Getting to know… the sonnets

February 23, 2010

A sonnet (literally, ‘little song’) is one of the oldest surviving poetic forms.

This is partially explained by its origin in the love-lyric (in the thirteenth century Italian love-lyrics of Piero delle Vigne and Giacomo da Lentini, to be more precise). However, it’s more complex than that. Dante and Petrarch would have considered love as tied up with creative prowess, the beloved as muse, etc. Implicit in the sonnet’s origin as love-lyric is the idea of contrariness, a pull and push between love and reason, unity and disunity, tension and release. Say no more.

It’s as if, unsatisfied with
the harmony of an even-split,
the form has to be more
deeply split.

The sonnet has endured because it reflects the contrariness at the heart of human nature and is, to quote Don Paterson, ‘perfectly fitted to the shape of human thought’. John Donne’s ‘Holy Sonnet XIX’ (‘Oh, to vex me, contraries meet in one’) brilliantly grapples with contradiction and contrariness: ‘I change in vowes, and in devotione. / As humourous as is my contritione /As my prophane Love’. And ‘Holy Sonnet XIV’ leaves us with that memorable paradox, ‘for I/ Except you‘enthrall mee, never shall be free, /Nor ever chast, except you ravish mee’.

Aside from subject matter, a deeper contradiction embodied by the sonnet is that, traditionally, it is asymmetrical. It’s as if, unsatisfied with the harmony of an even-split, the form has to be more deeply split. Traditional sonnets consist of two stanzas, an octave (eight lines) and a sestet (six lines). The Shakespearean sonnet dispenses with this and instead is marked by its final clinching couplet (although still adhering to the same unravelling of philosophical reflection which the sonnet is so enduringly disposed towards). Another traditional characteristic is the volta, or ‘turn’, which comes between the octave and sestet. Phillis Levin remarks that it ‘introduces into the poem a possibility for transformation, like a moment of grace…we could say that for the sonnet, the volta is the seat of its soul. And the reader’s experience of this turn reconfigures the experience of all the lines that both precede and follow it’. The volta cuts into the preceding argument like a flash of insight.

Don Paterson points out that for all the various traditional rules for sonnet writing – the fourteen lines, the rhyme scheme either Petrarchan or Shakespearean, the octave/sestet division, the volta between line 8 and 9, etc, – ‘A great sonnet … will often surprise you by doing at least one thing it’s not supposed to do. Though we should remember that the poet had to learn the “rules” before they could deliberately break one of them’.

A great sonnet will often
surprise you by doing at
least one thing it’s not
supposed to do

Now for a quick history. One of the reasons why Shakespeare had such an impact on the sonnet, besides adapting it to the difficulties posed by a lack of rhymes in the English language, is that he took a risk thematically, reclaiming the figure of the beloved from tedious overpoeticisation through an attitude of increased realism. He fused tradition with innovation to produce the brilliant line we all know: ‘My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun….’

In the early seventeenth century there was a movement in theme from Shakespeare’s earthly sentiment back towards the sacred. Yet this sacred, as we can see in Donne, has been re-envisaged. The sonnet becomes a means of direct address to the divine, whereas previously, by and large, a lover or beloved, or muse, had been addressed. Wordsworth revitalised the sonnet in the nineteenth century, as Shakespeare did in the sixteenth. We see a move from constraint towards expansiveness. This is partly achieved by a shift of emphasis from sonnet as rarefied pressure chamber, to sonnet as capable of speaking the language of the common man. Wordsworth’s approach would have come as a refreshing change, contributing to the sonnet’s longevity and granting enough stability to the form for poets such as Shelley and Keats to deconstruct his agenda. And indeed they did.

Enter the Victorian poet, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, with sonnets such as, ‘A Sonnet is a moment’s monument’. Wordsworth’s visionary gleam comes up against the stark reality of time. In ‘A Moment’s Monument’, Jennifer Ann Wagner tells us that ‘Rossetti understands the sonnet to be a kind of death in life, a formalized stasis. The isolation of the moment holds no revelatory vision, because revelation for Rossetti is obscured by temporality and therefore by thought, memory, and artistic form itself.’ The Victorians, however, did much to sentimentalise the form.

The contemporary poet is in the unique, though quite confusing, position of being able to scan back over the centuries and weigh up differences of approach, thematic and structural. However, to overlook the essential spirit of the sonnet would be clumsy, if not an infidelity. Problem is, no one can agree on what that is. One precept we can stick to is that writing a good sonnet should be hard work because it demands a kind of thought that whilst being highly compacted is also clearly articulated, just as a diamond results from the intensive compression of coal. The general consensus is that any subject matter is fitting, as long as it is subjected to this kind of process. Seamus Heaney’s ‘The Skylight’, for example, is proof that the profound exists in the ordinary, that the sonnet is a little quest to unearth that profundity, a means by which we can dig deeper into the richness of our everyday experience.

From all this we might conclude, strangely enough, that the very themes embodied in the sonnet are displayed at large in its evolution over time: the struggle between tradition and innovation, between structure and content, and between reason and love. This comes very close to suggesting that the sonnet is not simply a poetic form (nor for that matter is any form), but has a kind of multi-dimensional inner life of its own in which the sonneteer, past and present, participates.

Rachael Boast has recently completed her PhD at St Andrews University. Her poems have appeared in Addicted to Brightness, Markings, Poetry Wales and The Yellow Nib. She is working on a first collection, and a study of contemporary poetry in relation to the Book of Job. This piece first appeared in our Poetry Reader, Issue 6.

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