Hush, hush! tread softly! - Language, tone and structure

Language and tone of Hush, hush! tread softly! 

The poem is a miniature drama. The opening line with its urgent repetitions of the word ‘hush’ and its five punctuation marks, suggesting the speaker’s tenseness, has all the immediacy of direct speech in a highly dramatic situation. The old man from whom they wish to escape is dangerously ‘jealous’, a word used three times in the opening stanza. Notice how the speaker’s direct address to Isabel, placed at the end of line 4 suggests his longing for her, as well as his anxiety for her well-being and his fear that any noise will betray them.

The poem is full of sound effects. For instance, the second stanza conveys the stillness of night through long, languid vowel sounds (‘night’, ‘sleepy’, ‘eye’, ‘closes’, ‘Lethean’, ‘charmed’, ‘drone’ etc.).

The drama of the situation is again vividly conveyed in the final stanza. We hear the concerned voice of the young man as he whispers instructions to the woman about gently lifting the latch and uses hyperbole to make the situation even more tense – as in the use of the present tense: ‘We are dead’ if the latch makes even a little noise. What the lovers are doing is part of the long battle between young and old. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet comes to mind.

The final line is full of the passion of young love as the young man describes kissing his beloved whilst aching with unquenchable desire.

Investigating language and tone of Hush, hush! tread softly!...

  • How does Keats use language to suggest urgency and danger?
  • What elements of humour can you find in the poem?
    • Why do you think Keats includes them?
    • Do they diminish the poem’s emotional impact – or do they enhance it?
  • How does Keats use language to enhance the drama of the situation?
  • How successful do you think Keats is at creating dialogue?

Structure and versification of Hush, hush! tread softly!

The poem is written in a version of ottava rima, eight line stanzas which rhyme abab ccdd. This verse form is Italian in origin and was introduced into England in the sixteenth century by the Elizabethan poet Sir Thomas Wyatt. It is the same verse form as Lord Byron used for his satirical poem Don Juan. In Keats’ poem the form is particularly successful at conveying the anxiety of the speaking voice.

The opening line is characterised both by the four urgent uses of the word ‘hush’ as well as the five caesurae indicated by the two commas and three exclamation marks.

The same is true of the first line of the third stanza. This time, extreme caution and tension are conveyed by the repetition of ‘ah’, as well as more dramatic pauses. Once again there are three exclamation marks and an anxious hiatus is indicated by the dash before ‘sweet’.

The verse form particularly lends itself to this sort of dramatic treatment. The rhythms of ottava rima also allow a number of other effects. The first stanza, for instance, contains the tripping lightness of:

Though your feet are more light than a faery’s feet,
Who dances on bubbles where brooklets meet

followed by the much more emphatic, slower moving monosyllables of ‘Hush, hush! soft tip-toe! hush, hush my dear!’

Investigating structure and versification of Hush, hush! tread softly!...

  • Do you agree that the form of the poem is successful at conveying the anxiety of the speaking voice?
  • How does Keats use pauses to create a sense of drama?
  • How and why does Keats vary the rhythms of the poem?
    • What contrasts can you find between swiftly moving lines and those that carry more weight and emphasis?
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