I fear no more the settling of the night
Or mind its grey, evaporating shades;
Mine ears are deaf to time’s lost serenades,
Mine eyes content with thy soul’s loving light.

Thy morning’s halo puts the stars to flight,
And warms me in its luminous cascades;
And though the fairest luster sometimes fades,
No shadow taints thy bloom, O benedight!

When this brief season’s sun shall fail to rise,
And cease to gild our interfluent streams,
These verses shall emit thy beauty’s glow,

And make some heart, behind some future eyes,
To marvel how thy radiance yet gleams,
And how I loved thee, more than men could know.

 

Joseph Charles MacKenzie is a traditional lyric poet, First Place winner of the Scottish International Poetry Competition (Long Poem Section). His poetry has appeared in The New York Times, The Scotsman (Edinburgh), The Independent (London), US News and World Report, Google News, and many other outlets. He writes primarily for the Society of Classical Poets (New York).

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23 Responses

  1. Jennifer Morgan

    Joseph,
    Your sonnet stole my breath and yet my sight
    Remains that I may see the words you played
    In joy I savor each line you have made
    And read again with rapture and delight

    Thank you for a lovely start to my day, your sonnet is gracefully breathtaking.

    Reply
  2. Bruce Edward Wren

    Another beautiful classic sonnet from MacKenzie. The big surprise, an Italian sonnet! First time I have ever seen him deviate from his favorite form, the Shakespearean sonnet. Innovations, innovations…!

    Reply
    • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

      In reality, dear Mr. Foreman, the loveliness is merely the radiance of the poem’s subject, the woman who inspired it. In this sense, I am perhaps the most privileged of love poets, but, in another sense, the most unworthy.

      Reply
    • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

      Thank you, Mr. Watt, for your most generous comment. As Mr. Wren suggests in his comment, above, my use of the Italian forms of the sonnet is quite recent. On the other hand, my appreciation of the Italian sonnet is of long standing. My minor at the University of New Mexico was in Italian lnaguag and literature, so I was finally able to appreciate Lentini and Calvacanti and Guittone and ultimately Petrarch in their original languages.

      I find the Italian structures just as useful as the English and can understand why our Edna St. Vincent Millay was wonderfully ambidextrous at both.

      Reply
    • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

      Dear Mr. Sale, Many have been your encouragements for which I am ever in your debt.

      After a good deal of reflection, I decided to mirror the Italian sestet’s enlaced complexity in the rhymes in a similar interweaving of verb tenses, in a way that I hoped would not be too garish.

      So the last verse is the future looking back at the past in which the sonnet is being composed.

      Thus, I love Elizabeth not just for all of time, but in every kind of time.

      Reply
  3. Joseph Charles MacKenzie

    Dear Fr. Libby,

    Our gracious editor, Evan Mantyk, agreed to have the “Sonnet for Elizabeth” published on a rare conjunction of Ash Wednesday with the commemoratio of St. Valentine, Priest and Martyr, something which happens, rather like the appearance of Haley’s Comet, only once every 75 years.

    And so the essential liturgy of Ash Wednesday, “Memento homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris!” underlies the sonnet in many ways.

    The first quatrain is a sunset, a reminder of man’s mortality and the fleeting nature of all things. The second quatrain is a sunrise, an anticipation of the Resurrection, but through the radiance of the beloved, who is the poet’s personal resurrection in this world.

    Reply
  4. Wilbur Dee Case

    I admire Mr. MacKenzie’s sonnets, for their purity of diction and metrical aptitude; and “Sonnet for Elizabeth” does not disappoint.

    A reader could be forgiven for taking this poem as an Elizabethan sonnet for its archaisms and an occasional Shakespearean echo, like “And though the fairest luster sometimes fades.” Even the enduring theme of love comes straight out of Spenser or Shakespeare. The sonnet also embraces exaggerated Elizabethan love rhetoric, “Thy morning’s halo puts the stars to flight.” To me it is amazing how completely the modern has been banished in its lines, a goal I suspect Mr. MacKenzie supports wholeheartedly.

    Interestingly, Mr. MacKenzie uses the obsolete word “benedight,” echoic of 19th century American poet Longfellow’s use of that same word in his poignant sonnet “The Cross of Snow,” in the exact same position, right at the end of the octave. Interesting too, is that Mr. MacKenzie uses the same rhyme scheme (abbaabbacdecde) in his sonnet as Longfellow did. Both Longfellow and MacKenzie use English final accent rhymes in their line endings, unlike the Italian sonneteers MacKenzie mentions, Lentini, Guittone, Cavalcanti and Petrarca; and that does show how difficult it is to approach the fluidity of the Italian sonnet. But whereas MacKenzie’s fine sonnet seems lodged in the Elizabethan era, Longfellow’s remarkable sonnet seems housed in 19th century American Romanticism.

    Reply
    • David Gosselin

      I agree with much of what Mr. Wilbur Dee Case has said. On reading Mr. Mackenzie’s Sonnet, I immediately thought of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 65 among others:

      Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea
      But sad mortality o’er-sways their power,
      How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
      Whose action is no stronger than a flower?
      O, how shall summer’s honey breath hold out
      Against the wrackful siege of batt’ring days,
      When rocks impregnable are not so stout,
      Nor gates of steel so strong, but time decays?
      O fearful meditation! where, alack,
      Shall time’s best jewel from time’s chest lie hid?
      Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back?
      Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid?
      O, none, unless this miracle have might,
      That in black ink my love may still shine bright.

      I think Mr. Wilbur Dee has hit on something, since I also got the same feeling, which is that the poem along with others I’ve seen, seem lodged in the Elizabethan age. When I read this Sonnet, I felt like I had heard it somewhere, despite the fact the predicates were new. While saying a Sonnet is Shakespearean is always a good thing, in this case, I think the issue is involuntary imitation. It seems Mr. Mackenzie has so absorbed the Elizabethan spirit into his being, to the point that when he opens his mouth to sing, one can’t help but feel he is singing here with us today, but from another time.

      The great German poet Friedrich Schiller once said, be a citizen of your age, but be not its captive. I think this is the paradox any real poet has to face, which is not an obvious one given the utter poverty of English and culture generally. While the great poets must inform our age, I think the challenge is to use that knowledge to create something fundamentally new and original, where we strive and long for that same quality of timeless beauty, only in our own unique way, in our own unique age 2018. To reject that, would be to reject our own sense of self, in exchange for another age, which however much we might wish to be in, we cannot turn back time.

      Petrarch also wrote great sonnets, which set off a trend where there were a thousand imitators, demonstrating the impact his Italian had, but I think it would be a mistake for someone to just continue writing Petrarchan Sonnets, as if time had stopped. Or imagine if Shakespeare had just continued to just write like Petrarch, only couched within Elizabethan English forms.

      I think here the paradox is to not confound the idea timelessness in a poem, with the idea of frozen time, as if there were no more change, as if time had stopped all together. I tend to get more of a feeling of the second kind when reading this Sonnet.

      I would like to see Mr. Mackenzie’s virtuosity and talent unleashed, informed by the Elizabethan age, but struggling with us here, to create a new age, where we are undeterred by the zeitgeist of our day, nor do we flee its challenges, but rather in the 21st century, sapere aude is still our creed. Let us hear what kind of wonders come out of Mr. Mackenzie’s pen.

      Reply
      • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

        Dear Mr. Gosselin,

        I thank you for your very fine comment and can certainly appreciate your concept.

        However, my sonnet is not remotely Elizabethan, much less is it Shakespearean—either in spirit or content.

        For one, I utterly reject the kind of baroque conceit Shakespeare employs in such inversions as: “Shall time’s best jewel from time’s chest lie hid?” I avoid such turns at all costs. They were sufficient reason for St. Robert Southwell publicly to correct his cousin for sinking into the mire of courtly artificiality at the expense of spiritual depth.

        In fact, there is a great deal in Shakespeare’s sonnets that I assiduously reject.

        As for being a citizen of my age, I cannot follow Schiller, since my age is just as meaningless as his. For, meaning is derived not from the accidents of time, but from the essentials of truth.

        As for creating something “fundamentally new and original,” the world already has a hundred million poets creating something “fundamentally new and original” each and every day.

        They don’t need me for that…

    • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

      Thank you, for your edifying comment, W.B.C.. Whenever a poet introduces an element of intertextuality with another poem, it is always gratifying to know that there are educated, intelligent readers out there who have the experience to take note of it, to accept the invitation.

      Benedight, considered archaic by some, is not necessarily uncommon for others. English Catholics have long venerated the great father of western monasticism under the name of St .Benedight, an anglicized version of Benedict. It is simply the Latin “benedictus,” blessed, in a Northumbrian form. If you look into Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale, you will certainly find it there. I have found the adjectival form in many an old book of devotional prayers (it is entirely possible that Longfellow did as well).

      So, from a traditional Catholic perspective, the word is perfectly natural, and may not have that echo of the archaic which it has for others.

      In my case, “benedight” is moreover necessary. In Longfellow’s poem, “benedight” signifies the moral purity of the beloved’s life. In my poem, the word is placed in an independent hortatory subjunctive, a much more powerful form, to signify that the beloved is herself blessed and must be addressed under this title.

      But this is not some borrowed conceit, because, in actual reality, my beloved happens to be well and truly, and I must also say rather frequently, blessed. Clerics from Argentina to New Zealand have been guests in our home offering the Most Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in its original form, always blessing us both sacramentally and otherwise. Our very food is sprinkled with salt that has been blessed by bishop or priest. There is a very strong autobiographical element to my work.

      If one really looks into Shakespeare’s sonnets, one might conclude that beauty, for him, is only skin deep—and this is most evident in the compendious, albeit well-executed, Procreative Sonnets. Shakespeare never speaks in the sonnets of that radiance which emanates from the blessed, which is both a unitive radiance, and a pneumatic radiance. By this latter I do not mean that residual light of the Trinity resulting from our being in God’s image, but the light of indwelling of the Holy Ghost which is added to it as an extra perfection by the grace of the Sacraments.

      My first quatrain is a sunset, a reflection on mortality. The second is a sunrise, a contemplation of the Resurrection. In the Catholic economy in which I write, the beloved is not divorced in any way from these things, but mirrors them. And this is not merely my poetic economy, it is also the economy in which I live and breathe.

      The “halo” was meant to be intertextual as well. In Longfellow’s poem, it is merely a happy accident caused by the reflection of a lamp on the poet’s desk. In my poem, it is an altogether different thing, a thing which places me quite outside the cosmos of Shakespeare’s sequence and even farther away from Longfellow’s Unitarian perspective.

      Oh no, Spencer would never have approved of my sonnet, not at all!

      Reply
      • David B. Gosselin

        Dear Mackenzie,

        I take the time to clarify what I said since I would hate to come off as one espousing some sort of philistine poetic doctrine of modernity, in opposition to an enlightened Christian spirit. Quite the contrary!
        Concerning something fundamentally new and original, I would simply hearken back to what Keats did with the Canzone form. This is along the lines of what I meant when I spoke of “fundamentally new and original.” Keats contributed something new to the already incredibly rich English tradition, where he drew from the Italian form, adapting it to his native English – this was completely warranted given the difference in the way English and Italian behave. The nature of the ideas Keats wanted to communicate necessitated such a form however, and thus he went to where he could find it. Ironically, Keats was balked at by the Romantics like Coleridge (too often busy smoking his opium pipe to finish many poems) who referred to Keats’ work as petty pagan drivel! Moreover, Keats also used archaic language for his time, in opposition to the declaration of Wordsworth in their lyrical ballads preface, who declared “to choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them, throughout, as far as was possible, in a selection of language really used by men” i.e. none of that “fancy” stuff.

        I would hate to be identified as espousing such doctrines. Wordsworth was the one in fact, who complained of Coleridge’s use of archaic language in his formidable Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Unfortunately Wordsworth too often did have this philistine bent, where just as the necessity of Keats to latch on to such forms as were deemed necessary in order to express the quality of idea he intended, the opposite was unfortunately the case with such Romantics, who would forbid the kind of forms and language, or themes, as I think we would rightly argue in favor of using in order to communicate a certain kind of idea. Thus the way Shakespeare brought the Italian into his English, and the way in which Keats also did, was as if by necessity, but it was not copying of a “form” per se, but rather because of the nature of the idea and the principles necessary to communicate it. The point I was making was that they used these “forms” or certain facets of language, in order to develop some new thematic material or idea within the historical continuity of English poetry in general.

        I wouldn’t want to get lost in semantics, but there is a palpable sense of you hearkening back to a specific time or place, I’m not sure what name you would like to put on it, but as W.B.C. remarked in his praise as well, it is there. The question I wonder is why in this case? Archaic language or form is not the issue being alluded to, as one can easily distinguish the idea content of Keats’ Odes, which was absolutely revolutionary despite them being couched in the Italian form, going back to what Dante and the Troubadour tradition had been doing, but there was yet something fundamentally different. So my intent was to identify this kind of breakthrough and idea, as what was “fundamentally new and original,” and therefore offer that as a critique given your use of language and its familiar feel, and the intent of the poetry associated with it.

        I use certain “archaic” characteristics as well, so I would never denounce or reproach someone for using that, but I think the question here is more the fact it seems anchored in a specific time and place, and if that is the case, the question becomes what is the fundamental nature of the idea you are choosing to pursue, such that you insist on writing in a form that has this palpable sense of being re-used, but to what end this time?

        Contemporary verse delenda est.

        Best,

        Dave

  5. Wilbur Dee Case

    I value your verse and your prose, because you have convictions, and you state them.

    The reason why I noted your use of “benedight” is because I have used it too, in a poem “A Long Dead Fellow,” from an unpublished anthology of 2011, “Prologue to a New Millennial Tales,” which I won’t burden this feed with. I hadn’t thought about Chaucer’s use of “benedight” in “The Miller’s Tale,” but your excellent note sent me back to that rollicking, humourous, earthy tale about infidelity, stupidity, and nastiness, in a story as vulgarly charged as the language of Donald Trump (or Catullus, etc.), where it really only means St. Benedict.

    And on the thresshfold of the dore withoute:
    “Jhesu Crist and Seinte Benedight,
    Blesse this hous from every wikked wight,
    For nyghtes verye, the white pater-noster!
    Where wentestow, Seinte Petres soster?”

    You are right to think that Spenser might not have admired your sonnet; but Spenser, like Coleridge after, and Cato before, was an adept user of archaic terms, a practice I happen to espouse as well.

    Reply
  6. Leo Yankevich

    Certainly the Italian sonnet is superior to the English, just as Italian food is superior to English. This is an impressive display of form, free of enjambments, and perfectly rhymed.

    Reply

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