The Penguin Book of the Sonnet

by Edited by Phillis Levin
448 pages,
ISBN: 0140589295

The Oxford Book of Sonnets

by Edited by John Fuller
362 pages,
ISBN: 0192803891

101 Sonnets:
From Shakespeare to Heaney

by Edited by Don Paterson
129 pages,
ISBN: 0571197329

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Sonnets From Sea to Sea
by Richard Sanger

"So who wrote good sonnets in English?" It was 1984, I was in a restaurant in Seville just up the street from the second-largest cathedral in Christendom, and Spain's top poet was testing me, his willing translator (and reluctant catamite). We'd been talking about Eliot and Byron and Auden, whom he loved and knew better than I did then, but now Jaime Gil de Biedma was set to prove there was one game at which Spain could beat the Anglo-saxon world. Some middle-aged tourists were herded past the door, still ooohing-and-aaahhing over the baroque enormity they'd just visited; I was trying to think of some quaint mossy chapel that could stand comparison. Keats, I proffered. A skeptical look as he toyed with his food¨fish, I think. Oh, and how about Milton? "I'd trust Milton more," he said, and the talk went on to other things.
Twenty years later, I'm better prepared to answer question¨with the help of three recently published anthologies edited by poets (an American, an Englishman, a Scot) that collect and chronicle the sonnet's history in English. How did a form that originated in the 13th century Sicilian court make such a splash? In Spain, as most Spanish schoolchildren know, the moment the sonnet entered the language is easy to pinpoint: the soldier-poet Garcilaso de la Vega went for a walk in the gardens of Granada's Alhambra with a friend recently returned from Italy who suggested that he might try in Spanish what the Italian courtiers were doing. In English, it is Sir Thomas Wyatt whose imitations of Petrarch introduced the form to the court of Henry VIII. Wyatt's sonnet "Whoso list to huntÓ", reputedly lamenting the loss of his lover Anne Boleyn to the King, opens the tradition (as well as two of these anthologies) and ends with an emblematic couplet:
"Noli me tangere, for Caesar's I am,
And wild for to hold, though I seem tame."

If Wyatt henceforth kept his hands off Anne, we may be grateful that he and his successors in English embraced the shapely Italian so wholeheartedly that it was brought into the language¨in fact, the sonnet has probably lived a richer and more exciting life in English than any other language.
This is not to say that other traditions have been negligent, as even the most cursory listing of non-English sonneteers proves. What does seem true is that, in Romance languages, perhaps because rhymes are more frequent, usually feminine and consequently less varied, the Renaissance models loom that much larger. Or perhaps, as Gil de Biedma might argue, the peaks were that much higher in Spanish and Italian. With the exception of the French 19th-century, Romance poets have not been able to renovate the sonnet form in the same way English poets have¨that is, to liberate it from its dry literary past and make it swim in touch with soft-mouthed life (or foul¨I rephrase Heaney but note that a talking fish swims through three very enjoyable sonnets by Leigh Hunt that Fuller includes). In fact, when modern Romance poets have turned to the form, they have frequently paid the English sonnet the ultimate compliment, reversing Wyatt and bringing English modifications back into their languages, like good Latin Lotharios introducing their new blonde girlfriends to Mama and then slipping upstairs for some limb-loosening un-Petrarchan fun. It is symptomatic that Eugenio Montale, the great Italian poet of the 20th century, published no more than three sonnets, two of which used the Elizabethan scheme. (He did have an American girlfriend). Borges, a much more prolific sonneteer, has likewise imitated English models, relying on the Shakespearean closing couplet. Then there's Jose Blanco White, the priest and political exile from Seville, of places, who wrote in English a sonnet, "To Night", that Coleridge once named the finest in the language.
But what has made the sonnet so successful? In English, the list of poets who have neglected the form is far more revealing than the list of those who have not: Chaucer, Marvell, Pope, Dryden, Blake, Whitman, Eliot, Pound, Lawrence, Williams, and Hughes form an unlikely and heterogenous group of abstainers. (Fuller also names Stevens and the Brontes as poets who should have written sonnets but didn't; I would add Roethke). Phillis Levin, in her lengthy and erudite introduction, cites Paul Oppenheimer's argument that the sonnet was the first lyric form since the fall of the Roman Empire "intended not for music or performance but for silent reading" and thus became "an instrument of self-reflection," a kind of pocket-mirror in which we could find ourselves. It's a good argument that gives rise to two objections. First, is Oppenheimer not projecting present-day reading practices back onto the past, in the same way that 19th century scholars once assumed that Homer sat down and wrote the Iliad with a quill pen? Was the sonnet's only public a literate one? One of the form's great virtues is that it is easy to memorize¨the average sonnet takes one minute to recite¨which is, presumably, why blind poets such as Milton and Borges turned to the form. As Paterson says, a sonnet is "a little machine for remembering itself." Secondly, it's hard not to feel that Oppenheimer and Levin, like many a professor flogging their wares, overstate the case, trying to make too much out of a poem. Surely the wonderful lines the sonnet has brought into being are miraculous enough; its state is kingly, and it perhaps does not need such work or gifts, however well-intended.
More intriguing are the speculations concerning the sonnet's proportions, in which both Levin and Paterson dabble. These come with an alluring, patchouli-tinged whiff of the occult, of numerology and neo-Platonism about them. The argument is that the proportions of the octet and sestet (8 : 6) approximate the Golden Mean (8 : 5) employed by architects since well before the building of the Acropolis. In the Golden Mean, "the ratio of the smaller part to the larger is the same as that of the larger to the whole." Paterson, whose day job has been as a musician, argues that these proportions are omnipresent in nature and hints at how they work in music. Levin, like Paterson, connects the Golden Mean to the Fibonacci sequence of numbers (1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21Ó) and then tells us that Leonardo Fibonacci of Pisa (1170-1250) corresponded with Frederick II (1194-1250) of Sicily, later Holy Roman Emperor, at whose court the poet Giacomo da Lentino (1188-1240), il Notaio (or the Notary), composed the very first sonnet, by combining a Sicilian folksong form (eight lines rhymed ABAB ABAB) with a sestet rhymed CDE CDE. It all connects and the result was, in Levin's words, "a poem that turned and spoke to itself." One can see more in all this, as both Levin and Paterson do, speculating on mystical numbers and unlucky numbers, six days of creation, seven rhymes, musical octaves, the thirteenth apostle, Frederick's fourteen notariesÓ The essential point is that the sonnet, in its proportions, somehow echoes a ratio of inherent "natural rightness" (Paterson) which humans instinctively respond to, one of whose most common manifestations are the dimensions of the page you are now reading.
Of course, when Pope wrote "But most by numbers judge a poet's song," it wasn't this he was talking about; it was metre. In English, Wyatt's introduction of the form in the 1530s led to Sir Philip Sidney's sequence "Astrophel and Stella" which, published in 1591, five years after the author's death, inaugurated the Elizabethan sonneteering craze, with Shakespeare's 153 sonnets and Spenser's "Amoretti" being the most notable fruit. Written in hexameter, unusual for sonnets, Sidney's opening poem nonetheless sounds the dominant note:
Thus great with child to speak, and helpless in my throes,
Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite,
'Fool' said my Muse to me, 'look in thy heart, and write.'

Of course, much of what the Elizabethans found (or put) there, alongside new language and emotion, became convention. The sonnet arrived in English at the same time as iambic pentameter (and our accentual-syllabic verse system) were being defined and, in the worst cases, the definition was mistaken for a formula. The bane of the sonnet sequence (and anthology) is rhythmic monotony, one uniformly mellifluous end-stopped pentameter succeeding another mechanically, like cigarette packs shunting down inside a vending machine, the reached-for rhymes all falling so snugly into place they belie the protestations of tempestuous emotion. What one begins to crave (rhymes with save, brave and knave) is disruption, at least a bizarre proper noun ("Tetrachordon") or some daring new lexical deployment ("besmeared with sluttish time") or Anglo-saxon vulgarity; better still, a truly arresting conceit and, best of all, the sound of something happening, a raw human voice behind all those words.
The great virtue of the sonnet in English is in how, mirroring history and the heart, it has admitted and contained such disruption, which it has often sung as a sweet disorder or sudden blow, remaining, like Wyatt's muse, "wild for to hold though I seem tame." In Shakespeare's sonnets, which came early in his career when his verse was at its most regular, the most memorable and affecting moments always bring changes to the verse, the lines breaking up or running over the end and, yes, altering when they alteration find:

That time of year thou mayest in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon the boughsÓ
Likewise, in a form which encourages fluency (if the Elizabethans seem prolific, the American psychiatrist Merrill Moore was a 3-to-5 a day man, topping 50,000 in his lifetime), the repetition or reiteration of a single word within a line¨a favourite ploy¨creates drama, and the sense of a person struggling to bring real experience into words. "Poetry is passion," Wordsworth wrote, defending the procedure, and words are "things, active and efficient, which are of themselves part of the passion."
The same willingness to cut things off or pile them up, or say the same thing twice, makes Donne's Holy Sonnets so powerful (and later dominates the style of Hopkins's religious sonnets to the point of mannerism). Syntax and metre play off each other, or, in profspeak, "exist in dynamic tension." Returning to the Petrarchan model, Milton infused the sonnet with ambition, reshaping it with his architectural sense and gorgeous run-on syntax (he was the champion enjamber of English) and thereby created a new kind of sonnet in English, neither just amorous or devotional but somehow both and more besides. I hope Gil de Biedma (who died in 1990) trusted him; Wordsworth certainly did, writing "in his hand/the thing became a trumpet; whence he blew/soul-animating strains¨alas, too few!"
Of these three anthologies, Levin's is by far the most comprehensive: printing two sonnets a page, she includes more than 600 of them, with Frost as her halfway point and the real strength being her bountiful selection of contemporary poets. She defines the sonnet broadly, printing poems both shorter and longer than 14 lines, and brings in everything from Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind" to his friend Horace Smith's own quite different "Ozymandias", from Geoffrey Hill's corrosive "September Song" to Molly Peacock's "Lull" ("Look hard, life's soft. Life's cache/Is just flesh, flesh and flesh"). Inclusive as it is, it includes no Canadians and leans towards the elevating¨and the TlevTs. Paterson chooses a few more old chestnuts than one would expect from a young Scottish shitkicker, shows a commendable taste for the rake's vernacular swagger (Rochester's "Regime de vivre" and Tony Harrison's "Guava Libre") and fishes up his own great discoveries (Catherine Dyer's wonderfully poignant 1641 Epitaph faces Milton "Methought I sawÓ" and stands up); my only disappointment is that he leaves out John Peale Bishop's "A Recollection", best described as a mock pre-Raphaelite acrostic fantasia on necrophilia (see opposite page). Half the size of Levin's anthology, Fuller's Oxbook errs in the opposite way, selecting only one poem per poet after Auden for reasons of "publishing expense," a serious liability when one considers Lowell, Hill, Heaney and Muldoon, and imposing a strict formal definition that favours the mellifluous. However, Fuller unearths some wonderful forgotten gems, many of them by pre-1900 women (Mary Wroth, Charlotte Smith, Anne Seward, Christina Rossetti) who effectively answer the swaggering men, and includes two Canadian poems (Kenneth Leslie's "The silver herring..." and Malcolm Lowry's "About Ice"), both of which, though from opposite coasts, feature fish or fishermen. It all connects¨from sea to sea. And to Seville. ˛

Richard Sanger's new collection of poems, Calling Home, has just been published by Signal Editions.

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