Sonnets have no rival. They’ve been written about kingfishers, love, squirrels, the moon (too often), God, despair, more love, grief, exultation, time, decay, church bells beyond the stars heard, war, statues, castles, rivers, revolutionaries, architecture, madness, seascapes, letters, kisses, and more or less everything else from apocalypse to zoos. Since its invention in 13th-century Sicily the sonnet has been the most versatile and enduring of poetic forms. It has been pumped with inscape and instress by Gerard Manley Hopkins, filled with sentiment by Anna Seward, cut and pasted by Ted Berrigan (his 1964 Sonnets were apparently assembled with the help of the 1960s equivalent of a Pritt Stick), and worked into a tortuous frenzy by Michelangelo. Blank verse and the heroic couplet, the staples of English versification from the 16th to the 19th century, seem small-timers by comparison. Sestinas have come and gone. Ottava rima and rhyme royal had their day, but lost favour when readers ceased to want long poems which combined storytelling with epigrammatic cleverness. Even now, when set poetic forms are generally snarled or snored at, the sonnet is probably the only verse shape that almost all literate people would be able to identify, if only through having seen Shakespeare’s ‘Let me not to the marriage of true minds’ printed in the order of service at weddings. Most people of a certain age could recite a sonnet or two by Wilfred Owen, or Keats, or Shakespeare.
How did this half-page filler, a half-pint form of a mere 14 lines, come to be so successful? From a reader’s point of view the answer is obvious. A sonnet is short enough not to get lost in but long enough to encompass at least one thought and probably a counter-thought too. They’re teachable and learnable. From a poet’s perspective the sonnet is a dream of organised flexibility, offering both liberties and bounds. For large portions of English literary history the word ‘sonnet’ could be used to describe more or less any short poem, but even the narrow definition favoured by the OED (‘14 decasyllabic lines, with rhymes arranged according to one or other of certain definite schemes’) allows for ingenious transformation. Fourteen is a good number to divide up. It can yield three quatrains and a couplet (the so-called Shakespearean sonnet, actually first used in the late Henrician period), or an octave and a sestet (the Petrarchan form, actually found as early as Dante), or even a set of seven couplets. Within each of these variations there may be further variations: do the quatrains hide a couplet within them (abba) or do they make up a couplet of rhymes (abab)? Should ‘a’ and ‘b’ rhymes dominate the octave, or can ‘c’ and ‘d’ jostle their way in too? The sonnet is a toolkit for tinkerers, and its formal flexibility can be matched by shifts and tricks in argument: poets who liked to turn things upside down could begin with a six-line rhymed unit (as Shelley did to evoke the topsy-turvy world of ‘England in 1819’), or use quatrain to refute quatrain, or break up the quatrains into couplets in quizzical dialogue with each other – as Alison Brackenbury does in her mischievous sonnet of 2004 called ‘Homework. Write a Sonnet. About Love?’
When poets have written about the sonnet they have tended to represent it as a small orderly space. Samuel Daniel is often quoted as having said: ‘is it not most delightful to see much excellently ordered in a small room?’ But he preceded that remark by commenting ‘especially seeing our passions are often without measure’, and potentially measureless freedoms also seem to come into poets’ minds when they think of the sonnet. That’s probably true even of Wordsworth’s declaration that ‘Nuns fret not at their convent’s narrow room’ and that ‘’twas pastime to be bound/Within the Sonnet’s scanty plot of ground.’ As Leigh Hunt drily noted in The Book of the Sonnet (1867), ‘thousands of nuns, there is no doubt, have fretted horribly, and do fret.’ That surely was part of Wordsworth’s point: a sonnet is not just an orderly space, but one which contains a passion or a thought fretting to get out. And that’s why, throughout its history, the sonnet has appealed to people who think of themselves as innovators or modernists – as Petrarch, Sidney, Dante, Michelangelo and Shakespeare did, as well as more recent experimenters such as Hopkins, John Berryman or the sub-Prynnean Tony Lopez. Donne and Hopkins used sonnets as vehicles for religious anguish because it’s so easy to suggest that they’re buckling under pressure, that the spirit will not run true to the form, or to God. The sonnet has a structure that invites mild rebellion. Its formal restrictions suggest less the unfretful Mother Teresa than the Julie Andrews kind of nun, who might just want to rip off the wimple and sing.
Stephen Burt and David Mikics’s collection of 100 sonnets through the ages is heavily weighted towards poems from the 20th and 21st centuries, and also towards some occasionally groan-worthy American poems – though perhaps hearts less jaded than mine leap up at Emma Lazarus’s effusion on the Statue of Liberty (‘Give me your tired, your poor,/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free’). Many of the more recent poems in the collection fret at the discipline of the sonnet form, and several transform it into a vehicle for poetic liberty. At the more extreme end is Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘Sonnet’, which, with 14 half-rhymed or unrhymed lines of six syllables or fewer, looks like the left-hand half of a sonnet cracked down the middle. It begins ‘Caught – the bubble/in the spirit level’ and goes on ‘Freed – the broken/thermometer’s mercury’. It asks us to wonder if being captured is actually preferable to being freed: mercury cannot measure without a thermometer around it, nor can spirits level without a vial of glass; but mercury freed – quicksilver – is fun. For Bishop the word ‘sonnet’ suggests the benefits and costs of enclosing the amorphous within a fragile container. Amy Clampitt’s ‘The Cormorant in Its Element’ is more obedient, but it stages a natural rebellion by diving from the octave to the sestet with a hyphen, as the
ly, in one sleek involuted arabesque, a vertical
turn on a dime, goes into that inimitable
One reason sonnets have come to be thought of as the natural form of what we now call ‘lyric poetry’ is that they can imply stories, or gesture to wider truths which might be immanent in a simple daily action, like praying, grieving, cutting hay, watching birds or reading a letter. Sonnets have often been written in larger groups, or ‘sequences’ as they’re misleadingly called, which can make these larger ambitions apparent. Groups of sonnets do not form sequences in the sense that the numbers 3,6,9 do: they don’t follow one from another in a predictable order but work together to imply a personal history, or an argument. Individual sonnets within a sequence are not bound to fit in, and sometimes single poems or small groups of poems can suddenly hint at a different version of the story from that which seems to be related in the larger sequence – as the small number of sonnets about the supposed ‘Dark Lady’ in Shakespeare’s sequence appear to do.
This aspect of the sonnet began with Dante’s Vita Nuova of 1295, which mixes verse with prose in order to relate, part as allegory, part as fiction, his love for Beatrice and his sorrow at her death. Dante’s sonnets sometimes recapitulate the surrounding narrative and sometimes widen its emotional scope. Each is followed by a short critical analysis which explains how the poem divides into two or three sections. The sonnets are therefore ‘occasional’, but not in the simple sense of being occasioned by a particular moment. They’re lyric responses to the larger story from which they arise, but they’re also presented as works which might stand on their own: Dante gives each its own title as well as its own commentary. La Vita Nuova prompted Petrarch to write his Rime sparse, which in turn led scores of sonneteers throughout 16th-century Europe and beyond to adore their Lauras, Delias, Stellas and Cassandras. Dante made the sonnet a lyric form in which a whole situation, a life, perhaps even a civilisation could be embedded in 14 lines.
That legacy runs right through the sonnet tradition. It enables an individual sonnet to function as a synecdoche: a single sonnet is visibly small and partial, a mere sonetto, a shapely little suono or ‘sound’, but it is a part which may suggest a larger story. The Petrarchan tradition is often disparaged today (Burt and Mikics have little time for it), but Petrarch took the sonnet a step further than Dante, and not just by getting rid of prose narrative and making the ‘narrative’ links between the poems implicit rather than explicit. The Petrarchan lover represents being in love as an endless state of pining and yearning, but also hopes that he is part of a story (boy inches towards girl, or boy inches towards boy; girl dies, or boy leaves, or scorns the poet). That gives Petrarch’s sonnets a curious temporal status: they’re caught between telling a story and the endless process of loving. And the paradox of loving is that it can be at once a state of being and a particular act that testifies to that state – a declaration of passion, a statement of physical desire. That paradox shapes the Petrarchan tradition, in which the expression of love is an obsessively repeated act which strives to carry an eternity of loving within it. This has a number of consequences for the history of the sonnet. Most Petrarchan poets are afraid of being swamped by repetition, and of replicating Petrarch’s story. The worst do indeed repeat and self-replicate endlessly. But it also means that the Petrarchan love sonnet has a touch of what came to be thought of as the sublime: because it does not quite tell a story it seems always to be gesturing to something beyond itself, a love which is never either fully consummated or revealed, but which is grandly on the edges of vision, glimpsed only in parts, through individual and more or less defective sonnets.
The sonnet fell out of favour in England for around a century after Milton’s death in 1674. It’s probably fruitless to try to explain why this happened, since ‘causes’ in literary history are as chaotically multiple as those that underlie changes in fashion. People get bored of static intensity in short poems as they periodically tire of floral shirts. But there is something about the deliberate provisionality of the sonnet which makes it unimaginable that Alexander Pope should ever have written one, or that Ben Jonson (who wrote only six) would take them seriously. Milton’s abrasive political sonnets, prompting ‘the age to quit their clogs’, which used the form to make an urgent response to both personal and political events, may not have helped the status of the sonnet in the early 18th century either. The revival of the form in the final quarter of the 18th century, though, makes sense in ways that go beyond fashion. At around this time there was a new excitement about Shakespeare’s sonnets, which came to be read as confessional poems (Wordsworth was following a whole generation of commentators when he claimed that ‘With this key/Shakespeare unlock’d his heart’). There was also a growing interest in the sublime and in ruins. This was one of those uncanny moments in literary history when a later age both misreads what’s going on in earlier writing and recognises something in it that appears obvious once you have been taught to see it. Suddenly the sonnet seemed like the perfect vehicle for a small-scale personal meditation on bare ruined choirs, a modest form that could gesture towards sublime emotions.
In her Original Sonnets on Various Subjects (1799), Anna Seward quoted a ‘Mr White’ from the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1786 who said ‘the style of the sonnet should be nervous, and, where the subject will with propriety bear elevation, sublime.’ Mary Robinson (described by Coleridge as ‘a woman of undoubted genius’, but perhaps too full of dim memories of Gray and Milton quite to deserve that praise) duly described the moon as ‘sublimely still, and beautifully pale!’ In ‘On Bamborough Castle’, William Lisle Bowles praises a sublime ruin in lines that shake up Shakespeare, Milton and Wordsworth with a dash of Mary Robinson:
Ye holy Towers that shade the wave-worn steep,
Long may ye rear your aged brows sublime,
Though, hurrying silent by, relentless Time
Assail you, and the winter whirlwind’s sweep!
Bowles, creaking though he now sounds, was a big influence on the sonnets of the major Romantic poets, which were generally written to stand on their own rather than in sequences, and which were often inspired by Miltonic vehemence as well as by a belief that Shakespearean sonnets revealed personal emotion; the love theme tends to drop out or be transformed. So Coleridge’s ‘Work without Hope’ (1825) adapts the commonplace of the Petrarchan tradition that the year renews and birds and bees fall in love while the speaker remains alone and unloved, a theme on which the Earl of Surrey (who had been freshly edited in 1815), among others, had composed variations. Coleridge, though, is not a frustrated lover but a frustrated poet, yearning to produce a larger artwork which lies beyond the scope of the poem and beyond the capacity of the poet: ‘Bloom, o ye amaranths! bloom for whom ye may,/For me ye bloom not!’ The sonnet had arrived as an apologia for a non-existent longer work, or as a testament to broken spiritual energy: as Hopkins put it (perhaps echoing Coleridge, perhaps Surrey), ‘birds build – but not I build.’
Poets continued to build in sonnets’ pretty rooms. Shelley could thunder against his times in a revival of Milton’s political sonnets, but he also wrote the sublime and seemingly fragmentary ‘Ozymandias’, which takes a broken work of art as a miniature token of a larger story about tyranny:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
A sonnet without a sequence is a part without a whole, and that is one reason ‘Ozymandias’ is so powerful. We see only a part of an artwork, ‘vast and trunkless legs of stone’ and ‘a shatter’d visage’. Around those fragments lie deserts of ‘lone and level sands’. A part can reverberate with the force of a whole, and can convey nostalgia, fear or excitement about the absence of that whole. Keats works in a similar way when he describes the ‘dizzy pain’ elicited by the Elgin Marbles, ‘That mingles Grecian grandeur with the rude/Wasting of old Time – with a billowy main –/A sun – a shadow of a magnitude.’ ‘A shadow of a magnitude’ magnificently evokes a larger structure that isn’t there, and also suggests the curious power of the sonnet to evoke a larger lost form. Rilke’s ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo’, in the same vein, describes a headless statue that ‘holds fast and shines’ even though ‘We never knew his head and all the light/that ripened in his fabled eyes.’ The poem exploits the power that comes from seeing only a part of things; it ends with the abrupt order, ‘You must change your life,’ and the statue seems to generate a surplus of authority by being partly lost. Probably a poem which was not a sonnet could have done the same thing. But the post-Romantic sonnet, with its roots in a poetic of the sublime, and with its buried legacy of sequences that use single poems to articulate a larger story, is particularly well suited to create this kind of shock. A part has lost its whole, but gains from the loss.
This is not an easy or an entirely comfortable legacy, and 20th-century writers of sonnets have sometimes seemed to try too hard either to be like or to differentiate themselves from earlier exponents of the form. In this collection there are those like Tony Harrison who want to hector the sonnet into becoming anti-elitist; there are others like Forrest Gander who are perhaps too keen to see the form as just a set of rules to break. But there are some great recent poems here, several of which manage that distinctive sonnetish trick of describing a small occasion in a way that suggests an obscured larger history. Patrick Kavanagh’s ‘Epic’ turns a boundary dispute between Irish farmers into a Homeric encounter. Geoffrey Hill, the modern master of the sonnet as vehicle for embedded history, reflects on the idea of England in one of the sonnets from ‘An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England’ (not ‘Loss and Gain’, the one that Burt and Mikics include, but the even finer ‘The Laurel Axe’). The poem describes a single scene, but also alludes to the attitudes which enable one to notice that scene and which also perhaps distort or ‘romanticise’ it:
Platonic England, house of solitudes,
rests in its laurels and its injured stone,
replete with complex fortunes that are gone,
beset by dynasties of moods and clouds.
That quatrain weights every word with time (‘Platonic England’ is an allusion to Coleridge), but also with mythologies which inspire intimacy and mistrust. The line ‘replete with complex fortunes that are gone’ is dazzling, and it suggests why the sonnet is such a good form in which to explore English histories and church histories in particular. It’s not just that Donne and Herbert wrote sonnets; rather the sonnet has become a short space that can be filled with time, ‘replete with complex fortunes that are gone’. A ‘house of solitudes’ (and sonnets are often figured as protective enclosures, a pretty room, a cell) that ‘rests in its laurels’ is not just like a great house surrounded by a laurel hedge: the phrase suggests something resting on its laurels, near to ruin.
Because sonnets tend to imply so much and say so relatively little they have always generated commentary: Dante’s came complete with their author’s notes, Petrarch’s were repeatedly worked over by more or less pedantic editors, and Michelangelo’s were first printed accompanied by a thick layer of neo-Platonist commentary. Shakespeare’s have been picked over at great length by Edmund Malone, Helen Vendler, Stephen Booth and so many others, while the fearsome poet (though no sonneteer) J.H. Prynne has produced a whole volume of commentary on the single Sonnet 94 (‘They that have power to hurt’). Commentary on sonnets is particularly hard to write, because it can end up filling in the gaps which really need to remain gaps if the poem is to retain its power – to imply, as it were, that we need to see and know the whole of the Elgin Marbles in order to understand what Keats is on about when he enthuses over their fragments. Burt and Mikics write two or three pages about each of their poems, and mostly these are clear and patient guides to rhythm and form, allusions, their relations to the lives of their authors. Sometimes they sound a little like patient teachers doing the diligence (or mostly doing the diligence, since there are a couple of howlers: the course of English poetry might have been rather different if the Earl of Surrey had lived to become ‘a proud Elizabethan nobleman’, rather than being executed in 1547, 11 years before Elizabeth’s accession). Often, though (and particularly in the commentaries signed by Burt), they say just the right thing to make their readers turn back to the poems. Since the editors regard the sonnet as ‘a shape where strong emotion might make sense’, they tend to position each poem on an axis that runs fairly smoothly from formalism to autobiography. They are of their age in doing so, but it means that they don’t always recognise how the sonnet can function as a symbolic fragment which obliquely alludes to larger narratives.