Behold that tree in autumn’s dim decay,
Stripped by the frequent chill and eddying wind;
Where yet some yellow lonely leaves we find
Lingering and trembling on the naked spray,
Twenty, perchance, for millions whirled away!
Emblem–alas too just!–of human kind:
Vain man expects longevity, designed
For few indeed; and their protracted day
–What is it worth that wisdom does not scorn?
The blasts of sickness, care, and grief appal,
That laid the friends in dust, whose natal morn
Rose near their own!–and solemn is the call;
Yet, like those weak, deserted leaves forlorn,
Shivering they cling to life and fear to fall.
Anna Seward had the good fortune to have a “room of one’s own” in every fashion that Virginia Wolf articulated brilliantly 150 years later. Anna was born into a liberal, relatively wealthy educated family and remained resolutely single her entire life. Her father Thomas Seward, was a clergyman who wrote the poem “The Female Right To Literature” in which he penned:
Come then, Athenia, freely let us scan
The coward insults of that tyrant, man.
Self-prais’d, and grasping at despotick pow’r,
He looks on slav’ry as the female dow’r;
Go Thomas! She inherited an income of 400 pounds a year after her father’s death and had the good sense to spend it on herself. She traveled in eclectic circles with Erasmus Darwin, the grandfather of Charles Darwin, and Sir Walter Scott both close friends. Sir Walter Scott edited the complete anthology of her poetry in three volumes and oversaw it’s publishing following her death. Seward’s sonnets mix religious themes with the natural world or observations of everyday life. I have a feeling her Father and Sir Walter Scott would both be quite pleased that her poetry is still being read and enjoyed 200 years after her death.
Lucy Ashton’s Song
By Sir Walter Scott
Look not thou on beauty’s charming;
Sit thou still when kings are arming;
Taste not when the wine-cup glistens;
Speak not when the people listens;
Stop thine ear against the singer;
From the red gold keep thy finger;
Vacant heart and hand and eye,
Easy live and quiet die.
I love to rise ere gleams the tardy light,
Winter’s pale dawn; and as warm fires illume,
And cheerful tapers shine around the room,
Through misty windows bend the musing sight
Where, round the dusky lawn, the mansions white,
With shutters closed, peer faintly through the gloom,
That slow recedes; while yon gray spires assume,
Rising from their dark pile, an added height
By indistinctness given. Then to decree
The grateful thoughts to God, ere they unfold
To friendship or the Muse, or seek with glee
Wisdom’s rich page. Oh, hours more worth than gold
By whose blest use we lengthen life, and, free
From drear decays of age, outlive the old.
William Walond (1719 – 1768) Voluntary V in G Major Op. 1 (1752)
There is an advantage to being an amateur and not having a degree in English; literature remains a source of constant surprise. I don’t have the baggage of thinking I know very much and since my interest in sonnets is pure entertainment, I have no ponderous academic credentials weighing me down in my free time. The internet makes it possible for me to uncover sonnets from throughout history with only a dogged curiosity required.
I discovered Anna Seward long before I wrote Gallant Ghosts, Undaunted. In the drafts of my sonnet I was careful to avoid any connection to December Morning. As time went on I kept coming back to both poems. Originally I concluded mine with a different couplet at the end. It was forced and wasn’t what I wanted to say. I felt like I was creating an unnecessary barrier. Literature is filled with conscious and unconscious connections to writers work that have come before. The idea of originality can be debated endlessly with someone always able to point to the step in history upon which the avant-garde have risen.
I finally relented and consciously created a connection between the sonnets with the ending and the word illumine. An old garret in England the perfect fictional setting for thinking back upon the end of a love affair within a modern sonnet.
Gallant Ghosts, Undaunted
by T. A. Fry
I think of you, writing late in the nightfall Revering your muse, as no other may place Claims to a heart. Forever a rightful Palace of dreams, once my saving grace. What’s mine is yours, our auspices blessed By memories of loving which illumine my soul. On Darkest Night(s) as you slowly undress, recall my touch, though its loss be a toll.
Come gallant ghosts, lay down by my side Undaunted: whisper poems long written for me. Their haunting passion shall always reside Deep in bruised hearts, a grand larceny. Timeless this beauty, in mind’s eye I hold, The feel of your lips and outlive the old.
I have ghosts on my mind this week, with Halloween, The Day of the Dead and All Saints Day all swirling beneath the surface. A good yarn, which is all any poem should aspire, at least the ones that keep my attention, require some truth, a truth worth tending. The question is always how much truth comes from a writer’s imagination and how much from their experience? Truth in literature may be fabricated entirely. An empathetic phrase by which we catch a collective breath of understanding.
I write primarily in first person. I realize that this may create confusion for anyone who knows me personally and chooses to view the narrative as literal. What is real and what is not real? Isn’t that the cloak behind which all writers hide and invent a reality worthy of putting to paper.
We don’t have Shakespeare’s blog or twitter feed to gain further insights into his poetry. He left the interpretation of his writing to the reader. But make no mistake, Love plays a role in all this business. A most generous Love, a Love that both clasps hearts in irons and springs the lock of freedom.
Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29, in my view, is a mirror in which to view myself. Yes, it is hubris to put one of my sonnets alongside Shakespeare’s and pretend they belong in the same space. But then isn’t it hubris that drives any of us to write in the first place? My sonnet, Gallant Ghosts, Undaunted, was written during the tail spin of a relationship. It is a fictional Polaroid of a future yet to be experienced, but hoped for with an optimism of forgiveness. I was delusional. Hell hath no fury…..
It is a connection to a beginning and an homage to the role that poetry played throughout our relationship. I am fully aware that the last few words are identical to a sonnet from the 1700s. I will share the story behind that fact in the next blog.
By William Shakespeare
When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
(Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth) sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
Gallant Ghosts, Undaunted
by T. A. Fry
I think of you, writing late in the nightfall Revering your muse, as no other may place Claims to a heart, forever a rightful Palace of dreams, once my saving grace. What’s mine is yours, our auspices blessed By memories of loving which illumine my soul. On Darkest Night(s) as you slowly undress, Recall my touch, though its loss be a toll.
Come gallant ghosts, lay down by my side Undaunted: whisper poems long written for me. Their haunting passion shall always reside Deep in bruised hearts, a grand larceny. Timeless this beauty, in mind’s eye I hold, The feel of your lips and outlive the old.
When you shall see me in the toils of Time,
My lauded beauties carried off from me,
My eyes no longer stars as in their prime,
My name forgot of Maiden Fair and Free;
When, in your being, heart concedes to mind,
And judgment, though you scarce its process know,
Recalls the excellencies I once enshrined,
And you are irked that they have withered so;
Remembering mine the loss is, not the blame,
That Sportsman Time but rears his brood to kill,
Knowing me in my soul the very same
One who would die to spare you touch of ill!
Will you not grant to old affection’s claim
The hand of friendship down Life’s sunless hill?
Come to us now, red maggots of passion.
Consume what we were, ’till there’s nothing left.
Devour our malaise with endless compassion.
Leave only lust, with your cleansing so deft.
Strip us bare, bring life to these ol’ bag-a-bones.
Stir carnal thoughts in our skeletal remains.
We’ll rattle and clack to a chorus of moans,
A fervor of desire in worm eaten brains.
Arise and fight, powerful God Eros.
Awake in fury and vanquish your foes.
Scorch the indifferent and the vapid morose.
Bathe them in fire from their head to their toes.
Bring back brave passion we’ll see with new eyes.
Our sockets empty, but for pupae of flies.
I am not one to interpret or offer criticism of my own poetry. The act of sharing my writing sufficiently in flagrante delicto. I wrote this sonnet early in my foray into writing sonnets several years ago, in a single early morning, the day before Halloween.
I have attached an mp3 of Camille Saint-Saëns – Danse Macabre below. Give it a listen. What comes to mind in relation to the music and Wratislaw’s Sonnet Macabre? Start a conversation, share your thoughts.
The Danse Macabre by Saint-Saëns.
Performed by Malmo Symphony Orchestra. Conducted by Marc Soustrot.
by Theodore Wratislaw (1871 – 1933)
I love you for the grief that lurks within
Your languid spirit, and because you wear
Corruption with a vague and childish air,
And with your beauty know the depths of sin;
Because shame cuts and holds you like a gin,
And virtue dies in you slain by despair,
Since evil has you tangled in its snare
And triumphs on the soul good cannot win.
I love you since you know remorse and tears,
And in your troubled loveliness appears
The spot of ancient crimes that writhe and hiss:
I love you for your hands that calm and bless,
The perfume of your sad and slow caress,
The avid poison of your subtle kiss.
Starry mystery of the eternal skies!
To-night I walk the verges of the grave:
The shallow things that charm life and enslave
Fall off: the gaunt world stands without disguise.
Hope, starry mystery, to the world-sick eyes:
Unfold, thou aching void, to thoughts that crave
The secret of thy secret, though I rave.
Better to rave than live in sick surmise.
The moon, and all the stars about the pole.
Swim round me, and I travel in dull pain,
A dumb Want in the solitude of Time.
What means it all ? Whence comes, and to what goal?
Whence, what am I whose life seems all in vain?
— Earth, sea, and sky stand silent and sublime.
Happy Halloween. This trick or treat connects sonnets of Evelyn Douglas (John Barlas), the theater of Phantasmagoria and the Christian text, The Art of Dying. Where do I see a common thread? The answer is in the imagery of the macabre, which today we associate with Halloween, but was common in religion, architecture, art and literature from the middle ages through the early 1900’s.
Deaths constant presence, a source of mystery, solace and sorrow, for the whole of human history has diminished in our sanitized modern experience. Health care having changed, for most of us, our first hand knowledge of death, relegating it to an infrequent stranger, an antiseptic ghost that exists outside of our homes and daily lives. Death in the middle ages and Victorian England was an ever-present master, a very real specter that haunted from the miracle of birth to all facets of life. The language and experience of death, a central inspiration of classical poetry, is spoken more seldom today. We have turned the macabre into a mere light-hearted entertainment of October, not a reflection of our human experience, reconciling Life with the inevitability of Death, light with dark.
Ars Morendi, The Art of Dying, is a Christian text. Published first in Germany in the 1400’s and then revised and republished in the 1500’s. It was written during the context of the Black Death, the depopulation of parts of Europe and the following social unrest that occurred. Illustrated with graphic woodcuts like the one above, it provides instruction in how to approach death with propriety. It was an unexpected response by the Roman Catholic Church, whose ranks were hard hit by plague. It gave to laymen, the precepts of preparing for a good death. The idea of the Art of Death, became popular among both Protestants and Catholics, lessening fear and providing relief to both the living and the dying.
The imagery of the Art of Dying may appear graphic to current religious sensibilities; with demons alongside angels, both waiting for the soul to emerge from the dying man’s mouth, but was common in churches and religious texts of its era. It should be no surprise then that the macabre made the jump from religious to theatrical. Phantasmagoria, a common theatrical experience across Europe in the 1800s, combined elements of what we would consider a séance with good old-fashioned scare tactics with projected imagery of skeletons, shadowy apparitions, sound effects and theatrical tricks. Think of phantasmagoria as the Friday The Thirteenth horror movies of their day.
John Barlas, an under appreciated sonneteer, a friend of Oscar Wilde, an anarchist and ardent socialist, published remarkable poems and sonnets under the name Evelyn Douglas. Barlas also wrote for the phantasmagoria in London. His connection to sonnets and phantasmagoria may seem at odds, but fits together seamlessly with his poetic vision. Barlas’ use of color, flames, lust and passion in his writing, weave imagery of romantic beauty with the macabre as part of the natural order. A perspective that would feel perfectly at home, if we were able to walk the landscape of the grime infested alleys of London in the late 1900’s.
Barlas’ book, Phantasmagoria: Love Sonnets, delves deeply into the themes of love, passion, life and death. Here are two of his sonnets for your Halloween pleasure. For a complete collection check out the website Sonnet Central.
As a flower springs up out of dark and cold,
Drawn by the gracious beauty of the light,
A bud that knows not all its own delight,
Till opening to one blaze of red and gold
Its deep-involvèd splendours, fold by fold,
It yields the perfume of its being one night,
Touches with conscious joy its nature’s height,
Then withers back into the crumbling mould:
So love from the human spirit’s lonely lair,
Nourished in moving darkness and damp gloom;
And peeps forth shyly to the golden air,
–A mere bud, but a blossom in its womb,
That knows itself a moment of brief bloom,
Then withers back into the soul’s despair.
Wave after wave arises from the deep,
And slips back into silence and the grave:
It matters not whether it fret and rave
And foam at lip with fury, or still keep
A quiet motion: both sink into sleep,
The same cold sleep, and the great sea, that gave,
Receives again their life, wave after wave.
Shall we who think of it give thanks or weep?
I know not; only would the law not lay
With love as life! for as our lives emerge
From the vague sea to sing their own brief dirge;
So out of each of these, and vain as they,
Love after love arises like a surge,
And sighs, and passes in the sigh away.
Poems Lyrical and Dramatic, by Evelyn Douglas. 1894.
Phantasmagoria: Love Sonnets, by Evelyn Douglas, 1887.
To even the most superficial of readers of sonnets there emerges a clanging gong of subject matter that shows up over and over again; Love – Love in all its forms. And I mean Love with a capital L. This isn’t some sleazy video rental of poetry through the ages. We are talking the timeless questions that come to every person during their lifetime:
What is Love?
Is Love eternal?
Is God Love?
Is Love God?
Is sex Love? or better stated,
Why is only some sex Love? (No judgement as to types of sexual acts intended, I am referring to emotional connections or lack there of during the sexual act. We all have felt the difference, even with those we love, and the difference is everything.)
Is true Love unconditional?
Am I capable of unconditional Love?
Is there any such thing as true Love or is there just Love?
I find it fascinating that the sonnet has evolved into the structure by which thousands of writers have taken up the challenge to put to paper their personal philosophy around their own place in relation to their God, or to their fellow-humans and or to woo the epitome of their flesh and blood desire, whether real or imagined. Why create so formal a structure and add unnecessary obstacles to the writing process in what is already a difficult subject matter? Or is that the magic of sonnets that beguile writers and readers alike? In a sonnet, both share the writer’s struggles, the varying skill with which a sonnet’s structure is lyrically mastered becomes a lasting banner of the battle we all face internally, in raising our own sword to conquer what we believe in our hearts. In a sonnet the writer and reader touch swords before the clash begins to measure the distance between each other.
I don’t know how many sonnets a writer must write to be considered a sonneteer? How many more they must write and publish to be of sufficient stature to be mentioned as a minor footnote alongside the Pantheon of Dante, Shakespeare, Sidney or Petrarch? I bet someone at Harvard or Oxford has done a mathematical analysis on the subject and I am guessing it must be a sufficient volume of sonnets that you remind yourself about roman numerals well over a hundered. If that’s the case at this point I would consider myself more a mousekeeter.
I smile when I write the word sonneteer. It evokes an image of a swashbuckling writer, dueling with their nemisis, by sitting down with his or her sheet of velum, quill pen and candle to ink fourteen lines of bravery to win the day. The sonneteer’s act of writing every bit as daring as the swordsman, upheld as a romantic figure, chivalrous in defending the honor of those he has sworn protection. I find it ironic that it is the great sonneteers who have touched the honor of millions over time and not the hired muscle.
I am of the mindset that it is not the quantity but quality that defines the legacy of any writer. Why do we look down on one hit wonders, particularly if their one hit sealed the deal on romance? We should respect their efficiency. Maybe the best sonneteers of all time have been lost from history as they kept their poetic legacy away from prying eyes, never sharing their sonnet with a reading public that may have been all too happy to reject it for publication. There is a power in privacy. It protects the sanctity of the unpublished poem or sonnet’s ability to cement together two beating hearts. The sonnet squirreled away as a carefully folded sheet of paper at the bottom of a jewelry box or corner of a dresser, faded and yellow, seemingly forgotten only because it was memorized by the recipient decades before. I am of the opinion that it only takes one great sonnet which wins the love of your life, your Laura, Beatrice or Stella, to be a sonneteer.
I name dropped e.e. cummings in a recent blog as a more accessible poet with devious intent. I certainly did not mean to associate the word accessible in readers minds with the idea that I was damning with faint praise. I meant it as a compliment. I think Cummings is brilliant. I like his poetry because it is entertaining, challenging, and crafted from writing that is both untraditional but easily understood. Cummings is known for his highly stylized poetry that emphasizes his unique approach to language and representation on the page. I am in awe of Cumming’s skill in combining the playfulness of words into inspiring ideas. To those readers that know him by only his unique poetry style, it might surprise you that nearly one-quarter of all the poems collected in his complete anthology in 1962 are sonnets (over 200). It might further surprise you that he wrote sonnets over the course of his entire career, including at least one in every volume of poetry he published.
At first glance his sonnets may not seem to follow the rules of sonneteering and some critics of his day rolled their eyes at the irregularities, but no one ignored the genius of his writing.
Here are two of my favorites. “I carry your heart with me” is widely known, but how many readers, read it without any awareness that it is a sonnet? As you read it, what added complexity does the poem have based on its structure that ties it to a history and legacy far beyond Cummings?
Share your thoughts and ideas. Comments are welcomed!
[i carry your heart with me(i carry it in]
by e.e. cummings
i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)
. i fear
no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you
here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart
i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)
how many moments must (amazing each
by e.e. cummings
how many moments must( amazing each
how many centuries )these more than eyes
restroll and stroll some never deepening beach
locked in foreverish time’s tide at poise
love alone understands: only for whom
i’ll keep my tryst until that tide shall turn;
and from all selfsubtracting hugely doom
treasures of reeking innocence are born.
Then, with not credible the anywhere
eclipsing of a spirit’s ignorance
by every wisdom knowledge fears to dare,
how the( myself ‘s own self who’s)child will dance!
and when he’s plucked such mysteries as men
do not conceive-let ocean grow again.
Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
October in Minneapolis is a sacred month. It has the last warm days of the season mixed with a visual feast of greens, yellows, orange and reds beneath a blue harvest sky. Minnesotans know what’s coming next; cold weather, snow, icy sidewalks, short foggy grey overcast days and leafless trees. Please, don’t ruin our enjoyment of being sozzled by beauty for a couple of weeks by reminding us of our winter hangover that is yet to come. Nature throws a hell of party at summer’s closing time in Minneapolis, with a last round of a Kaleidoscope of colors for our bacchanalian fall over indulgence.
October is sacred for another reason for me personally. It is the month of my mother’s birth and the one year anniversary of her ashes being interred at Lakewood Cemetery, next to her parents and grandmother.
The only reason I am a poet and writing this blog is because of my mother. Poetry was and is a visceral connection to her. She and I shared a love of poetry going back to my childhood but it intensified as time went on. My mother returned to Minnesota for the last four years of her life, after 28 years of living in other parts of the world, always pronouncing steadfastly during short visits, that she would never return to live here again. That she relented on that declaration was a gift beyond measure. Her return to Minneapolis, coming full circle back to the neighborhood where she grew up and first taught grade school after graduating from the University of Minnesota, allowed me and my sister to spend time with her on a weekly basis, as she lived less than two miles away from each of us in those remaining years.
Soon after she returned, my mother and I created a tradition called poetry night. It started out informally but grew to have regular rules. We each would pick out 5 or 6 poems to read aloud to each other and eat a meal together once every 3 or 4 months. The rule was you had to read each poem twice (her rule, in part because of her struggles with hearing aids, but also so that you can listen carefully and internalize more of the poem the second time through). We would take turns, alternating, reading each poem we had selected one at a time, then asking each other questions, laughing, telling stories, talking about the author and why we chose each poem, before moving on to the next. We were planning another poetry night shortly before she died. It was a lovely way to spend 3 hours in her presence. Here is a poem I had set aside to read to her on our next poetry night.
Love is a Place
e. e. cummings
love is a place
& through this place of
(with brightness of peace)
yes is a world
& in this world of
(skillfully curled) all worlds
My mother was a good poet and had great taste in poetry. She liked serious poetry, but also appreciated silly rhymes, and was a masterful limerick writer. She often wrote us a poem for our birthdays, an affirmation of her love. In a future blog post I will share more of her poetry. Here is a poem my mother wrote in August of 2014 following heavy June rains that caused minor flooding on Lake of Isles, which is only a couple of blocks from where she lived. It illustrates her powers of observation, wisdom and sense of humor.
In the middle of the summer downpour
The lake rose up out of its bed,
Ambled across the beach,
Crept over the grassy verge,
And settled on the walking path.
Little fish followed;
Swimming along, their shadows gliding beneath them,
On the path that said ….’No Bikes’.
My mother lived and lives in a yes world, and wished for all of her family and friends to live a loving life with brightness of peace. She allowed each of us to swim our own paths, even in high water.
It is a daunting thing to try and write something in honor of your mother. Words never measure up. I wrote the following poem as part of my grief process. It began as a sonnet, but it morphed a little to become something sonnet-light. The day of her internment was overcast, grey and slightly rainy.
Happy Birthday Mom.
My True Verse
T. A. Fry
Laid bare before life’s mighty eyes,
Farewell beloved I leave behind.
Look past the rain, the grey torn sky.
And if you weep this day, then go resigned.
Keep no somber vigil by silent ash.
As my spirit lives with those I loved.
For I lay beyond mere earthen cache,
My love of you forever proved.
So when in need of kindly word,
Amid drag and drone of a rambling curse.
Listen for my voice in brook or bird.
And hear the truest of my true verse.
In fact, it seems to be the opinion of most of the later poets of our language that if the game is to be played at all, it is best to follow the rules without cavil and without claiming any license to depart from them.
A Study on Versification (1911) by Brander Matthews
It is a conundrum, this holy aura that surrounds sonnets. The nearly religious vow that a poet is expected to uphold in pursuit of writing them, by fervently obeying a sonnet’s ancient rhyming rules and metrical structure. I agree with Matthews; “There is no obligation of any poet to make use of the sonnet framework; and if he would express himself without restraint he has at his command the large liberty of all the other lyrical forms. It is in the rigidity of its skeleton that the charm of the sonnet is firmly rooted. It tends to impose a helpful condensation, thus counteracting the temptation to diffuseness.”
Rules aren’t fun when it comes to creative writing. I think it’s why many readers of poetry wrinkle their noses at sonnets like an ancient lyricist has let out a fart in the library and it’s just wafted their way. We might pin the blame for the modern masses eschewing sonnets on Shakespeare, whose sonnets, even his most ardent fans admit, can be at times practically unreadable in the leaden opacity of some of his verse. We are told by learned professors of literature we are supposed to like Shakespeare because he is brilliant. No wonder many modern readers have thrown off their literary chains, shirking their responsibilities of reading Milton, Chaucer, Tennyson, Wordsworth and Dunne to obtain a well rounded appreciation of poetry, instead favoring more accessible poets like e. e. cummings, who followed no rules at all. However, boldly avowing a broad dislike of dusty sonnets would require taking the time to actually read a fair bit of Shakespeare or Milton to have a real opinion on the matter and most of us never cracked those books to begin with in high school, college or beyond.
Sonnets run the risk of offending the sensibility of modern readers of poetry, those readers that are attracted to free verse precisely because poetry doesn’t have to follow the rules of grammar and sentence construction we were taught in school. A modern poet can claim poetic license at anytime and lay down their “get out of grammar jail” free card whenever he or she chooses.
So dear readers, let’s climb into this poet’s confessional and get something off our collective chests early on in this blog. Sonneteers sometimes stretch the rules just a bit in favor of a winning line or for the sake of clarity and story. Let’s not pretend that sonnets are bound by an ironclad suit of armor of 14 lines of 10 syllables each and every time. Nor are they chained unmercifully to a rhyming scheme or even rhyming at all. Many great sonnets stray slightly from this construction, with the occasional couplet getting its freak on by being 9 syllables followed by 10 or 11 syllables, or the addition of a bonus couplet and winding up with 16 lines, or snipping a couplet off and wrapping things up after only 12 lines. Believe it or not, there are even 18 line sonnets, who aren’t kicked out of the family tree of sonnets for having an extra few chromosomes as it were. Rudyard Kipling, a contemporary of Brander Matthew, wrote him a letter following the publication of A Study of Versification and quipped; “I’d like to war over the sonnet idea with you. A sonnet is much more lawless than you’d have it.”
Things happen in poetry, even classical poetry. Its true, that rules are rules with sonnets, and a serious reader of sonnets should probably know the difference between an English sonnet, an Italian sonnet or a Petrarchan sonnet, but not every line must rhyme precisely in its anointed position if the flow and meter is pleasing. Some sonnets follow the – if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck rule of sonnets, for even with slight unique modifications – it’s still a sonnet. But as Brander Matthews said: “A poor sonnet is a poor thing indeed….. nothing is longer than a sonnet if there is nothing in it.” A boorish writer of sonnets can be a slave to impeccable rhyme sequence and structure with nothing interesting to say and the reader is still left with a shortish bit of rubbish.
Why go in search of great sonnets? And whose to be the judge of what constitutes a great sonnet? Both good questions one should ask if we are both to invest considerable time in this endeavor, me in writing this blog and you in reading it. I’ll not impose or assume anything about your motivations. The reason I have an obsession with sonnets is that when I find a sonnet that really speaks to me, in both the fluidity of its language and in the artistry of it’s message, it sparkles. Finding a great sonnet is like finding a keeper agate; I see a glimpse of it sticking out of the ground, I bend over to pick it up and hope that when I lick off the dirt and study it closely I am going to uncover something incredibly beautiful.
Here are four sonnets about sonnets. I figured why not let much better writers than I explain why sonnets can suck you in under their influence if you’re not careful. Astute readers will instantly call foul on the Billy Collins poem, Sonnet, being labeled a sonnet. True, it lacks a sonnets rhyming scheme. But its a ripping good poem, so it qualifies in my book as a true “sonnet.” A sense of humor scores bonus points if I am judge and jury in curating which sonnets make the grade for this blog. Enjoy!
Scorn Not The Sonnet
Scorn not the Sonnet; Critic, you have frowned,
Mindless of it’s just honours; with this key
Shakespeare unlocked his heart; the melody
Of this small lute gave ease to Petrarch’s wound;
A thousand times this pipe did Tasso sound;
With it Camöens soothed an exile’s grief;
The Sonnet glittered a gay myrtle leaf
Amid the cypress with which Dante crowned
His visionary brow: a glow-worm lamp,
It cheered mild Spenser, called from Faery-land
To struggle through dark ways; and, when a damp
Fell round the path of Milton, in his hand
The Thing became a trumpet; whence he blew
Soul-animating strains—alas, too few!
D. G. Rossetti
A Sonnet is a moment’s monument,
–Memorial from the Soul’s eternity
To one dead deathless hour. Look that it be,
Whether for lustral rite or dire portent,
Of its own arduous fullness reverent:
Carve it in ivory or in ebony,
As Day or Night may rule; and let Time see
Its flowering crest impearled and orient.
A Sonnet is a coin: its face reveals
The soul,–its converse, to what Power ’tis due:
–Whether for tribute to the august appeals
Of Life, or dower in Love’s high retinue,
It serve, or, ‘mid the dark wharf’s cavernous breath,
In Charon’s palm it pay the toll to Death.
I Will Put Chaos Into Fourteen Lines
Edna St. Vincent Millay
I will put Chaos into fourteen lines
And keep him there; and let him thence escape
If he be lucky; let him twist, and ape
Flood, fire, and demon — his adroit designs
Will strain to nothing in the strict confines
Of this sweet order, where, in pious rape,
I hold his essence and amorphous shape,
Till he with Order mingles and combines.
Past are the hours, the years of our duress,
His arrogance, our awful servitude:
I have him. He is nothing more nor less
Than something simple not yet understood;
I shall not even force him to confess;
Or answer. I will only make him good.
All you have to do is write one true sentence. The truest sentence you know.
Edna St. Vincent Millay saw the tides of public sentiment regarding her writing wax and wane during her lifetime. She straddled the era of classical poetry and the emergence of new voices, a new poetic language. The writing of Walt Whitman, Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, just to name a few, was evolving the accepted poetic style that would bring free verse to the forefront of American literature.
To the literary critics who stabbed and slashed at Edna’s prose in search of some kind of retributive analysis; I say phooey. I have no interest in literary critique as character assassination. I think the critics of her day suffered from the same character flaw strong independent women face today; criticism that hides behind misogyny. I prefer to invest my time as unabashed fan of Millay who brings a sense of humor and humanity to her poetry. Millay’s writing is filled with true sentences which stick with me long after the cover is closed.
Sometimes When I Am Wearied Suddenly
Edna St. Vincent Millay
Sometimes when I am wearied suddenly
Of all the things that are the outward you,
And my gaze wanders ere your tale is through
To webs of my own weaving, or I see
Abstractedly your hands about your knee
And wonder why I love you as I do,
Then I recall, “Yet Sorrow thus he drew;
“Then I consider, “Pride thus painted he.”
Oh, friend, forget not, when you fain would note
In me a beauty that was never mine,
How first you knew me in a book I wrote,
How first you loved me for a written line:
So are we bound till broken is the throat
Of Song, and Art no more leads out the Nine.