To Ailsa Rock: Language, tone and structure

Language and tone of To Ailsa Rock

Ailsa Craig photography available through Creative CommonsThe language veers between life and death. At first the rock seems human: it is addressed in the second person as ‘thou’. He personifies it with a ‘voice’, ‘shoulders’ and ‘broad forehead’ and as capable of ‘sleep’.

Something which seems to be so full of a brooding personality should be capable of answering the poet’s questions, but Keats is forced to conclude that the rock is ‘dead asleep’, an oxymoron (something cannot be both dead and asleep at the same time) as the poet’s reason and imagination struggle to make sense of the rock’s ‘mighty power’. Ailsa Rock is closely related to the ‘huge peak’ which seems to stride after the young Wordsworth in Book One of The Prelude.

The tone is one of awe occasioned by contemplation of the rock’s immense size and age. Words such as ‘pyramid’, ‘huge’, ‘mighty’, ‘whales’, ‘giant’ all contribute to the sense of an overwhelming presence and one which makes the human world seem insignificant by comparison.

The tone is also deeply mysterious. There is no point of contact between the speaker and the rock. The speaker addresses the rock directly in the opening line: ‘Hearken, thou mighty ocean pyramid’ – but, of course, gets no reply: ‘for thou art dead asleep’.

Investigating language and tone of To Ailsa Rock...

  • ‘The language veers between life and death’. Find examples of both types of language and examine the effect each produces.
  • Which words create a feeling of awe?
    • How do they do this?
  • What is the effect of the speaker’s direct address to the rock?
  • How would you describe the voice of the speaker in the poem?
    • Which words are crucial in conveying its emotional intensity?

Structure and versification of To Ailsa Rock

To Ailsa Rock is an example of a Petrarchan sonnet, recognizable by the rhyme-scheme abba abba in the octave and cd cd cd in the sestet, and regular use of iambic pentameter.

The sonnet is constructed on the paradox that something so obviously dead has the power to disturb by seeming to be alive. The first eight lines of the sonnet (octave) are the poet’s address to the rock, telling it to listen to his questions: when did the rock rise from the sea, changing its element from water to air? The final six lines (sestet) are the poet’s own answer: the rock cannot answer because it is dead.

Investigating structure and versification of To Ailsa Rock...

  • What is the relationship between the sonnet’s two sections, the octave and sestet?
  • What is the effect of the three exclamation marks and four question marks which appear at the ends of lines?
  • What is the effect of the enjambement between lines 5 and 6?
    • How does it help to convey the meaning of the lines?
  • Look at the lines in which there is a caesura. What effect does it create in each case?
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