Lines to Fanny: Language, tone and structure

Language and tone of Lines to Fanny

Conflicting emotions

The tone is very direct and honest. Keats conceals nothing about his feelings for Fanny and yet at first his attitude is hard to pin down. The first impression is that he wants to be free of his infatuation with Fanny. His language is strong and apparently unambiguous: ‘What can I do to kill [his love] and be free?’
The fact that his mind is in turmoil is suggested by the urgency of the questions, of which the first stanza contains three. The urgency is further conveyed by the direct address to ‘love’ and the repetition of the imperative ‘say’.
The impression of a mind thinking aloud and questioning its thoughts and the language in which it expresses them can be seen by the repetition and the exclamatory nature of ‘divine to me - / Divine, I say!’
The second stanza continues the impression that Keats is arguing with himself. Once again there is an opening question, followed by another shorter one (‘Shall I gulp wine?’) followed by his own answer (‘No, that is vulgarism…’).

The hateful land

The tone shifts when Keats thinks of America, the land where his brother George had gone to live and in which he was finding life very challenging. Here the tone is again very direct – but also harsh and unequivocal. The negative words pile up: ‘hateful’, ‘Dungeoner’, ‘wicked’, ‘wrecked’, ‘monstrous’, ‘dull’, ‘sordid’, ‘scourging’, ‘afflict’, ‘fright’, ‘lank’, ‘starved’, ‘wrong’. If America inflicts suffering, it also has no compensating beauties and the repetition of ‘no’ in the line ‘There flowers have no scent, birds no sweet song’ makes the land seem very bleak indeed.

Love triumphant

For all that Keats fears that devotion to Fanny may impede his progress as a poet, his passionate love for her is never seriously in doubt. The tone of the final stanza is ecstatic. Fanny is ‘my lady bright’ whose breast is ‘dazzling’. Keats’ embracing arms may lock him around Fanny, but he rejoices in his inability to break away. The language becomes tactile. As well as the shared embrace, Fanny’s ‘warm breath’ ‘spread[s] a rapture in my very hair’.
The shifts in tone are perhaps best summed up in the oxymoronic ‘O, the sweetness of the pain’. Keats recognises the distracting nature of devotion to his beloved and yet he is intoxicated by their mutual love. Fanny inhabits his soul: to dream of her is ‘enough’ for him, the extent to which she meets his emotional needs suggested by the triple repetition of the word.

Investigating language and tone of Lines to Fanny

  • What linguistic techniques does Keats use to create such a direct and honest tone in the poem?
  • How does Keats convey the impression of a mind thinking aloud? 
    • What is the effect of the questions he asks?
  • Explore the lines about America. How does the language used here convey Keats’ dismay at what he saw as the country’s bleakness?
    • Do you think he could also be alluding to the bleak realm of mortal disease?
  • ‘The tone of the final stanza is ecstatic.’ What poetic means does Keats use to produce such a tone? 

Structure and versification of Lines to Fanny

The poem’s structure and versification seem constantly to be breaking away from any pattern imposed on them. 
Stanzas 1, 3 and the first half of 2 have lines of varying lengths as well as having a variety of rhyme schemes. Stanza 1, for instance, rhymes a b b a before settling into rhyming couplets. Stanza 3 is written in rhyming couplets throughout.
Lines 30-44 are the most recognisable as far as form is concerned, as they constitute a version of a sonnet, having fourteen lines of iambic pentameter but fitting neither the Shakespearean nor the Petrarchan rhyme schemes. Lines 30 and 33 have no rhymes whilst lines 31 and 32 are a rhyming couplet, as are the remaining ten lines of the stanza.
The overall freedom of form gives the poem a feeling of spontaneity, as if Keats is capturing his thoughts on the wing, as if the act of thinking is simultaneous with the act of writing.

Investigating structure and versification of Lines to Fanny

  • ‘The poem’s structure and versification seem constantly to be breaking away from any pattern imposed on them.’ Explore this idea and show how the form of this poem is an important part of its overall effect and meaning. 
  • Do you think the irregularity contributes to the poem’s feeling of spontaneity?
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