Sonnet VI from Sonnets for Elizabeth

Consider how the bards of old had sung
Before their numbers vanished with the years,
And how their harps delighted captive ears
When thought itself was green and fancy young.

Think how the meters of a distant tongue
Gave figuration to men’s hopes and fears,
To passions gravity, to love its tears,
The chords with which our human hearts are strung.

Alas, my song cannot unburthen care
Nor life’s unceasing worriments remove;
And though my lays be lost on empty air,

Yet, days to come shall not these notes reprove:
Their sweetness imitates a single fair,
The music that is you, my only love.

S. Callisti Papae et Martyris


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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14 Responses

  1. James Sale

    What a fabulous poem – what a rhyme (eye rhyme) reprove/love; I love it – takes one back to the Elizabethans and their directness of expression combined with their artistic intricacies. When you think about it, it is so paradoxical: in order to say something directly you’d think simplicity would be de rigeur, but actually it’s not. Like great actors (actresses) who appear completely natural in their roles, the naturalness appears because they have practised the most; so it is here. To reach that level of power is a true poetical achievement. Well done – I am pleased for the poet and that he has his Elizabeth too! Love is certainly the profoundest inspiration.

    • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

      I must inform our readers that Mr. Sale’s comments are really intended for all, because they inevitably impart some important truth of our art very often occurring to my mind if not for the first time, then with greater clarity, to be sure, for the fine expresseion he gives to the lesson.

      In this case, the paradox Mr. Sale has described for us has always been an occasion of humility for me. When I consider only Ronsard, and only his Sonnets pour Helene, which are countless many, and their perfection, I understand how very weak are my powers.

      While it is true that I am well practiced in the form of the sonnet, the naturalness Mr. Sale indicates is as much informed by the desire to be natural as by practice. My rhymes could not be more common, already used a hundred times over by English poets since the Elizbethans. My vocabulary generally lacks ostentation and is much more concerned with etymology, those unsounded, cognitive overtones of words that Shakespeare has already played with so thoroughly well in the Plays. It has been said that my metaphors and figures verge upon the “lieu commun,” if you will.

      But this desire to be natural is in many ways the hallmark of Tradition. The 17th century would see a great shift in French verse, the invention of a kind of modernity opposed to the imitation of the ancients. But Ronsard, even if he could have foreseen this tendency, would have rejected it as simply, well, unnatural.

      It is natural to accept the pantry of Tradition for the gifts it contains. But even Tradition becomes unnatural in the hands of those who borrow without reflection, who acknowledge without genuflection.

      But Mr. Sale, more profoundly, is speaking of something which I call “artistic virtue,” that force which allows an artist to produce perfect things consistently. I think of Maria the Potter at our New Mexico Pueblo of San Idelfonso back in the 1940s. Her vessels are of a perfection surpassing the Attic vases of Greece. Yet, she was able to produce them using only her hands, no wheel, no mold, just her hands.

      But even this virtue is handed down. Because the Masters of old possessed it, it can be acquired again, and again, renewed from age to age.

      If it should have occurred to anyone in the days of Ronsard to criticizee him for imitating the masters, he would have replied very simply: “That is what I am supposed to do, I am a poet.”

      The foundation of naturalness is in art, as Mr. Sale has said so very well. But art cannot procure what the soul of the artist does not desire.

      Naturalness is the simplicity of the intellect informed by the simplicity of its object which is God. So we return to that place which is not of this world, not of this time, a place that has never changed from age to age.

      And I call that place Poetry.

  2. ben

    very well done
    the true mark of a good poem
    i read it effortlessly the words penetrate as if i am made of air
    well done

    • Joseph Charles MacKenie

      Thank you, kind Sir. I am grateful for your appreciation.

      And yet, I must tell you that the beauty of the poem is derived not from any talent on my part, but from the beauty of its subject.

  3. Satyananda Sarangi

    Greetings !

    This poem is rich – rich not in the ostentatious wealth intended to impress the readers but in the treasure that has the power to transform the humdrum existence into the meaningful, profound ones.

    Here is something I want to say ( I would ask your forgiveness beforehand since it has no meter) :

    Much sweet pleasure in profound songs of love,
    Tears that on cheeks had drawn many a crease;
    Ere my youth faded, I sought and lived these,
    A mere mortal, these fancies can’t reprove.

    Yon walls of virtue, no sin can surmount,
    Nor some fiend can on thee, have dominion;
    For thou art Truth’s most trusted companion,
    Thy glories, night and day, i would recount.

    Such tranquil havens, thy temples of stone,
    Away from soft pillows in Greed’s palace;
    Each time for man on brink of an abyss,
    A tune descends from the heaven’s trombone.

    Least happy the one who hears no such tone,
    And love may not charm him with its cologne.

    © 2017 Satyananda Sarangi
    All rights reserved.

    Best wishes and Regards

    • George Patton

      This is an impressive imitation of an Italian sonnet, Mr MacKenzie, which might garner a small fortune if printed on a Hallmark card. The ending, of course, is banal and syrupy sweet, an embarrassment really.

      I find your meter lacking variation. You are counting beans, rather than making music. Anyone can thump his iambs. I suggest you read Dr Donne’s “Death Be Not Proud”.

      Satyananda Sarangi, I enjoyed your excellent sonnet hugely.

      • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

        Since you are evidently unable to distinguish between the genres of religious poetry (Donne’s “Death be not proud”) and amatory verse, I find myself unable to attach the least importance to your opinion.

  4. David Watt

    Writing from the heart is often the most eloquent, and this is no exception.

    • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

      Oh yes, Mr. Watt, yours is a truth we must all keep in mind. But, if I may, I should like to add to it that the subject of the Sonnets for Elizabeth, namely Elizabeth herself, is the true source of whatever eloquence may be found in the poems she has inspired.


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