Click here to listen to Sonnet 32 read by Ian Russell
who has been nominated for an Audie for his reading.

By James Sale

It was Stephen Fry who said of the sonnet: “The ability to write them fluently was, and to some extent still is, considered the true mark of the poet”. How true; to expect each poet to write an epic is too much; and to be able to write a haiku is too trivial; and to write free verse is nothing; but in the strange and seemingly limitless flexibility of the sonnet form poets can demonstrate the most complex—and, contrariwise, most simple—thoughts and emotions, as well as delineating almost every shade of human experience. Looking back over the last five hundred years of the English language almost all the truly great poets have produced memorable sonnets whose impact has been lasting and profound. And as well as the sonnet speaking in its own individual voice, we have whole collections of them, most notably Shakespeare’s 154 (although if we include sonnets appearing in his plays, there are more), wherein the work begins to assume epic proportions as a kind of narrative emerges in which topics and themes are explored in relentless precision and beauty. Certainly, I regard the ability to construct a sonnet of beauty as second only to writing epic poetry in the canon of English literature.

We have, then, Sonnets for Christ the King by Joseph Charles Mackenzie, a name familiar to readers of The Society of Classical Poets. Currently the work is in audio book form, although I have been privileged to see an advance electronic copy; it comprises 77 sonnets in all. What to make of this? How good are they? Where does Joseph Charles Mackenzie stand in the pantheon of poets?

First, a digression. The number—77—is important. Indeed, every detail is important to true poets. Those of a quick disposition will have noticed that the number 77 is half that of the number Shakespeare wrote: 154. And Mackenzie uses the Shakespearean structure rather than the Petrarchan. Albeit obliquely then, there is already a vaunting claim to be heard. But more than that, for the spiritual poet numbers always assume massive significance. The sonnet in its two most important incarnations in the English language—the Petrarchan and the Shakespearean forms—is always 14 lines long (ignoring for the matter of this analysis aberrant forms such as the Meredithian sonnet at 16 lines and the Curtal from Hopkins at 7 lines, and such like). 14 is 2 x 7 and 7 is a number charged with Judeo-Christian significance, from God resting on the seventh day after creation to the apocalyptic punishment unleashed by the breaking of the seven seals in the Book of Revelations. So there is in Mackenzie’s work not a random rag-bag of poems but an architecture—a cosmos if you will—that attempts to reflect the bigger cosmos of which we are all a part.

The collection, Sonnets for Christ the King, contains, I think, some of the best sonnets, and so poetry, published since World War 2, that I have read. His work is actually quite, quite brilliant, yet quirky and strange too! Perhaps the strangest thing of all is that he is able to write poetry which is entirely discursive, and yet it is still poetry. We are so used to post-modern poets writing cryptogrammatic verse with obscure imagery, recondite diction, and indulgent, complacent solipsism that we can hardly believe it when someone says clearly what they want to say and tells it like it is—at least like it is for them. But the beauty of this great poetry is, even if we don’t agree, don’t share his theology, the poet in him gets to us emotionally. There is simply so many wonderful lines and ideas in this collection.

The first thing to get, then, is that this poetry is highly devotional; Mackenzie is clearly a devout Christian and Catholic, and the fundamentals of these two highly interrelated positions permeate the whole collection. If this were purely a fundamentalist text—banging a simplistic drum as it were—that would be off-putting to the casual reader. But this is not: this is true poetry because bound up in it is the emotional resonance by which real poetry disarms the critical intellect. A good example is Sonnet 6, one of my favourite 7 of the 77 we have. Called ‘El Castillo Interior’, the poem explores the inward, spiritual journey in a series of bold Images, beginning with a castle with ‘seven rooms … lit’. Each room provides its own challenge: ‘In one room serpents, in another wars,’ until finally we come to a room of prayer, and there at the centre he concludes with this amazing couplet:

And there in the center, where I lie dead,
To Love my very being says, ‘I Thee wed’.

That—that—is so simple, so paradoxical, so profound; a cri de coeur when all human resource fails, and the soul cries out. And what it cries, of course, entirely justifies the archaic ‘Thee’, as it invokes the language of the wedding service. This is a poem that repays many, many re-readings.

And on the subject of ‘many’, many poets disappoint with their endings; they start well, have something interesting to say, but somehow can’t get to a satisfying conclusion. Not Shakespeare’s sonnets, though, and not Joseph Mackenzie’s: his sonnets specialise in superb concluding couplets that could almost be standalones, so aphoristic and powerful are they. Here are three good examples:

Sonnet 11: Song of the Magi
We followed in the fullness of the night,
And found the fragile Origin of light.

Sonnet 35: Adventus 3
And you shall understand that all along,
The cries I filled the desert with were song

Sonnet 58: Ego Sum (and here I must give the preceding quatrain because–frankly–it is too exciting to omit):
I do not know why some men cannot see,
Or why they kill what they pretend to love;
I only know that this great verb, ‘to be,’
Can only enter thought but from above,

And pray, with sorrow’s cloth upon my head,
That I shall not be found among the dead.

This leads on to a consideration of Mackenzie’s attitude to the Christian story; and it is one that I consider the nearest approximation we can get to the ‘truth’. Namely, that the whole narrative is both literal and mythical at the same time. To be literal but not mythical is to limit its application; to be mythical but not literal is to circumscribe its power. We see this plainly in not just the specifically Christ-bits of the narrative, but in all the other Biblical and theological allusions he makes.

Take Sonnet 62: Ennui
Had Adam never turned his mind away
From Life, or genuflected to mere dust …

This clearly treats the Garden of Eden story as both literal and mythical: it recognises what virtually all early cultures recognised, that at the beginning humanity was involved in some aboriginal calamity which is why, unlike the gods, we die. It’s why the early civilisations believed not in progress but regress; that the Golden Age was long gone and now we lived in an age of iron. Religion—religions—is the only, and necessary, appropriate response to that calamity. But Mackenzie sees the Eden story as only a poet can: instead of the ‘fruit’, now we have Adam turning ‘his mind away’ (and notice the brilliant line break which mimics the turning) from ‘Life’—not stuffy old God. And then the genius word ‘genuflecting’—Latinate, obscure, perfect—by way of contrast with all the other simple words: Adam effectively genuflected his own thinking—distorted it in other words—and the choice of diction here precisely mirrors that dire choice he made back then. In our choice of words—since they express or represent our choice of thought—we live or die. This level of writing is onomatopoeic or mimetic not only in diction but in structure and cast of thought, which is why it is so compelling.

And to elaborate just a moment on that fact, the choice of Shakespearean sonnet form is perfect for dialectics: thesis, antithesis, with a structural concluding couplet often providing the explosive, unexpected and illuminating synthesis. From the big architecture to the sonnet form, down to each loving line Mackenzie has crafted.

So, on the topic of lines, here are some beauties that I must share:

Sonnet 25: Ode to Autumn
“O rich intoner of our Mother’s grief”

Sonnet 28: Regnum Meun Non Est De Hoc Mundo
“And maggots stop the purchased mouth of praise”

Sonnet 38: The Adoration of the Shepherds
“The barn was warm though human hearts were cold”

I could go on, but I think my drift is clear: this is major poetry by a major poet, although it is so un-mainstream, so anti-secular, so purely devotional. Alas, one cannot see the chattering mainstream media ever embracing it. But what of its faults?

No whole work of poetry is perfect in its entirety; as Pope commented, ‘even Homer nods’. And to put this in context, Gerard Manley Hopkins is one of my favourite poets, and I regard some of his lines and complete poems as some of the greatest in the English language; but there are passages in Hopkins where he gets carried away by his own metrical theories, by his super-ingenious cleverness, and by the sheer infelicity of lexical choice. So, in case I am thought to be too uncritical of Joseph Mackenzie’s collection there a number of small—not for me important—elements that slightly jar. One, is the occasional penchant for archaic diction: mayst, ’tis, etc., which, in the case of ‘I Thee Wed’ is brilliantly deployed, but which I would not myself generally recommend. Also, his use and sprinkling of foreign languages, especially, but not only, Latin, tends to make his work appear more highbrow and elitist than it really is. Others may complain of his use of big abstractions, signified with capital letters, like Love, Beauty, and Truth. Plato has indeed returned, and the modern world won’t like it, for like Pontius Pilate they prefer the question ‘What is truth?’ more. But these are minor caveats to my way of thinking; the poetry is a gold mine of multiple treasures, and anyone studying what Mackenzie is doing will learn a massive amount, quite apart from experiencing some absolutely beautiful poetry.

Finally, let me urge Mackenzie to get this book out as a hardback! I know he likes the oral tradition, but I cannot be alone in preferring to read a good-feel hardback book. And so that only leaves me to say, please go and access your version of this great work. It took forty years at least after Hopkins’ death for his work to be appreciated, so let’s hope Mackenzie gets due recognition long before that due date whenever it is.


Joseph Charles MacKenzie is the first and last American to win First Place in the Long Poem Section of the Scottish International Poetry Competition, Henry M. Austin Poetry Prize.

James Sale FRSA has been a writer for 50 years, and has had over 30 books published, including 7 collections of poetry, as well as books from Macmillan (The Poetry Show vols 1-3) and other major publishers on how to teach poetry writing. Most recently his poems have appeared in the UK in: Dawntreader, Towards Wholeness, Quaker News and Views, The Bournemouth Central Library Exhibition; in the USA in The Anglo Theological Review. His latest collection of poetry, The Lyre Speaks True, includes his prize winning poems from The Society of Classical Poets’ 2014 anthology.

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7 Responses

  1. Ruth Asch

    When I read poetry I am generally seeking to get away from the ugly scene of modern politics, which is why I have avoided reading much of Joseph Charles Mackenzie’s work, despite feeling an early affinity to something of his that I read. But I am very glad to have read this review, and will be looking for the book now… it is stunningly beautiful and well-crafted poetry, and with a depth of message and spirituality rarely found these day. Congratulations to Joseph Mackenzie and thank you for showcasing this volume here.

    • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

      Thank you, Ruth Asch, for your very kind words of congratulations, as Mr. Sale is known as an exquisite critic in his own right with over thirty books behind him (and counting). Reading your comment makes me think that you possess the kind of mind which would be comfortable in the higher realm of spirituality occupied by the last fourteen poems of Sonnets for Christ the King. These are none other the Fourteen Stations of the Cross sonnets. Like other “sequences within the sequence,” they have been excerpted into a separate audio download available at our $4.99 discount price. Once you access the product page, scroll down to hear first quatrain audio samples of each sonnet before purchasing:
      All good wishes!

  2. James Sale

    Thanks Ruth for your comments. I have become a big fan of Joseph Charles Mackenzie’s poetry, and for the record I did not know him before reading his work, and have never met him and had no connection with him before. My view is entirely based on my reading of the work – I think it is major poetry. I just got back from Portugal last night and this morning and turned on the second CD with the Stations of the Cross 14 sonnets on them, and played. Just having seen the visceral depictions of Christ in agony that the Portuguese churches seem to specialise in, I found myself nearly in tears listening to the readings and the haunting evocations of those 14 stations of the Cross. If one is a Christian, good, one might get something extra from these incredible poems; but even if one is an atheist – good – I cannot see how one cannot feel the immensity of human suffering that this one historical instance epitomised. Truly, tremendous writing.

  3. Sam Gilliland

    Absolutely concise and to the point. Knew of Joseph’s incredible abilities years ago. Nice to know that a major/critic poet cares enough to put down exactly what he thinks. Lambasts his detractors! Aye & aye, Sam Gilliland.

  4. Sam Gilliland

    Had too much on my mind to reply, but it’s great to read concise and expert opinion on poetry of worth. The sensuous critic sees beneath the flesh of a poem and simply describes its beauty. Listening to the echo of really good poetry rather than the initial sound, you seem to have matched the moral aspect of Joseph’s work with his impeccable taste and amazing variety of emotions. To span eternity with a smile/and the universe in one stride/becomes the poet/ and with poetic guile/ conceals what lies within/outside! I wish you well. Aye & aye, Sam Gilliland.


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