To My Brothers: Language, tone and structure

Language and tone of To My Brothers

The language employed in the opening lines may be doing more than simply convey the sound of the flames. There are many sibilants, such as the three ‘s’ sounds of the first three words and the hard ‘c’ sounds of ‘coals’, ‘cracklings’, ‘creep’ and ‘keep’. 
The overall effect is one of ‘crepitation’, a word which since the sixteenth century has meant a soft crackling noise. The poet JH Prynne has pointed out that, early in the nineteenth century, the word also came to be used as a medical term for the sound of breathing with inflamed lungs. This makes the poem much more disturbing than first meets the eye. Tom died of tuberculosis aged 19, just two years after this poem was written - the ‘great voice’ was to bid Tom’s spirit fly very soon. Such moments of family joy and calm were indeed to be savoured.
The tone is very poignant, especially when the poem is read with the knowledge that both John and his brother Tom died young. 

Investigating language and tone in To My Brothers

  • How does the language of the opening lines convey the sound of the flames?
  • How do you respond to JH Prynne’s comment about the effect of ‘crepitation’? 
    • Do you find it helpful or far-fetched?
  • Many readers find this short poem very poignant. Do you agree? 
    • If so, how does Keats’ use of language achieve this tone?

Structure and versification in To My Brothers

This is an example of a Petrarchan sonnet, recognisable by the rhyme-scheme abba abba in the octave and cd cd cd in the sestet, and written in iambic pentameter. The uniform metre is varied by the opening spondee of ‘small, bus(y)’ flames and its echo in l. 2 ‘faint crack(lings)’, describing the fuel being burnt. The ‘falling’ dactyl ‘quietly’ of l. 10 is contrasted with the dominant spondees about the ‘great voice’ and ‘fair face’ of the Almighty.
The octet of the sonnet describes the scene: the flames playing amongst the coals and Keats and his brothers sitting quietly in front of them, Keats composing with Tom and George simply staring into the fire. The long vowel sounds of the end-rhymes, plus the long ‘I’ of ‘silence’, ‘Like’, ‘empire’, ‘while’, ‘I’, ‘aye’, ‘quietly’, ‘try’ and ‘fly’ convey the relaxed serenity of the scene. The sestet is a reflection on the calm joy of brotherly companionship and the desire for this to last until death.

Investigating structure and versification in To My Brothers

  • What relationship can you find between the octave of the sonnet and its sestet?
  • Do you think the poignancy of the poem has anything to do with the conciseness of the sonnet form? 
    • Would the effect be more or less intense if Keats had expanded the poem into a longer form?
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