LOOKING AT THE SONNET
What is it with the sonnet? What’s so important about fourteen lines? What has kept it alive and thriving for eight hundred years?
Since Petrarch’s day notable sonnets have been written by Shakespeare, Milton, Donne, Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Hopkins, Yeats, innumerable others and a host of modern writers.
There must be something about fourteen lines, for a start. Whether the fourteen lines obey rules from Petrarch’s canon, or from Shakespeare, or from nobody at all, the length seems to be a favourite.
Some of the greatest, certainly some of the best-known poems of our literature, are sonnets. Without quoting at length, consider the sonnets beginning; “One day I wrote her name upon the strand” (Spenser), “Quand vous serez bien vieille, au soir, à la chandelle” (Ronsard), “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” “Let me not to the marriage of true minds” (both Shakespeare, together with any number of your favourites), “At the round earths imagin’d corners blow” (Donne), “When I consider how my light is spent” (Milton), “Earth has not anything to show more fair” (Wordsworth), “I met a traveler from an antique land” (Shelley), “Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art” (Keats), “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” (Hopkins), “A sudden blow, the great wings beating still” (Yeats), “Move him into the sun” (Owen), “ ‘Next to of course god America i” (E. E. Cummings) – oh, these and so many more, first lines only and I could list so many famous last lines too, but best you read the sonnets and get the full picture.
I should, too, refer to many more examples in French and Italian poetry, in German also if only I knew enough of them.
Even those LANGUAGE poets, or are they Farfists, or sometimes fabulists (so many names!) who appear to deny any possibility of meaning to the reader, like to shape their poems as sonnets – like Michael Farrell, Dirty Harry is Scorpio, from The Age, October 2012 and Fiona Hile, Agency, from The Age, October 13, 2012.
Across The Best Australian Poems 2011 and 2012, (Black Inc 2011, 2012) there are probably a dozen poems, of varying styles, that could be or are labeled sonnets.
12 or 16 lines are also common, sometimes 15 – perhaps they’re all sonnets. Perhaps it’s what poets perceive as the desirable length for publication, especially in newspapers. In which case I’m clearly tarred with the same brush.
As for me, yes, close to half my poems are of about or are exactly, fourteen lines. Sometimes they are deliberately shaped as sonnets, like this one from The Australian, September 2012:
Remembering Ireland and Celebrating Molly of the Knitting
The last time I saw her she was knitting me a jumper,
bawneen, Aran-knit as always, in Killaloe
in her granny flat behind Mickey Maloney’s pub
and butcher shop. This she could do
in a few days easy, arthritis allowing,
but before this one was finished I had gone
beyond to Dublin which in the west in those days
was thought to be far enough away to be foreign.
I don’t know what happened to that gansey,
I never did get back to claim it. I heard
later, that Molly had cast off finally below,
going, I liked to think, with needles held
in knobby hand, another tribute to the Galway
fishermen and their myth-making wives under way.
The above, with some licence in terms especially of rhyme, uses the Shakespearean pattern, ending with the couplet and emphasizing its structure with breaks within the poem. At other times, the poem hides its sonnet connections.
Imagine, if you will, that we walk
in an apple orchard and I tell you
of a poem of Rilke’s, likening
the burden borne by apple boughs
to how life should be lived,
patiently to bear your fruit. Don’t,
you’ll say, write a poem like that, write
about the joy among those branches
when the blossoms break in spring,
the pink-white awakening of the whole
orchard, the drift of petals
like confetti in a soft wind. Write,
you would say, of that season
before the bending and the bearing.
Again, with much more licence, I have gone for fourteen lines and, more or less, a couplet ‘summary’ at the close.
Now, a good friend asked me to explain why I like to use the sonnet form. I’ll try.
It seems a good length to do what I often find myself wanting to do – to say what I want to say economically and to build towards a strong conclusion. It is the right frame in which to build many of the things I find myself wanting to say.
And it has, as a great writer might once have said about a famous lady, “infinite variety”.
For instance, Shakespeare’s end couplets are theatrical in their effect, as are the closing lines of many a Yeats poem. I suppose I’m influenced by that, but more subtle and from the Petrarchan sonnet tradition, is the way Milton winds his sonnets to their conclusion:
. . . God doth not need
either man’s work or his own gifts, who best
bear his milde yoak, they serve him best, his State
is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
and post o’re land and ocean without rest:
they also serve who only stand and waite.
Or Paul Verlaine, with what seems to be a unique rhyme pattern sestet for L’Espoire Luit,,, (Hope Shines…), a pattern which is aab cbc.
In fact, not only is the octave (eight line) sestet (six line) structure of the Petrarchan sonnet sometimes merged into the unified fourteen line structure (though often with an 8-6 thematic structure) of the Shakesperean sonnet but all sorts of liberties are taken with the form, in both rhythm and rhyme, so that the sonnet form has become more a notion than a fixed pattern.
(I slipped into some technicality there, but mainly to show that the sonnet, even when approached fairly strictly, offers a wide variety of rhymes and rhythms.)
It also offers what is usually a discipline. It would be fairly rare for me to start with a poem that plays itself out in, say, twelve lines and turn it into a sonnet, but it is not unusual for me to cut from fifteen or sixteen or seventeen lines to arrive at sonnet length. A similar discipline is, of course, offered by choosing to use rhyme or part-rhyme, or by letting a poem divide itself into three line verses, or four line (ballad) style, or whatever.
Also, just as I like to give myself a task to write a villanelle or a pantoum, because I like the forms and the way they shape the poem, or four line stanzas or iambic pentameter or free verse of varied line lengths because that’s how the words emerge, so I also like to write sonnets that work.
Given its popularity, perhaps the sonnet length is simply an appropriate unit of thought or utterance for poets historically and in the present. Also, as Mark Strand and Eavan Boland say, in The Making of a Poem (W. W. Norton and Co., 2000): “it has kept pace with some of the most important developments in modern poetry.”
Long live the sonnet!
Cheers – Barry Breen