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Echo Chamber—and Amplifier

The persistent sonnet

July-August 2010


Poets writing in English have six centuries’ worth of forms at their disposal. During the Renaissance, Shakespeare and Milton made blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter) the standard mode for narrative and dramatic verse, while in the eighteenth century Dryden and Pope preferred the urbane rhythms of the heroic couplet. Then there are the adopted forms, not quite domesticated from their French or Italian originals: rhyme royal, sestinas, triolets. Recently, American poets have become fond of the pantoum, an originally Malay form that involves a cyclical repetition of lines. But none of these is as vigorous, even in the generally lawless and anti-formal world of contemporary American poetry, as that most conventional and classical of forms, the sonnet.

The Art of the Sonnet, an innovative and intelligent new anthology edited by the poet and critic Stephen Burt, recently tenured as professor of English at Harvard, and David Mikics, professor of English at the University of Houston, is designed to showcase the sonnet’s surprising endurance. Of the 100 sonnets in the anthology, 17 were published since 1990, while the sixteenth century--usually considered the golden age of the sonnet sequence--is represented by just eight selections.

If you are looking for a book that will give you all the best sonnets ever written in English, this imbalance might be unsettling. But the editors explain in their preface that “we do not mean to claim equal stature for every one” of the poems in the book, and “we have also left out some sonnets that stand...among the finest in the language.” Burt and Mikics argue, quite reasonably, that the most famous sonnets in English have been anthologized endlessly--they cite three major sonnet anthologies published just in the last decade. The goal of The Art of the Sonnet, rather, is to “show what the sonnet has meant” to writers of English over the last six hundred years, “and how it has changed.” To this end, each poem in the book is accompanied by a short essay, in which the editors offer useful historical background and insightful critical remarks.

In what way is a sonnet by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, a powerful nobleman at the court of Henry VIII, like a sonnet by Tony Harrison, a twentieth-century poet from the English working class--or, for that matter, a sonnet by Gwendolyn Brooks, an African-American woman? It is not necessarily that they share a single, fixed form. The classic sonnet consists of 14 iambic pentameter lines, rhymed according to a fixed pattern, and divided in one of two ways: the Italian sonnet contains an octave (the first eight lines) and a sestet (the last six), while the English or Shakespearean sonnet has three quatrains and a concluding couplet. But while some twentieth century poets--Robert Frost, Seamus Heaney--use the strict form, many others depart from it. Robert Lowell, for instance, wrote hundreds of sonnets consisting of 14 unrhymed pentameter lines. Marianne Moore’s superb, and highly characteristic, 1932 poem “No Swan So Fine,” included in The Art of the Sonnet, has neither the rhymes nor the pentameters nor the section breaks of the traditional sonnet:

“No water so still as the
  dead fountains of Versailles.” No swan,
with swart blind look askance
and gondoliering legs, so fine
  as the chintz china one with fawn-
brown eyes and toothed gold
collar on to show whose bird it was.

Lodged in the Louis Fifteenth
  candelabrum-tree of cockscomb-
tinted buttons, dahlias,
sea-urchins, and everlastings,
  it perches on the branching foam
of polished sculptured
flowers--at ease and tall. The king is dead.

This poem has 14 lines--does that make it a sonnet? Burt and Mikics convince us that the answer is yes, in part because of the subject of Moore’s poem: the difference between the real swan and the artificial one, which is the difference between nature and art, and between the present and the past. Read in the context of this anthology, Moore’s poem seems to ask if the sonnet isn’t as courtly and antique as Louis XV’s chintz china bird. If the king is dead, and the swan so unmistakably obsolete--a fact ironically underscored by Moore’s choice of the flower name “everlastings”--why hasn’t the sonnet joined them?

The reason the sonnet isn’t history, Burt and Mikics argue in their introduction, is precisely that “the sonnet had a history--and to write a sonnet was to participate in a line of poets, stretching back for centuries, who had taken up the form. The sonnet by the early twentieth century, in English at least, stood less for particular historical lines than for history as such.” Almost from its beginning, in fact, the sonnet was a peculiarly self-conscious form. One of Shakespeare’s most famous sonnets, “My mistress’s eyes are nothing like the sun,” is actually a parody of the conventional love sonneteer’s “blazon,” or catalog of his mistress’s beauties. When Wordsworth, in the midst of the Napoleonic wars, wanted to rouse England to its ancient virtues, he wrote a sonnet about Milton (“Milton! Thou shouldst be living at this hour”) as a way of invoking Milton’s own noble, civic-minded sonnets, such as “On the Late Massacre in Piedmont.”

The Art of the Sonnet includes both of those poems, allowing the reader to see how the tradition extends and resonates through the centuries. But Burt and Mikics take care also to give us very different sonnets by each poet: the bereaved Milton of “Methought I saw my late espoused saint,” the intensely psychological Wordsworth of “Surprised by Joy.” And it is revelatory to see, alongside these canonical poems, some less-known works that clearly echo and respond to them. Many readers will recognize Keats’s “On Seeing the Elgin Marbles,” but few will know Trumbull Stickney’s 1905 poem “Mt. Lykaion,” which also swoons at antiquity:

Alone on Lykaion since man hath been
Stand on the height two columns, where at rest
Two eagles hewn of gold sit looking East
Forever; and the sun goes up between.
Far down around the mountain’s oval green
An order keeps the falling stones abreast.
Below within the chaos last and least
A river like a curl of light is seen.
Beyond the river lies the even sea,
Beyond the sea another ghost of sky,--
O God, support the sickness of my eye
Lest the far space and long antiquity
Suck out my heart, and on this awful ground|
The great wind kill my little shell with sound.

All poetry can be seen as a conversation between poets over time. In The Art of the Sonnet, the little room of the sonnet serves as an echo chamber and amplifier, allowing us to hear those voices--great and small, living and dead--more clearly than ever.

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Making scant (and mute) evidence tell its story: the empress Sabina, sculpted A.D. 136-138

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