of sonnets then becomes a guideline to help readers grasp the meanings within sonnets. Therefore it is evident that structures within sonnets help convey meaning to their readers.

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Nevertheless in my opinion there is a flaw of the structuralist concept which was stated above. One must not forget that there is not only one type of sonnets. The primary type of sonnets are Italian (Petrarchan) sonnet, Occitan sonnet, English (Shakespearean) sonnet and Spenserian sonnet. Yet there are many other types too, such as the modern, and twentieth century sonnets. Therefore taking the stance that by recognizing the structure alone for a sonnet might not be sufficient to comprehend the sonnet. Each type of sonnet differ slightly from the other. For example, Shakespearean sonnets have couplet in the end which represents a twist in the meaning of the sonnets and a-b-a-b, c-d-c-d, e-f-e-f, g-g would be the rhyme scheme. When compared to the twentieth century sonnets, there are no couplets or perfect rhyming scheme either. Since structures of all sonnets are not the same, therefore structures cannot solely give meaning to sonnets.

Next, all three sonnets from a structuralist point of view have love as their underlying theme. Therefore these sonnets then have similarities in their tones. Emotional words can be found throughout these sonnets which then contribute to the sentimental tone for love sonnets. Words such as love, bleed, suffer and wound are some of the examples that are found within all of the three sonnets, “To My Wife”, “Sonnets are full of love…” and “Not at the first sight…”. Therefore when a reader is given a love sonnet for example, he or she will know what to expect. However structuralist do not bother about the individual meaning of the sonnets. Structuralist theory also forgoes the author and historical background of each sonnets. All that matters to a Structuralist is that the similarities and the bottom line theme of love which governs these sonnets. ” Meaning is no longer determined by the individual but by the system which governs the individual” ( Selden 69). For example according to Vladimir Propp inHis Morphology of the Folk-Tale (1927), individual content of a folktale is not the main issue. He believes that there is a system that binds them which make folk tales similar in structure. “Propp is one of the first Structuralists in that he sought to delineate the innate order that existed in a disparate body of texts. Like a scientist searching for the one law that binds a number of different, physically distinct phenomena together and accounts for their similarities, Propp studied hundreds of Russian folk-tales or oral stories and came to the conclusion that they all followed the same pattern” (Rivkin and Ryan 72).So the recurring of a pattern in the case of these sonnets , love then becomes a useful tool in understanding the given sonnets. However, in my opinion, love maybe the main theme of all three sonnets, but by universalizing meaning of love can be problematic. This is because love in “To My Wife” is directed to a wife and “Sonnets are full of love…” is directed towards the poets mother. Whereas “Not at the first sight…” was written for a lover. For structuralist Saussure , “Words are signs in that they consist of two faces or sides -the signifier, which is the phonic component, and the signified, which is the ideational component. A word is both a sound and an idea or image of its referent”(Ryan and Rivkin 54). Therefore,

SIGN= Signifier


In the case of these sonnets however , the word love has a lot of meanings and values into it. By just having one meaning for the word love, the beauty and the message intended to be passed down through these sonnets will meet failure. Essence of these sonnets becomes mistakenly understood by the readers. For an example, in the sonnet “Sonnets are full of love…” which was meant or directed towards a mother then becomes an incestuous poem or may create a feeling of disapproval and uncomfortableness within the readers as well. Words can have a lot of signifier attached to it, and signifiers attached to multiple signifieds. Thus forms chains of signifieds and signifiers and there is no linear form to it as suggested by structuralists. ” In other words, there is no one-to-one link between signifier and signified but rather an “effect of signified” generated by the movement from one signifier to another”(Ryan and Rivkin 342).

In conclusion, I do agree to an extent that the structuralism theory does help in providing meanings to the sonnets, “To My Wife” by Phillip Larkin, “Sonnets are full of love…” by Christian Rossetti and “Not at the first sight…” by Sir Phillip Sidney. However I prefer the latter part of structuralism which is the post structuralism theory, because it takes into account of the social context. Text according to Post Structuralism cannot escape discourses which are bound to ideology and language. I believe that the context around us which is a major contributor to the meaning of sonnets which Structuralism fail to take account of. Furthermore the sonnets are differentiated or named according to the era they were written and differ in their way own ways too. For example Renaissance sonnets (Shakespearean and Italian sonnets) were written during 13th century till 16th century and were laden with words courtly tradition words compared modern sonnets which are not. ” Renaissance sonnet tradition a phenomenon as richly varied as marked by an obedience to conventions, Courtly Platonic and Christian love elements mingle and coalesced as the rhetoric of amor courtois was adapted to praise the sonneteer’s mistress as the earthly manifestation of heavenly virtue” (Tucker 353). Whereas twentieth century sonnets uses words and phrases to describe love and lover in a more down to earth and simplistic vocabulary such as “Matchless potential”, “my first love” and “blessed glow”.

Work Cited

Selden, Raman. A Reader’s Guide To Contemporary Literary Theory. Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky, 1985. 52-66. Print.

Rivkin, Julie, and Michael Ryan, eds. Literary Theory: An Anthology. Second ed. Australia: Blackwell Publishing, 2004. 72-89. Print.

Sonnet.english.upenn.edu, 18 July 2007. Web. 15 Feb. 2011. .

Scribner Ames, Sanford. “Structuralism, Language, and Literature.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 32.1 (1973): 89-94. Web. 16 Feb. 2011.

Tucker, Cynthia G. “Meredith’s Broken Laurel: “Modern Love” and the Renaissance Sonnet Tradition.” Victorian Poetry 10.4 (1972): 351-65. Web. 18 Feb. 2011. .


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