In introducing the Shakespearean sonnet, a teacher typically follows the natural inclination of using one by the Bard himself. Considering vocabulary, theme, and style, I have found that a Shakespearean (sometimes called English) sonnet by a modern poet is preferable.
This handout shows how I use a Shakespearean sonnet by Claude McKay, a major poet of the 1920s Harlem Renaissance, to introduce this genre to my students. The themes of “The Harlem Dancer” immediately seize their attention since it deals with both racial and gender bigotry and ends by asserting both black pride and the abiding integrity of African-American women.
After students work through sections on the structure and symbolism of McKay’s poem, they analyze its Shakespearean sonnet form which reinforces its content. They will mark its rhyme scheme (three quatrains, a closing couplet, the ababcdcdefefgg standard indication, etc.) and examine its use of both simile and metaphor, two poetic devices with which some often have problems.
The handout, which has blanks that your students can fill in, may be used as a homework assignment or an in-class activity. An answer key is provided on a separate page at the end of the handout.
If McKay’s sonnet is not in your textbook, you can easily make copies for your students from the internet.
Prepared by Professor William Tarvin, Ph.D., who has published many articles on literature in scholarly journals.