Toolkit for Tinkerers

Colin Burrow

  • The Art of the Sonnet by Stephen Burt and David Mikics
    Harvard, 451 pp, £25.95, May 2010, ISBN 978 0 674 04814 0

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.

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