"Lute Player" by Theodor RomboutsThirty-one Sonnets: Renaissance to New Millennial The Society March 3, 2018 Culture, Essays, For Educators, Poetry, Poetry Forms 7 Comments by Lew Icarus Bede “A sonnet is a coin: its face reveals The soul—its converse, to what Power ’tis due: Whether for tribute to the august appeals Of Life, or dower in Love’s high retinue, It serve; or, ‘mid the dark wharf’s cavernous breath, In Charon’s palm it pay the toll to Death.” —Dante Gabriel Rossetti The sonnet is a poetic form developed in medieval Italy; and since that time and place, it has spread around the globe and traveled throughout the centuries. The word sonnet derives from a word meaning little song; and through its enduring popularity has shown itself to be an excellent vehicle for human expression. Although there are many variants of the sonnet, for each individual likes to put his or her own individual stamp upon it, its basic form is fourteen lines usually in iambic pentameter with ten, eleven, or twelve syllables. The most common division is between the octave, the first eight lines, and the sestet, the last six; the first part of the sonnet presents its thesis or argument and the latter augments or counters it. Rhyme is predominantly used throughout the poem. In the Italian sonnet, the octave usually has a rhyme scheme of abbaabba. Two sestet possibilities include cdecde and cdcdcd. The English sonnet is more likely to break into quatrains, an ababcdcd octave and an efefgg sestet. The French sonnet frequently begins with an Italian octave, but at the volta, the turn into the sestet, commonly starts with a couplet and ends with a quatrain ccdede. In the Russian sonnet, the rhyme scheme is typically ababccddeffegg. And there are other varieties as well, as, for example, what I have called the American sonnet with an ababcdecdefgfg rhyme scheme, with a tripartite division. In addition, because sonnet writers from around the world are so numerous, I would be surprised if any individual has read even a quarter of them all; and so, in light of that, I can only speak to those poets and poems I am familiar with. In addition, because of time and space constraints, I will limit this essay to thirty-one sonnets written in English. The tradition of sonnet writing in English begins in the 16th century with Thomas Wyatt. An example of his work, the following sonnet on Wyatt’s appreciation of the beauty of Anne Boleyn and his exasperation on ever achieving it, has a rhyme scheme which follows the Italian sonnet, but with a final couplet which foreshadows the ending the English sonnet will take. (For ease of reading, some spellings and an occasional word, here and there, have been altered, though only slightly. I have also typed the sonnets flush to the left line without indentations.) “Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind, But as for me, alas, I may no more; The vain travail hath wearied me so sore, I am of them that furthest come behind. Yet may I by no means my wearied mind Draw from the deer, but as she fleeth afore Fainting I follow; I leave off therefore, Since in a net I seek to hold the wind. Who list her hunt, I put him out of doubt, As well as I, may spend his time in vain. And graven with diamonds in letters plain, There is written her fair neck round about, ‘Noli me tangere, for Caesar’s I am, And wild for to hold, though I seem tame.'” That Wyatt’s fears in his sonnet were grounded in reality has been shown by historical events, since Anne Boleyn and another early 16th century sonneteer, Henry Howard, both lost their lives to Henry VIII’s jealousy. Henry Howard himself developed the rhyme scheme of what later became the English sonnet. In the late 16th century, the sonnet flourished. English poets wrote hundreds of them, and many wrote sonnet sequences, like Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, and William Shakespeare. Spenser even created his own rhyme scheme ababbcbccdcdee, which has since come to be called a Spenserian sonnet. An example is seen in the following sonnet from his sonnet sequence Amoretti, a series of questions in quatrains, also on frustrated love. “My love is like to ice, and I to fire: How comes it then that this her cold so great Is not dissolv’d through my so hot desire, But harder grows, the more I her entreat? Or how comes it that my exceeding heat Is not delayed by her heart frozen cold, But that I burn much more in boiling sweat, And feel my flames augmented manifold? What more miraculous thing may be told That fire, which all things melts, should harden ice: And ice which is congealed with senseless cold, Should kindle fire by wonderful device? Such is the pow’r of love in gentle mind That it can alter all the course of kind.” Shakespeare typically used the English sonnet developed by Howard; and did so with such faculty that the English sonnet is sometimes called the Shakespearean sonnet. An example of his, also from the late 16th century, addresses a common Elizabethan theme, i.e., a kind of immortality arising out of the sonnet itself. “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate: Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May, And summer’s lease hath all too short a date: Sometimes too hot the eye of heaven shines, And often is his gold complexion dimmed; And every fair from fair sometimes declines, By chance or nature’s changing course untrimmed; But thy eternal summer shall not fade, Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st; Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade, When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st: So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.” With the inauguration of the 17th century, Baroque attitudes swept through Europe; and in England, the period came under Samuel Johnson’s nomenclature Metaphysical. Sonnet 10, from John Donne’s Holy Sonnets, a powerful apostrophe to death, is an illustration of the rhetoric and tenor of the time. “Death be not proud, though some have calléd thee Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so; For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me. From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be, Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow, And soonest our best men with thee do go, Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery. Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men, And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell, And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then? One short sleep past, we wake eternally And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.” As the century progressed, sonnet writing continued, but it was no longer the fad that it once had been. An excellent example from the second half of the 17th century is Milton’s sonnet on his blindness. “When I consider how my light is spent Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide, And that one talent which is death to hide Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent To serve therewith my Maker, and present My true account, lest he returning chide; ‘Doth God exact day-labor, light denied?’ I fondly ask; but Patience to prevent That murmur, soon replies, ‘God doth not need Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state Is kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed And post o’er land and ocean without rest: They also serve who only stand and wait.” After the Restoration in 1660 in England, the sonnet fell out of favor; and poets, like John Dryden and Alexander Pope, favored heroic couplets, pairs of rhymed iambic pentameters, those condensed lines found at the end of the English sonnet. So much so that toward the end of the 18th century, despite an occasional sonnet by, for example Thomas Gray, Samuel Johnson said of the sonnet: “It is not very suitable to the English language, and has not been used by any man of eminence since Milton.” But with the close of the 18th century, the situation changed dramatically, and the Romantics took up the sonnet with a great deal of enthusiasm. Though much more likely to write of nature in his poetry, William Wordsworth, countering attitudes of the Age of Reason, advocated the sonnet’s use in a sonnet. “Scorn not the sonnet; critic, you have frowned, Mindless of its just honors; with this key Shakespeare unlocked his heart; the melody Of this small lute gave ease to Petrarch’s wound; A thousand times this pipe did Tasso sound; With it Camões soothed an exile’s grief; The sonnet glittered a gay myrtle leaf Amid the cypress with which Dante crowned His visionary brow; a glow-worm lamp, It cheered mild Spenser, called from Faeryland To struggle through dark ways; and, when a damp Fell round the path of Milton, in his hand The thing became a trumpet; whence he blew Soul-animating strains—alas, too few!” Other sonneteers of the Romantic period include Percy Shelley, who used the sonnet structurally in his Ode to the West Wind, John Clare, and John Keats, who experimented in his odes with sonnet sections. By the mid-19th century, the number of sonneteers continued to increase. In England, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnet 43 for her husband Robert struck a note of sterling purity . “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. I love thee to the depth and breadth and height My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight For the ends of Being and ideal Grace. I love thee to the level of everyday’s Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light. I love thee freely, as men strive for Right; I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise. I love thee with the passion put to use In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith. I love thee with a love I seemed to lose With my lost saints—I love thee with the breath, Smiles, tears, of all my life!—and if God choose, I shall but love thee better after death.” After the Revolutionary War, Americans picked up the writing of sonnets, like William Cullen Bryant and Edgar Allan Poe, but it was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who more naturally fell into “the Sonnet’s scanty plot of ground.” In his sonnets, he addressed, among other topics, poetic forerunners, like Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton; and in a sonnet that he never published, Longfellow wrote the following poem eighteen years after his second wife Fanny Appleton died in a fire. “In the long, sleepless watches of the night, A gentle face—the face of one long dead— Looks at me from the wall, where round its head The night lamp casts a halo of pale light. Here in this room she died; and soul more white Never through martyrdom of fire was led To its repose; nor can in books be read The legend of a life more benedight. There is a mountain in the distant West That, sun-defying, in its deep ravines Displays a cross of snow upon its side. Such is the cross I wear upon my breast These eighteen years, through all the changing scenes And seasons, changeless since the day she died.” In the 19th century, Canadian poets wrote sonnets frequently descriptive of nature. Early sonneteers included Charles Heavysege and Charles Sangster; and later, those born near Confederation in 1867, like Charles Roberts, Duncan Campbell Scott, and Archibald Lampman, who in Among the Orchards demonstrates his descriptive gift. “Already in the dew-wrapped vineyards dry Dense weights of heat press down. The large bright drops Shrink in the leaves. From dark acacia tops The nut-hatch flings his short reiterate cry; And ever as the sun mounts hot and high Thin voices crowd the grass. In soft long strokes The wind goes murmuring through the mountain oaks. Faint wefts creep out along the blue and die. I hear far in among the motionless trees— Shadows that sleep upon the shaven sod— The thud of dropping apples. Reach on reach Stretch plots of perfumed orchard, where the bees Murmur among the full-fringed goldenrod Or cling half-drunken to the rotting peach.” Other 19th century English sonneteers include Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who defined a sonnet in The House of Life as “a moment’s monument,” his sister Christina Rossetti, and Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose intense spirituality literally seems to break out of the sonnet’s confines, as in The Windhover, to Christ Our Lord. “I caught this morning morning’s minion, king- dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon in his riding Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing, As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of, the mastery of the thing! Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here Buckle! and the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier! No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear, Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.” Other late Victorians who moved into Modernism, like Thomas Hardy and William Butler Yeats, wrote occasional sonnets; but one of the most famous British sonnets of the early 20th century was that by Rupert Brooke, who died when, near Lemnos, he got blood poisoning from an insect bite, enroute to Gallipoli during World War I. “If I should die, think only this of me: That there’s some corner of a foreign field That is forever England. There shall be In that rich earth a richer dust concealed; A dust who England bore, shaped, made aware, Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam, A body of England’s, breathing English air, Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home. And think, this heart, all evil shed away, A pulse in the eternal mind, no less Gives Somewhere back the thoughts by England given; Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day; And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness, In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.” At the time of Brooke’s death, Winston Churchill called World War I “the hardest, cruelest, and the least-rewarded of all the wars that men have fought.” Another British poet Wilfred Owen, who was killed in action at the Battle of Sambre a week before the end of World War I, described the horror of that war in many poems, including the following Sonnet On Seeing a Piece of our Heavy Artillery Brought into Action, parts of which were used by Benjamin Britten in his War Requiem, which had been composed for the reconsecration of Coventry Cathedral, that was destroyed during the Battle of Britain in World War II. “Be slowly lifted up, thou long black arm, Great gun towering towards Heaven, about to curse; Sway steep against them, and for years rehearse Huge imprecations like a blasting charm! Reach at that Arrogance which needs thy harm, And beat it down before its sins grow worse; Spend our resentment, cannon,—yea, disburse Our gold in shapes of flame, our breaths in storm. Yet, for men’s sakes whom they vast malison Must wither innocent of enmity, Be not withdrawn, dark arm, thy spoilure done, Safe to the bosom of our prosperity. But when thy spell be cast complete and whole, May God curse thee, and cut thee from our soul!” In America, transitional writers, like Robert Frost and Edwin Arlington Robinson also wrote sonnets. But even when the full force of Modernism hit at the beginning of the 20th century and the sonnet was relegated to the sidelines, it was not without its proponents. One of its strongest advocates was Edna St. Vincent Millay. One example can be seen in her title-dependent poem On Hearing a Symphony of Beethoven. “Sweet sounds, oh, beautiful music, do not cease! Reject me not into the world again. With you alone is excellence and peace, Mankind made plausible, his purpose plain, Enchanted in your air benign and shrewd, With limbs asprawl and empty faces pale, The spiteful and the stingy and the rude Sleep like scullions in the fairy tale. This moment is the best the world can give: The tranquil blossom on the tortured stem. Reject me not, sweet sounds! oh, let me live, Till Doom espy my towers and scatter them, A city spellbound under the aging sun, Music my rampart, and my only one.” Other Modernists who wrote sonnets, included poets from the Harlem Renaissance, like Countee Cullen and Claude McKay. McKay, in his sonnet America, captures neatly the bold, violent tone the Modernists propounded. “Although she feeds me bread of bitterness, And sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth, Stealing my breath of life, I will confess I love this cultured hell that tests my youth! Her vigor flows like tides into my blood, Giving me strength erect against her hate. Her bigness sweeps my being like a flood. Yet as a rebel fronts a king in state, I stand within her walls with not a shred Of terror, malice, not a word of jeer. Darkly I gaze into the days ahead, And see her might and granite wonders there, Beneath the touch of time’s unerring hand, Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand.” Amongst those mining the experimentalist vein of Modernism, could be found figures, like E. E. Cummings, whose typographical sonnets opened the sonnet to concrete and deconstructionist modes in the space-time continuum. “pity this busy monster, manunkind, not. Progress is a comfortable disease: your victim (death and life safely beyond) plays with the bigness of his littleness —electrons deify one razorblade into a mountainrange; lenses extend unwish through curving wherewhen till unwish returns on its unself. A world of made is not a world of born—pity poor flesh and trees, poor stars and stones, but never this fine specimen of hypermagical ultraomnipotence. We doctors know a hopeless case if—listen: there’s a hell of a good universe next door; let’s go.” Australians put their own special stamp of puckish irreverence on the sonnet in works like Bernard O’Dowd’s sonnet Australia, which he refers to as the “Last sea-thing dredged by sailor Time…” or The Cow. “This is a rune I ravelled in the still, Arrogant stare of an Australian cow— ‘These prankt intruders of the hornless brow, Puffed up with strange illusions of their skill To fence, to milk, to fatten and to kill, Once worshipped me with temple, rite and vow, Crown me with stars, and bade rapt millions bow Before what abject guess they call my will! Today this flunkey of my midden, man, Throws child-oblations in my milking-byre, Stifles in slums to spare me lordly fields, Flatters with spotless consorts my desire, And for a pail of cream his birthright yields, As once in Egypt, Hellas, Ind, Iran!'” In mid-20th century, as Modernism was supplanted by Postmodernism, the sonnet continued to play a peripheral role; but again was not without its practitioners; and, as in previous periods, sonnets continued to be written with traditional rhyme and meter, and experimented with, like Dylan Thomas, Seamus Heaney and Louis MacNeice, who, in his sonnet Sunday Morning, tosses out typical rhyme scheme and regular meter as well. “Down the road someone is practicing scales, The notes like little fishes vanish with a wink of tails, Man’s heart expands to tinker with his car For this is Sunday morning, Fate’s great bazaar; Regard these means as ends, concentrate on this Now, And you may grow to music or drive beyond Hindhead anyhow, Take corners on two wheels until you go so fast That you can clutch a fringe or two of the windy past, That you can abstract this day and make it to the week of time A small eternity, a sonnet self-contained in rhyme. But listen, up the road, something gulps, the church spire Opens its eight bells out, skulls’ mouths which will not tire To tell how there is no music or movement which secures Escape from the weekday time. Which deadens and endures.” More traditional sonneteers, included Anglo-American poets, like W. H. Auden and John Gillespie Magee, Jr., who died during World War II, while serving the Royal Canadian Air Force in England. Written just before his death at nineteen years of age, his sonnet High Flight speaks of the breathtaking aspects of flying. “Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings; Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth Of sun-split clouds—and done a hundred things You have not dreamed of—wheeled and soared and swung High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there, I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung My eager craft through footless halls of air. Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue I’ve topped the windswept heights with easy grace Where never lark, or even eagle flew. And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod The high untrespassed sanctity of space, Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.” In Postmodern America, sonnets continued to be written by antitraditionalists, like Ted Berrigan, who used cut and paste techniques, along with random snippets of thought, and Confessionalists, like Robert Lowell, who opted for originality within traditional rhyme and meter, as in his sonnet Concord. “Ten thousand Fords are idle here in search Of a tradition. Over these dry sticks— The Minute Man, the Irish Catholics, The ruined bridge and Walden’s fished out perch— The belfry of the Unitarian Church Rings out the hanging Jesus. Crucifix, How can your whited spindling arms transfix Mammon’s unbridled industry, the lurch For forms to harness Heraclitus stream! This Church is Concord—Concord where Thoreau Named all the birds without a gun to probe Through darkness to the painted man and bow: The death-dance of King Philip and his scream Whose echo girdled this imperfect globe.” The New Millennial period continued to see new sonnets, which ranged in sequences, from Mark Jarman’s “Unholy Sonnets” and Ernest Hilbert’s “Sixty Sonnets” to Joseph MacKenzie’s “Sonnets for Christ Our Lord.” A few examples will suffice to show the sonnet continues to be a vehicle for artistic expression. My first example is a seriocomical English sonnet by Basil Drew Eceu: “Update on the Sonnet: From an American Point of View.” It was written in response to Wordsworth’s Scorn Not the Sonnet of the early 19th century, and includes figures from before and after Wordsworth up to the early 21st century. Approximately a dozen names are disguised in verbal puns. Eceu seems spurred on to pack his sonnet with even more names than Wordsworth in his. “Wise is the sonneteer who clothed in verse will choose his cloth for what its swath will bear, like Esther who addressed the Persian curse or Joseph wearing bloody camo gear. Wise is the sonneteer who no one sees but high or low ‘ll cut an ernest ell. Fain would he wave his weave with such as these, no juster tailor found near shore nor dell. Why at his back the words were thick and worn, Ronsard, Camões, Pushkin, Rilke, Borges, Keats, Hopkins, Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, torn, Petrarca, Tasso, and the two Dantes. How arduous he works at fulling mill, a Daniel still say I, and dyeing twill.” Embedded in the above sonnet is a reference (cf. line 3) to Esther Cameron, whose sonnet of 2004 Ta’ anit Ester, id est, The Fast of Esther, is the second sonnet I have chosen. It has a rhyme scheme of abbaabbacdecde, in the Italian mode. If she is not the first to use such anglicized Hebraic words, as Sinai and Amalek, in poetry, she does at least acclimatize them with simple Anglo-Saxon rhymes. Their placements right at the end of the octave and sestet (cf. below) are also significant. “Can anyone still hear my people’s cry, Even they themselves? Can anybody stand In the blown-apart heart of the Holy Land, Can anybody see with shattered eye All that is done? Can anyone think why, Marshal a shredded brain to understand? Can anybody grasp a severed hand, Can a cut-out tongue still stammer of Sinai? O GOD, restore the image of Your Law, Restore the sacredness of human form, If not for Israel’s, for your sweet earth’s sake. Send us a sign, send forth a ray to draw Love’s faithful in against the hateful storm, To uphold the norm, and face down Amalek!” In the title, the author begins by mingling her own name and times with that of the young Jewess, who during the reign of the Persian King Ahasuerus, interceded to have him rescind an order that condemned all Jews be put to death. Those times certainly do seem similar to ours, as we are living through the century after the Nazi Holocaust and the ongoing and undiminished, irrational hatred of the Jews. In fact, whereas in the Book of Esther, it was the Persian Haman, whose name perhaps suggests noise, tumult and/or magnificence, and who called for the death of Mordecai and his people the Jews, it is now, inter alia, the neoPersian (or Iranian) who calls the Holocaust a myth and calls for the annihilation of Israel. Also embedded in the octave of her poem teem images of violence to the human body, reminiscent of the aim of rocket launchers and suicide bombers, “the blown-apart heart,” “shattered eye,” “a shredded brain,” “a severed hand,” and “a cut-out tongue.” The repetitions of “Can anyone” and “Can anybody,” in so few lines, quickly build to a deeply-felt desperation. In the modern moment we’re living in, Cameron’s opening cri de coeur, “Can anyone still hear my people’s cry…” rings true and genuine, even if it is a rather lonely voice. In such a climate, how can anybody, like Moses, come down from the Mountain and bring the Law of the Lord? Is it any wonder, then, that Ms. Cameron, once editor of The Deronda Review in the United States has since emigrated to Israel. The Joseph mentioned in the first New Millennial sonnet mentioned is that of Joseph Salemi, conflated, of course, with the Biblical Joseph. In the following sonnet, Mr. Salemi, editor and producer of the poetic journal Trinacria, evinces that rich, metrical diction of which he is a strong proponent. The following sonnet “Potpourri” is from Steel Masks of 2012. “Take leaves at first, curled crisp by autumn’s cold— Crush them to crumbly powder in a tray To make a simple palette of decay In varied tints of brown and red and gold. Next flower petals, multicolored, bold In stark chromatic contrasts—dry and bray Them in a mortar till you cannot say Which shade is which. Then choose a jar to hold This mix of leaf and petal. Stir it well. Put in dried leaves of mint, of basil, sage; and lavender and lilac, eglantine— The lily, rue, and camphor’s pungent smell. Seal up the jar and simply let it age— The alchemy of death will work unseen.” Another Joseph, poet and literary critic Joseph Mackenzie, has written of the Salemi’s sonnet that it is “an aesthetically jubilant mediation on death…through the colors and fragrances of flowers.” A fourth New Millennial sonnet is that by Joseph MacKenzie, who has written many fine sonnets, as, for example, from his “Sonnets for Christ the King.” Here is “Sonnet IV. Edward the Confessor.” “Edward, the Cross no more on England’s shores Thy people blesses. The light of faith is gone. From stolen thrones the foes of Christ wage wars Against thy sons, and not one sword is drawn. Thy Westminster, by pagan rites profaned, Where thy pure corpse awaits the Day of Days, No more receives thy monks, but slaves enchained By petty masters and their taxing ways. Fair Prince, restore the reign of truth and peace, Thy Merry England of thy own dear times; On Mary’s precious Dowry send increase Of holy faith from Heaven’s starry climes, That rose and lily both on English sod May richly flourish for the sons of God.” Reminiscent of Shelley, especially the second stanza, and Arnold in its melancholy, what is remarkable is its clarity and sublime diction. A fifth sonnet I have chosen reminds me of Edward Taylor, as in his “Huswifery,” that is “Tapestry” by Amy Foreman. Interestingly she breaks the final couplet, and the final four-word sentence carries the thematic punch. “The pattern on the underside confused By snarl and tangle, jumbled, twisting knot. Its warp and woof embroidered without thought It seems: the flawless linen now infused With spots of wreckage—perfect weave abused. “A waste of thread,” I cry, upset, distraught, and try to pluck the mess now sewn in taut. Then see the Eye that watches me, amused— Whose Hand now turns the fabric tight-side-up. I, thunderstruck, perceive a pristine shawl, True motif, dyed perfection, glossy shine That stirs me as I contemplate close-up The faultless weft, undamaged after all. Eternity alone discerns design.” In the sixth sonnet mentioned here, singer/song-writer Austin MacRae, in “Library Lovers,” demonstrates both Elizabethan wordplay, dramatic setting, and abrupt stops in his work of 2010. Two of the most popular Postmodernist writers were romancer Danielle Steel (1947- ) and western writer Louis L’Amour (1908-1988). “She devours Steel, and he L’Amour. She leads him to the fiction, where they part for different shelves. He’s eager to explore the tough ol’ west, and she the tough ol’ heart. They meet me at the desk with separate piles. Unthinkingly, I mix the books together. I sense his wave of nervousness. She smiles and quickly sorts the titles out. ‘Nice weather today,’ she says. He slides his pile away, averts his eyes, and waits for her to pull out bags. ‘Let’s eat at Lou’s,’ I hear her say. She grabs his arm and leads him, tote bag full of cowboy stories swinging at his heel, his sidearm holstered by her whim of steel.” A seventh sonnet demonstrating the continued flourishing of the sonnet in the 21st century is Phillip Whidden’s “Vermont.” Here, as elsewhere in his work, light is a central concern, where the words seem chiseled in brilliant effects, here the topic and vocabulary are reminiscent of Frost. “A white wood house defines the slope. The trees Have gone to red and flame. A field beyond Is spread with grass and granite rocks at ease. This stonewall pattern thinks it holds a pond. But it is free beneath October’s sun, At least as free as anything can be In fever such as we all know when, done With heavy summer, eyes begin to see The chill of air and glaze themselves with dreams. Restrained. The farmhouse windows have their fire Inside as well. Twilight is more it seems, And maple facts can mesmerize desire. A white wood house defines the slope of hill Where people keep another autumn, still.” An eighth sonnet is that of Lorna Davis, “November,” of which British poet and critic James Sale has noted, “the movement from the natural world—the sunlight that beseiged us—to the great civilizations in the third stanza—to…the crisp, curt personal application…could be set aside Shelley’s…’Ozymandias.'” “The golden days of late October fade As bleak November’s iron skies descend. When tresses, like the leaden clouds, have greyed, We see our fruitful time’s approaching end. The sunshine that besieged us with its heat Now leans against the south walls, cold and tired. There is no empire time will not defeat; Each Golden Age that flared has soon expired. Byzantium lies silent under steel, Persepolis has crumbled back to dust. Despite the wistful longing we might feel, All times of summer fade, as fade they must. Embrace what time remains; it will not last. Your autumn, too, will soon be ancient past.” One of the best places to locate sonnets in the New Millennium is at the Howard Nemerov Sonnet Award site, where both poets and judges form a who’s who amongst 21st century sonneteers, from Richard Wilbur, who rarely dabbled in sonnets, to A. M. Juster, a modern sonneteer. Though many of the sonnet winners there use a looser iambic pentameter line than the previous aforementioned sonneteers, they are easily accessed, and worthy of a perusal for those looking at the present state of the sonnet. A ninth sonnet comes from one of those winners, Marion Shore: Petrarch on West 115th Street Piu volte Amor m’avea gia detto—Scrivi —Petrarch Back in those days a never-ending feature of my life was that I seemed to be in love—most often, unrequitedly— when you became my mentor, soulmate, preacher. I’d fallen hard for my Italian teacher, and I took refuge in your company, you who saw my heart, who spoke for me the words I never told a living creature. And that is when I have the inspiration to translate you. Then on pretext of asking for his advice on my translation, O mio maestro, I let you speak the love I held inside, and still he never new. Petrarch, maybe I even out-Petrarched you. Her sonnet is an admixture of Italian and English parts. Shore opens the poem, referring to the great Early Renaissance sonneteer Francesco Petrarca (1304-1374), with an Italian octave’s rhyme scheme and one-half of the rhyme, Italianate feminine endings; but she proceeds to an English sestet with one-third of the rhyme Italianate. Chaucer, who brought the Italian Renaissance into Middle English, was the last great writer in English who artistically utilized the feminine ending, as for example, in the “Prelude to the Canterbury Tales.” A tenth sonnet comes from one of those judges of the Howard Nemerov Sonnet Award, Wendy Cope, who modeled this sonnet on Shakespeare’s Sonnet 22. “My glass can’t quite persuade me I am old— In that respect my ageing eyes are kind— But when I see a photograph, I’m told The dismal truth: I’ve left my youth behind. And when I try to get up from a chair My knees remind me they are past their best. The burden they have carried everywhere I heavier now. No wonder they protest. Arthritic fingers, problematic neck, Sometimes causing mild to moderate pain, Could well persuade me I’m an ancient wreck But here’s what helps me to feel young again. My love, who fell for me so long ago, Still loves me just as much, and tells me so.” One final sonnet, which I hope readers of this already too long microessay will indulge the author, is a sonnet which also demonstrates how New Millennial writers frequently draw on earlier traditions: “Lines Composed on April 23, 2016, on the 400th Anniversary of His Death” by Wilude Scabere. “Shall I compare his language to a grave? It is more lively and more flowery. His rough-shook words refuse to be death’s slave. No tomb’s as showy or so showery. A sepulchre, though hard as rock, erodes, and shrines do often lose their lustre’s prime, while monuments, though nice, make poor abodes, and sadly catacombs decay in time. But Shakespeare’s language will not go away. Unceasingly, his lines play in the mind. They pop up even on a summer’s day. Unlike a crypt, they will not stay behind. Alas, poor Oracle, his song goes on, despite all efforts of oblivion.” Many of these sonnets have come to light through Evan Mantyk’s editorship at the Society of Classical Poets, another excellent place to find New Millennial sonnets, including the following sonnet “A Hero” by Mantyk himself. Zhen-Shan-Ren, Truth, Compassion and Tolerance, are the three main principles of the spiritual practice Falun Gong, which, along with Christianity, is persecuted in China. “These are the weathered shoes worn by the Jew, So cracked from all the miles walked since he fled. These are the slave’s strong legs like trunks that grew And worked so hard until he’s beaten dead. This is the heart of Christians who’re hemmed in by beasts, while Romans laugh at them and yell. These poisoned lips of Socrates destined To die, and yet in virtue ever dwell. This banner is the shield of Spartan men Outnumbered by a thousand foes to one; Its moral words in Chinese, Zhen-Shan-Ren, Are spears of truth that no one can outrun. The Falun Gong man now before you stands, A hero for all times and for all lands.” Finally, I do not for a second think that these thirty-one sonnets are the thirty-one best sonnets in the English language. First of all, I don’t think anyone could actually convincingly make that list. Secondly, I personally don’t think these are the thirty-one best sonnets in the English language; this is just a list of thirty-one sonnets. Some readers might prefer more analysis and less sonnets, or more sonnets and less analysis; but that has not been the purpose of this microessay. I simply wanted to show the variety of sonnet-writing through the ages, and give a few examples, giving a little bit more space to modern sonnets. I am probably the worst person to make this list, because I have been fighting the sonnet for decades. To fight it, but keeping its fourteen lines of iambic pentameter, I was driven to create what I earlier mentioned was an American sonnet (though others, like Ernest, have used a similar expression). From the sonnet, I fled to what I called the bilding, a square (block-like) structure of twelve lines of iambic hexametre, with a rhyme scheme of ababcbcdcdad. In that structure I was trying to create an iconic archetectonic structure for the modern era. But for an early acquaintance of mine, Robert Burks, I think no one other than myself was interested in that form. In the 21st century, about five years ago, I even turned the sonnet inside out and created the form that has come to dominate my poetry recently, the tennos, ten lines of iambic heptameter couplets. Although writers, like C. B. Anderson, McGrath, Mantyk, and Salemi, have attempted the form, it, like the bilding, has not gained much acceptance. Although I like it better for its aural qualities, as opposed to the bilding’s mathematical and visual qualities, Dana Gioia, et. al., dislike its couplet organization, reminiscent of Dryden, Pope, and other Neoclassicists. From my point of view, forms, like, the bilding, the tennos, and the American sonnet, are basic building blocks that can be extended in a variety of ways. And now, lest I digress too much, I beg the reader for forgiveness for errors in judgment that I may have committed in the composition of such a list, as a writer who is striving to get beyond the sonnet. Views expressed by individual poets and writers on this website and by commenters do not represent the views of the entire Society. The comments section on regular posts is meant to be a place for civil and fruitful discussion. Pseudonyms are discouraged. The individual poet or writer featured in a post has the ability to remove any or all comments by emailing submissions@ classicalpoets.org with the details and under the subject title “Remove Comment.” Share this:Click to share on Twitter (Opens in new window)Click to share on Facebook (Opens in new window) Related 7 Responses James A. Tweedie March 3, 2018 All hail to thee, who bears the name of Lew. May flights of angels praise thee for thy best— Nay, finest—essay which leaves all the rest Who write of sonnets bowing before you. Like Icarus your wings have touched the sun. And like the Bede in Durham’s stony pile You’ve giv’n us cause to think, to learn, and smile At sonnet’s venerable pentic forms: What fun! Each of the magisterial thirty-one Fair poems you selected was a prime Example of the genre’s metered rhyme. What else is there to say, except “Well done!” Now rearrange “bewailed curse,” surprise! We find, instead, the name, “Bruce Dale Wise!” Reply Lew Icarus Bede March 5, 2018 I definitely need some flights of angels, especially if I’ve singed my wings by touching the Sun, and end up in a spiraling bewailed curse. Mr. Tweedie is correct; I chose 31 because it is prime. Reply David Watt March 4, 2018 Mostly, we read sonnets in isolation, and do not have as a reference point an essay as lucid and comprehensive as yours. How wonderful to be provided a timeline of sonnets, their various forms, and thirty-one thoughtfully chosen examples. Many of these thirty-one are familiar to me. However, those sonnets by Edmund Spenser and Louis MacNiece were new for me, and made even more appealing due to your accompanying knowledgeable explanation. Reply Lew Icarus Bede March 5, 2018 Mr. Mantyk altered the title; I didn’t mean for it to be a primer. I think the original title was “A List of 31 Sonnets” or something like that. In fact, the first part of this was written for editor Timothy Rice at Rattle, so it does have a certain discontinuity to it. If it was a primer I would jettison some of the sonnets, like MacNeice’s, despite Mr. Watt’s interest, and put others in, like Frost’s “Design,” so that a second coat would be stronger. In fact, I could easily toss out half of these sonnets and come up with another list, at least, if not more so, satisfying. By the way, I enjoyed your use of “epizeuxis” in reference to Mr. Anderson’s poem; however, it is a scheme, words not affecting the intended sense. I know only so well what epizeuxis is, because it was one of those flaws to which I was addicted to for some time. In modern popular music (i. e., rap, country, rock, etc.) and political discourse it is endemic. And I see it used occasionally here as well among writers @ SCP. As to the Australian sonnet choice, I wonder what your favourite Australian sonnets are. Reply James Sale March 4, 2018 Ha ha ha!!! I cannot dislike an article that cites me as an authority! But I just wish somebody would cite my poetry, not my critical writings! Ah! Such is life. This so made me laugh. I got to the point where I asked myself: is Lew Icarus Bede the same person as Basil Drew Eceu? This schizophrenic personality is, I have to say, turning into a work of genius in its own right. We have this weirdly – and great – account of traditional sonnet writing and construction, but in the assumed identities and self-referential references a classic post-modernist ploy! I think as a professional coach (and BTW my new book from Routledge due out on the 16th March 2018 is called “Mapping Motivation for Coaching” – strongly recommended by me in true Eceu fashion) I would love to give Basil Bede some serious therapy, and when I eventually get to the USA I just must meet him – that is, the real Basil, if he can ever be found!! Reply Lew Icarus Bede March 5, 2018 Mr. Sale’s critical acumen strikes the Sun; he is exactly right; this is a classic Postmodernist self-referential ploy. But in some ways it is older too, as in interactions of Shakespeare’s characters, the rise of the novel following on the heels of the work of Defoe and Swift,Tennyson’s, Browning’s, and T. S. Eliot’s dramatic monologues, Pound’s personae, Pessoa’s person(alitie)s, etc. I think Vladimir Nabokov’s “Pale Fire” may be Postmodernism’s (1950-2000) most brilliant use of it. Other than yourself, I’m fairly sure the only writers who really appreciate these “charichords” are some recent Serbian poetic critics I have communicated with. I think it’s because, like Nabokov, they are in an alternate linguistic tradition and world, and they appreciate what I am about. Here are some brief comments from a much longer correspondence. Notice how they nicely wrote in English. “Dear Lude E. Serbiawić [my Serbian charichord], Your structures and systems are quite amazing, and yet they remain largely hidden. I see that this is by design. You can explain, but the reader’s subconscious can also do the work. Your charichords remind me of some of the coded names that Vladimir Nabakov characters sometimes use to describe themselves, but with greater sophistication. If you agree, we would like to publish “Vuk” [a famous Serbian lexicographer] and “The Present Daguerrotype in Brown and Oil” [a bilding on Tesla]. In a pre-amble to the poems, we would love it if we could use some of the text above describing your process. The way that you’ve guided us through your work feels very natural. It could similarly create light-bulb moments for our readers. I will assemble extracts from your email and propose a pre-amble for you to review prior to publication. As far as Serbian spelling goes, I will call your question to the attention of our other editors who might be more familiar with Cyrillic, and they can flag anything that needs correction. [They were fine; I did live in Russian House at the University of Washington (where we could only speak Russian) for one year.] I’m glad that you’ve been able to persist in the face of rejection. Many of us writers have dealt with that sting. Editors are often afraid to engage with what they don’t understand. It seems as if your process has remained strong in the face of carving your own path.” As a strange aside for me, the only time I have seen a poem of mine analyzed in a college classroom setting (without the students knowing it was my poem) was in the early 1980s, in a linguistics class by a Serbian professor, Vladimir Miličić, who has since passed away. I don’t know if I could even locate that poem; but it was a poem that utilized literary spiders from Jonathan Edwards to Robert Lowell in an analysis of the dark side of America. Finally, Mr. Sale, what sonnet of yours or others do you consider worthy of consideration? Reply Wilbur Dee Case March 11, 2018 Mr. Bede’s essay reminds me of an essay I wrote on one of those hidden names in Basil Drew Eceu’s sonnet: Essay on Some Sonnets of William Baer I can remember in my youth how the poetry of T. S. Eliot inspired me with its brash intensity, its esoteric allusions and its dynamic structures, qualities that would appeal to one of twenty. And I can remember, as well, how the criticism of that same writer excited me with his deeply-felt statements on literature through off-handed remarks and pronounced judgments. But that was in my youth. I have since come to look upon his work as if it were, what it really always was, one more body of writing in the vast extent of literature written in English. I now find that his poetry lacks the power, beauty and cohesion that one finds in a writer, say, like John Milton; and that, in his criticism, he does not say as much as I wish he would have about the actual language of other poets, especially his contemporaries, as, for example, in his essay of 1940 on Yeats. But it is a very hard thing to do, to comment on the writing of one’s contemporaries. One of the lacks in the poetry of Eliot, like that of Dryden, Pope and Samuel Johnson, was the sonnet. It was not a form that appealed to him, and it did not easily lend itself to the kind of poetry he was trying to write; though it was no barrier to writers as varied as Dante, Camões, Spenser, Ronsard, Gryphius, Góngora, and Pushkin. In fact, so many individuals have written sonnets since the creation of the sonnet in the 13th century in Italy, that they are actually uncountable. One of its many practitioners in the 21st century in America is William Baer, who, in Writing Metrical Poetry, points out, “the first English sonnets were composed by…Thomas Wyatt, and the English form of the sonnet was created by his friend Henry Howard.” It is that form that Baer seems to prefer to use, except, perhaps, when translating Camões: “Dear gentle soul, who has, too soon departed this life, so discontent, please rest my dear, forever in heaven, while I remaining here, must live alone in pain, and brokenhearted.” As Baer points out, the rhyme scheme of the English sonnet “consists of three quatrains rhyming abab, cdcd, and efef, followed by a concluding couplet, gg.” Comparing it to the Italian sonnet, what Baer likes about the English sonnet are its “less demanding rhyme scheme, the potential power of the final couplet, and [its] more structured options.” Although he defines the sonnet as “fourteen lines of iambic pentameter…approximately 140 syllables,” he does not adhere strictly to that meter, as can be seen in his opening quatrain of “Balcony”: “‘Please, just listen, and please don’t turn around. Keep staring at the sea. It’s a marvelous view tonight; the waves are beautiful, profound, and so seductively close, just like you.” Baer also notes that originally “the sonnet was…a love poem, but the Portuguese poet Camões (and later Milton in England) expanded the form’s thematic parameters, and now there seems to be no subject that the little sonnet can’t tackle.” One finds just such an example in his sonnet “Borges”: “So what did Borges think when he first learned that Camões dueled and beat a Borges (who collapsed, to the bloody street) when he returned back home from Lisbon in 1532? Maybe he said, ‘Ah, blades, of course, why not? Or maybe, he wished that it was him in the heat of the fight, self assured and fearless, hot to wield his sword, gracious in defeat. Admitting, “If a Borges has to lose, it’s best to lose to this crazy Senhor Camões’–even this young one, flush with booze, this one-eyed no-account, long before the sonnets, long before the going mad in Goa, and long before the Luciad.” There are so many things that strike me, both positively and negatively, about this poem I would be remiss not to mention at least a few of them. Things I like about the sonnet include the casual, anecdotal quality of the tone, the rhetorical repetition of “long before,” the focus on actual places and things, such as Lisbon, Goa, and the Luciad (Note its neat placement.), and the analysis of real people, like the Argentinian Borges (1899-1986) and the Renaissance figure Camões (1524-1580). I particularly like his use of those two great sonnet writers, Borges and Camões, in a sonnet. Things that draw me away from his sonnet include the awkward usage of bloody, his conditionals, some clipped expressions, some random metrical variance, and the comingling of slang and formal language. Furthermore, despite his fine prosaic cadences, the above sonnet by Baer also has ungrammatical parts, e.g., the sestet. His sonnet does serve as an acceptable example of the minimalism, so common in Postmodernist poets after Auden. Although all of the sonnets of Baer’s that I have studied are flawed, in a way that I think some of Esther Cameron’s are not, when one thinks what all New Millennialists are up against, even some of his worst sonnets are victories of a sort, i.e., he dresses his thought in form, the enemy of so many of the Modernists and Postmodernists. Take, for example, his nice sonnet “Snowflake.” “Timing’s everything. The vapor rises high in the sky, tossing to and fro, then freezes, suddenly, and crystallizes into a perfect flake of miraculous snow.” The first quatrain starts off mixing trochees with iambs in a clipped, bland diction, while the second quatrain proceeds ungrammatically; it has only an implied subject, the snowflake, with the semi-verbal forms, drifting, whirling, appearing, sensing, and seeking for predicates. “For countless miles, drifting east above the world, whirling about in a swirling free- for-all, appearing aimless, just like love, but sensing, seeking out its destiny.” In the sestet, which is a place where one looks for resolution, we find Baer continuing in a present participle neverland, except for the Swinburnian flips and dips and whips. “Falling to where the two young skaters stand, hand in hand, then flips and dips and whips itself about to ever-so-gently land, a miracle, across unkissed lips: as he blocks the wind raging from the south, leaning forward to kiss her lovely mouth.” If the periods at the ends of the quatrains were replaced with commas, then we could more easily see what we have: an opening, abstract two-word sentence followed by a remarkable 13½-line explication of the brief sentence with occasional alliteration, e.g., line twelve, etc. But that ungrammatical aspect to his writing is part of his style; and I’m not sure I would recognize his sonnets without it. One finds it “The Letter” as well, but here it is more balanced with noun-and-verb structures. “He finds it in her copy of Villette tonight: addressed and signed and stamped, although unsealed, unsent. A letter of regret, written before their wedding years ago. Written to him. Something she ‘needed’ to do, a letter of rejection: kind, polite, but firm, listing reasons (which he knew were all still true) why he wasn’t ‘right.’ The house strangely silent. She’s alseep. The children too. So what does it all imply? he keeps asking himself. Why would she keep it? And why would she keep it nearby? (Maybe because she doesn’t want to lose it. Maybe because she still intends to use it.) Though Baer allows the metrical structure of his sonnet to wander about a bit, as in line 5, he is fairly close to fourteen lines of iambic pentameter., e.g., lines 1-3. Another Baer trademark is his abrupt language, e.g., the placement of tonight, which compliments and completes the hushed, disquietude of the poem; Baer adeptly handles atmosphere. His listing, too, when it is succinct, as in lines 2 and 3, demonstrates finesse. From the tension of the octave, Baer shifts into questioning, where the final coup is his parenthetical couplet with feminine rhymes, which suggests irony, etc. From his own personal circumstances, he goes to Job 28 : 28 for his theme in the sonnet entitled “Job”: “And he said to man, ‘The fear of the Lord–that is wisdom, and to shun evil is understanding.’” “Yes: wisdom begins with fear of the Lord, which comprehends the power that made the seas, the earth, the shimmering dawn, the unexplored unfathomed skies, the moon, and the Pleiades. Which also know Who comes to judge our shoddy little failing lives, knowing full well, we need not fear the one that kills the body, but only He who condemns the soul to hell. Which also knows it magnifies the Lord, defying the demon, being the only release, oddly enough, from fear, being its own reward, which is also wise, is faith, is hope, is peace, is tender mercy, over and over again, until, at last, is love, is love. Amen.” Here, as usual, the grammar is confusing, and he does not heed Descartes’ admonition, “When writing about transcendetal issues, be transcendentally clear.” Pronouns and their antecedents are neither clear nor distinct; his sentences are not parsable; but that doesn’t, therefore, mean his language is unfathomable: it’s not. It is easy to understand his sentiments: that wisdom does begin with fear of God, that one can kill the body, not the soul, our duty is to magnify the Lord, defying evil makes us wise and whole. Interesting structural elements dot his sonnet: note at the opening of lines 2, 5, 9, and 12, the word which, Lord is at the end of lines 1 and 9, the opening lines of the octave and sestet respectively, the repetitions of is, in line 12, over, in line 13 and love, in line 14, and the word Amen at the end of the sonnet suggesting prayer. The single word that seems out of place is the Greek astronomical constellation, Pleiades, mentioned at the end of the first quatrain; it just strikes an odd note in a poem drawn from a verse of Job. I do like the alliteration of the l’s in line 6, indicating in their soft consonance our frailty in this universe. Another sonnet that draws on ancient Hebrew writings, this time from Genesis, is entitled “Adam,” a short disquisition on death. “He’d seen this thing before, of course, but never like this. After Eden, he’d found a swan lying motionless and silent, forever rotting, irretrievable, and gone. But now, it’s his boy, the brother of Cain, the shepherd son, the kind and faithful friend, of He-Who-Is, lying quiet and slain: finished, futureless, at the end of his end. Once Adam had named the names, and named his own two sons, and named this curse, which nullifies and terminates, as: ‘death.’ But he who’d known the awesome power of God looked to the skies, knowing, without a doubt, though nothing was said, his God both could and would undo the dead.” The movement of “Adam,” from examples to a generalized statement, is in the opposite direction of “Snowflake.” The octave of the sonnet holds two examples of death, the positing of the swan (really only mentioned in Leviticus and Deuteronomy in lists with other birds) and the murder of Abel. In dealing with the topic of death, and at a loss for precision, Baer becomes repetitive and his meter flounders in lines 8 and 9. However, by the end of the couplet, he is more sure of what he wants to say, with the emphatic both and the alliteration of the d’s on the iamb accents. For me the last line has a certain, wry flatness, which I think is admirable. Finally, I do not disagree with Landeg White’s observations on Baer’s Luis de Camoes: Selected Sonnets, where he writes, “These are not sonnets, rather prose-cribs chopped up, with slack rhythms and conventional diction, crucified on the rhyme scheme. Despite the lavish academic encomiums that accompany this volume, Camoes’ lyrics await a poet’s translation.” because those are the very things that mark Baer’s own sonnets in English. However, as founding editor and publisher of The Formalist, and as a writer of works generally metrical, he has done a real service to reintroduce metrical poetry to an English-speaking world raised on the cadences of Walt Whitman and T. S. Eliot. Reply Leave a Reply Cancel Reply Your email address will not be published.CommentName* Email* Website Notify me of follow-up comments by email. Notify me of new posts by email. This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.