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Like Some Chalice of Old Time

The Art of the Sonnet

Edited by Stephen Burt and David Mikics
Harvard University Press, 2010

I’ll just come right out and say it: sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English poetry bores me. It gives off a whiff of “a red, red rose” and pipesmoke, trading in romantic cliche, reeking of stuffy prosodic uniformity. I mistrust, even revile it.
I try to keep my distance. Of course I make some exceptions: Shakespeare and Donne, Milton and Herbert, provided a Virgil sticks close by, guiding me through it all. In a new anthology, The Art of the Sonnet, my Virgil came in the form of the critics Stephen Burt and David Mikics and, surprisingly, early English poetry with all of its “thee’s” and “thy’s” and “y’s” for “i’s” turns out not to be the pitchfork-prodding hell I thought it was.

When it comes to putting together a poetry anthology like this one, I see three approaches editors can take. First, the extremist’s approach: create a comprehensive anthology with an even date spread in order to show how the poem has changed over time. Then, the practical approach: create an anthology of poems that you suspect readers will just genuinely enjoy. And finally, the good friendly professor’s approach: create an anthology of poems from across time that you suspect readers will genuinely enjoy, throw in some poems that readers might not enjoy but that they should read, and include in-depth commentary on each so that readers might at least understand why said poem deserves to be included. The editors here took the good friendly professor’s approach, having collected one hundred enjoyable sonnets reaching back to Thomas Wyatt and George Gascoigne, and meanwhile, providing a thorough introduction and thoroughly astute commentary on each sonnet. I can’t begin to tell you how much I appreciate this as a reader.

But like all teachers, Burt and Mikics are forced to make some drastic compressions: of the roughly four thousand sonnets that surfaced in England between 1580 and 1600 alone, in The Art of the Sonnet I counted five from that time. Of course of those four thousand, maybe forty deserve reprinting, probably a pretty generous estimation in itself. What is it about the early English sonnet that so strains my patience? Could it be the repetitive formula: imitable tales of unrequited love told in iambic pentameter with a standard rhyme scheme? Years ago I owned an anthology of sixteenth-century English poetry because (who knows?) maybe I was going about this all wrong. But after a long, long week of trying afternoons, reading these early sonneteers who I find to be a sack of reflexes, employing standard tricks and set idiosyncrasies, I found I could barely tell their poems apart. The formula became exhausting.

Thomas Wyatt, sketched by Hans Holbein

Burt and Mikics have pulled only the finest sonnets from that period by selecting those that either toyed with the form itself or more fully experimented with elements like metaphor, rhetoric, diction, and layers in meaning. They begin with Wyatt in 1557 imitating Petrarch’s “Una candida cerva,” or “The white doe,” where a speaker stands entranced before a deer in the shade of a laurel tree. But Wyatt, as we see, changes the scene. This time the poet-speaker is at a hunt in breathless pursuit of a deer that others ahead of him are also pursuing. (It goes without saying the deer stands in for the beloved.) Wyatt retains Petrarch’s structure, but changes the sestet of c-d-e c-d-e into c-d-d c-e-e, as a result developing, the editors point out, the rhymed couplet. Then there’s Gascoigne. He might insist over and over “I love thee still” in “That self same tongue,” but he moves, as the editors describe, from a “deceptively light note” to something darker, using heavy alliterative phrases that convey “a blunt, dogged force.” (One hundred close readings such as these—one for every sonnet—are provided throughout the anthology.) Meanwhile, in maybe my favorite sonnet, “Delia 38,” Samuel Daniel adapts the Petrarchan trope and predicts that as his beloved’s beauty fades, so will his love, and she will regret ever having rejected him. The sonnet is too good not to reprint here:

When men shall find thy flower, thy glory pass,
And thou with careful brow sitting alone
Received hast this message from thy glass,
That tells the truth, and says that all is gone;
Fresh shalt thou see in me the wounds thou madest,
Though spent thy flame, in me the heat remaining:
I that have lov’d thee thus before thou fadest,
My faith shall waxe, when thou art in thy waning.
The world shall find this miracle in me,
That fire can burn, when all the matter’s spent:
Then what my faith hath been thy self shalt see,
And that thou wast unkind thou mayst repent.
Though mayst repent that thou hast scorn’d my tears
When winter snows upon thy golden hairs.

And so if forty poems (or in this case five) to four thousand is the normal ratio, it is worth asking if the fifty-two sonnets collected in this anthology published after 1900 earn their place among the one hundred selected. “Our desire to display the unfamiliar,” Burt and Mikics write, “led us to make generous selections from contemporary work: to err, within reason, on the side of poets and poems that reflect our own time.” That said, the unfamiliar these days still seem to me to be Edmund Spenser and George Herbert, John Milton and Philip Sidney, not Paul Muldoon and D.A. Powell.

In any case, the editors go on to defend their selection, explaining that more poets are at work in English now than ever before, and I wholeheartedly agree. I remain a little curious to know not how many poets these days are writing poetry in general but what proportion are writing sonnets, and, of those, how many are writing traditional sonnets, or at least know the difference between, say, the Petrarchan and Elizabethan forms. But make no mistake: I have little problem with the The Art of the Sonnet’s uneven date spread. The anthology, complete with engaging commentary, doesn’t seek to be definitive. The editors offer suggestions in the appendix for further reading for those who want to fill in the gaps. No, what this anthology seeks to do is to appease our taste as readers, not as scholars, feeding us (the unexpectedly good) Wyatt and Gascoigne first so that we can acquaint ourselves, if only briefly, with the sonnet’s history; it is only then that we can see how its form has always been in a state of revision.

Burt and Mikics set the scene: It was early in the thirteenth-century that this “monument’s monument,” as Dante Gabriel Rossetti praised it, and “pure form,” as Edith Wharton once said, “like some chalice of old time,” was born at the court of the enlightened Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II of Sicily. Scholars credit the sonnet’s invention to one of Frederick’s court officials, Giacomo da Lentini, who adapted into Italian the Provençal poetry of the troubadours, those lyric poets from the High Middle Ages (1100-1350) who sang of courtly, chivalrous love. Their form was fourteen lines of iambic pentameter split into an octave (the first eight lines) and a sestet (the last six) by a volta, or turn of thought often hinted at by the words “but,” “yet,” or “and yet.” The first Italian sonnets expressed love unrequited, love requited but unfulfilled, love thwarted, and, sometimes, though rarely, the joys of love. It was impediments to love that made the lyric voice. The octave rhymed a-b-a-b, a-b-a-b while the sestet either rhymed c-d-e-c-d-e or c-d-c-c-d-c. (In time, other rhyming schemes were introduced such as c-d-c-d-c-d.)

Sonnets crossed the Channel in the mid-sixteenth century, when poets like Wyatt and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, translated Petrarch’s famous fourteenth-century sonnets (mostly unrequited love for the beautiful Laura in those). Wyatt developed the couplet ending, giving his sonnets “an epigrammatic sting,” the editors explain. Surrey, a contemporary of Wyatt’s, modified the Petrarchan structure, creating what is now called the Shakespearean sonnet, so called because it was Shakespeare who brought the form to fame. The Shakespearean sonnet goes something like this: the typical rhyme scheme, more suited to the rhyme-poor English language, is end-rhymed a-b-a-b, c-d-c-d, e-f-e-f, g-g, with that closing couplet reflecting back on the sonnet’s action (a revolutionary move, the editors explain). The quatrains really overshadow the octave-sestet division. (One more sonnet form is worth mentioning: the Spenserian sonnet, named after the Tudor poet Edmund Spenser. The rhyme scheme here, based on the stanza pattern he used in The Faerie Queene of a-b-a-b b-c-b-c c-c, is a-b-a-b, b-c-b-c, c-d-c-d, e-e. Because of this, the placement of the volta varies. Also, unlike in the Petrarchan sonnet, there seems to be no requirement that the octave establish a problem that the sestet answers.)

Maybe the most extreme revision came about near the end of the seventeenth century: the shift away from love. The editors credit Milton with really pushing the focus to politics, “an unusual task for the English-language sonnet before his day,” they write in their commentary of his famous sonnet, “On the Late Massacre in Piedmont.” From the date spread in the anthology, you can see a more than one-hundred-year gap exists between Milton and Mary Robinson (1757-1800). Do we credit this to the sonnet’s drastic thematic change? The editors never answer this but quote Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary (1755) instead: the traditional sonnet form “has not been used by any man of eminence since Milton.”

It took over another century before poets like Wordsworth and Hunt revitalized the sonnet again. While Coleridge in 1796 maintained a stuffy insistence that “Poems, in which no lonely feeling is developed, are not Sonnets,” Hunt in 1867 was publishing his declaration that “there is [no subject] unsuitable to [the sonnet]—whether light or serious, the humblest or most exalted. . . . Every mood of mind can be indulged in a sonnet.” No longer was a suffering (sometimes insufferable) speaker bemoaning his love for an unattainable beloved. Wordsworth was devoting sonnets to everything from liberty to steamboats to the history of the English church, and even channeled Milton in “London, 1802”: “Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour: / England hath need of thee”. The editors provide some of the most intelligent commentary here, explaining that, aside from political reasons, there is

a purely literary reason for Wordsworth to look back to Milton. In his sonnet writing, Wordsworth strove for what he named a “pervading sense of intense Unity.” His image for the sonnet was that of “an orbicular body,—a sphere—or a dew-drop.” Milton’s sonnets are integrated in just this way: they blend octave and sestet, demonstrating the urgent strength that flows from the beginning to the end of each poem.

But why these changes in form? Burt and Mikics never speculate, and this is my only criticism of their collection. I am left with the amateur guess, for example, that Spenser changed the placement of the volta, usually around line twelve for him (where the rhyme pattern changes), because he was influenced by the weight Shakespeare gave to the final couplet. I want to ask the editors, two of the finest poetry scholars in America, why such revisions happened. What motivated poets to “Make it new,” as Pound so vehemently insisted, and what inspires them to continue to do so?

These days the sonnet can exist at almost any length, touch on almost any theme, and spurn rhyme. Nowhere is I AM A SONNET explicitly declared in Burt and Mikics’ contemporary selections, aside from, well, poems with titles like “Sonnet” by Elizabeth Bishop, or “Single Sonnet” by Louise Bogan, but these sonnets are not traditional in the deadest sense of the word. Their titles indicate that their creators intend to think closely about (and rebel against) the sonnet form.

Elizabeth Bishop

Bishop’s roughly dimeter poem, “Sonnet,” refuses the restricted rhyme schemes and usual meter, crafting a whimsical version of the sonnet that mirrors the poem’s compass needle “wobbling and wavering, / undecided.” She ticks through reflections on four devices: a compass, a spirit-level, a thermometer, and a mirror. Because Bishop happens to be my favorite poet, I’m reprinting the poem here in full:

Caught—the bubble
in the spirit-level,
a creature divided;
and the compass needle
wobbling and wavering,
undecided.
Freed-the broken
thermometer’s mercury
running away;
and the rainbow-bird
from the narrow bevel
of the empty mirror,
flying wherever
it feels like, gay!

“Each of these objects becomes a symbol of what a poem does,” the editors write in their three-page commentary, adding that “they are Bishop’s equivalents of the Romantics’ Aeolian harp.” In case you fail to understand their reference, they go on to explain that “In Coleridge, the Aeolian harp—a stringed instrument set in a window and sounded by the wind–provides an emblem of poetry’s responsiveness.” I meant it when I said they were thorough.

Then there’s Bogan’s “Single Sonnet” which begins, “Now, you great stanza, you heroic mould / Bend to my will, for I must give you love.” She yokes love to mean, Burt and Mikics explain, “both the devoted energies of the artistic creator and the amorous subject matter that Bogan finally identifies near the end of her poem,” when she writes, “Too long have lovers, bending for their kiss, / Felt bitter force cohering without motion. // Staunch meter, great song, it is yours, at length, / To prove how stronger you are than my strength.”

One more contemporary sonnet that deserves mention is Alison Brackenbury’s “Homework. Write a Sonnet. About Love?” which starts with the bold and I think correct claim, “There are too many sonnets about love.” The traditional sonnet, originally tied to erotic love, here is reinvented, Burt and Mikics write, into “one that points out the frequent limitations of the form.” (Whereas the speaker in Bogan’s poem bends to the strength of the sonnet form, Brackenbury feels that she can do whatever she wants with it). Brackenbury serves as an example of a poet who understands the tradition, understands the formal options before her, and adapts the set form into something recognizable yet new, producing the same feeling you get when seeing someone you think you know.

An anthology limited to one hundred poems must leave a great deal out, and there are many notable sonnets that hover just beyond this book’s purview. Many critics credit W.H. Auden, for instance, as having written one of the first unrhymed sonnets, “The Secret Agent,” in 1928. Never mind that Milton employed some of the first unrhymed sonnets in book three of Paradise Lost in 1667: the sonnet occurs in unrhymed form as Uriel summarizes, in forty-two lines (divided into three fourteen-line sections), the creation of the universe to a disguised Satan. John Berryman (surprisingly not represented in the anthology) published his syntactically-twisted sonnet-like Dream Songs of eighteen lines in 1964, three stanzas with six lines per stanza. Never mind that Milton, again, extended the sonnet to twenty lines, and never mind that Gerard Manley Hopkins cut it to ten and a half at the end of the nineteenth century. Denis Johnson experimented with sonnets one- and two-sentences long in 1982. Frost before him published a one-sentence sonnet, “The Silken Tent” in 1939. All of this is to say that the sonnet has always been undergoing drastic change and what is seen as revolutionary these days is not necessarily all that new.

In order to rough up the sonnet, as we see occurring throughout time, but most conspicuously in the editors’ fifty-two contemporary selections, the poet must first have a sense of the tradition. Yes, Pound said “Make it new,” but before embarking on this adventure, why not ask “Why?” And before attempting those bold adaptations, it may be wise to read The Art of the Sonnet first.

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Jeannie Vanasco is an assistant editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. Her poems and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in The New York Times Book Review, the Times Literary Supplement, Tin House, Virginia Quarterly Review, the Georgetown Review, and elsewhere.