Friday, October 31, 2008

The Sole Unbusy Thing

Sonnets are a great place to ponder the relationship of the rhyme scheme to the voice, or feeling, of the verse. For in sonnets the rhyme scheme is almost always changed between the two sections of the poem. In Italian sonnets the first section generally went abbaabba, and the second was either cdecde or cdcdcd. In English we use more variety, yet the scheme of the two sections almost always changes, and the voice changes in tandem with it. Often English sonnets will be three four line sections, abab cdcd efef and the a concluding rhymed couplet that changes tone: gg.

Differing rhyme schemes produce, or at least accentuate, different attitudes and voices.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Satisfying Imbalance of Structure

In his introduction to The Oxford Book of Sonnets, John Fuller makes an interesting observation:

"The sonnet is a dualistic structure, formalizing the essence of drama in statment and response. In its origin in thirteenth century Sicily, the sestet [the final six lines] of the Italian sonnet may have had a different and answering music to that of the octave [the first eight lines] (typically abbaabba cdecde or cdcdcd). Certainly its defiance of the expectation of a second stanza complementary in length to the first is crucial to the satisfying imbalance of structure (8:6)."

He is quite right, there is a change of tone, and often a change of voice in the second section of many sonnets. Sometimes the latter portion answers the first, sometimes it intensifies it, or contradicts it. Perhaps it merely changes perspectives

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

A Challenge

After all this thinking about sonnets I've got a hankering to try my hand at making one. I'm really not a poet, just a lover of poetry. But I notice that when I get something especially delicious at a Thai restaurant I always come home and try to cook it myself. Although it generally isn't quite like what I had eaten at the restaurant, it is still usually tasty in its own way.

So I'm itching to see what I can do by way of a sonnet.

Verse That Immortalizes Whom It Sings

When William Cowper was ill and in need of care, the family of the Reverend Morley Unwin took him in. They cared for him for years in his illness.

The son, William Unwin, grew and became a minister. Cowper was to him something of mentor and elder brother to whom he would write with his ministerial questions, to which Cowper would respond with long, thoughtful, and affectionate letters.

But it was to Mary, the wife of Morley and the mother of William that Cowper became the most attached. When Morley died, Cowper remained in the home with William and Mary until William moved away for his ministerial duties.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Soul in Paraphrase

Well, if yesterday's post of John Donne's sonnets didn't do it, this glittering sonnet from George Herbert should put the nails in the coffin of the theory that I advanced a few days ago. That theory, that the sonnet is best suited to themes of love-from-a-distance, I now renounce. Donne and Herbert did me in. Gerard Manley Hopkins should have made me think twice before posting such a thought. But, oh me, I write this blog on the fly, in spare moments, and I don't always think enough before hitting the 'publish' button.

Ne'ertheless, I still hold that such a theory of sonnets being especially well suited to love-from-a-distance

Monday, October 27, 2008

Immensity Cloistered in Thy Dear Womb

Now to post a few poets whose sonnets do not fit the pattern that I described a couple days ago. While there may be longing in these sonnets, and undoubtedly there is, it is not primary. These sonnets are not of romantic love of a man for a woman or a woman for a man. Here we find the adoration of a mortal on his face before his creator. This is adoration in its highest sense.

John Donne is more known for his Holy Sonnets, "Death be not proud. . .," but I have chosen some others to present here. While the Holy Sonnets can be considered a set of sonnets, LA CORONA is truly a sonnet sequence. It absolutely must be read in order, so I am posting the whole series here.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

I Have to Teach It

"There is no point in teaching poetry; most kids don't even like it. I have to teach it because it is in the curriculum. I would much rather not have to teach it, but in order to get paid for this section I have to teach it."
Mr. Pittsford, my seventh grade daughter's English teacher

Love From a Distance

The last few posts having been dedicated to sonnets, I am left with one question.

I vaguely sense why the sonnet is so well suited to themes of love, not so as to try to explain it, yet I can feel that it is a perfect fit. Love-sonnet. Sonnet-love. It just fits well.

Yet I am left with the question, why are sonnets so perfectly fitted to love from a distance?

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Whom I Grieve to Grieve

"Beatrice, immortalized by 'altissimo poeta. . . cotanto amante'; Laura, celebrated by a great tho' inferior bard,-- have alike paid the exceptional penalty of exceptional honour, and have come down to us resplendent with charms, but (at least, to my apprehension) scant of attractiveness."

Thus, speaking of Dante and Petrarch, begins Christina Rossetti's intro to her 'sonnet of sonnets', MONNA INNOMINATA.

The phrase, 'sonnet of sonnets,' is not to be taken in the sense of 'a man among men,' or 'King of kings.' Rather, the sonnet being fourteen lines, this is a series of fourteen sonnets.

Monday, October 20, 2008

My Late Espoused Saint

The sonnet seems well adapted to expressions of love, adoration, longing and even lust. And for some time, fifty or eighty years after it was introduced from the Italian into English poetry, that was almost its exclusive function. For half a century or so the writing of love sonnets was all the rage among the gentry and courtiers of Elizabeth's court. Then, as with all things, the form which had once seemed so vibrant began to feel trite and formulaic. This was partly due to overuse, and even more due to the weakness of many of the poets who had been using it while it was the rage. So it goes with all fads; they fade.

The sonnet had become the meduim of choice for every half-baked infatuation. It no longer carried the extended passion of a Sidney or a Spencer or a Shakespeare. Poor poets allowed its fire to die down.

And the sonnet slowly fell out of favor.

Then came Milton:

Sunday, October 19, 2008

No Le Clezio

A French novelist, Le Clezio, won the Nobel Prize for literature this fall. So, feeling stupid because I had never heard of him, I went to the bookstore to pick up one or two of his books to see what he is all about.

The bookstore tells me that they do not show any English translations of Le Clezio's novels. But would I like one in a Spanish translation?

So, has anyone out there read Le Clezio? Please, fill me in. . .

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Who Quake to Say They Love

Philip Sidney was one of the premier courtiers in Elizabeth's court. As a young man he travelled with the queen to the home of a Lord Essex, where he met the charming and beautiful daughter of Essex, Penelope. For someone so enthralled with the literature of the ancient Greeks and Romans, the name Penelope alone would have been enough to pique his interest.

In his own words:

Not at first sight, nor with a dribbed shot
Love gave the wound, which while I breathe will bleed;
But known worth did in mine of time proceed,
Till by degrees it had full conquest got:

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Ends of Being

In the years before their marriage Elizabeth Barrett wrote forty-four sonnets to Robert Browning. Although she did not want to publish them, being somewhat bashful about their extremely personal tone, he persuaded her. Still, in order to somewhat distance herself from them she gave the collection the inaccurate title of Sonnets From the Portuguese.

They are, as her husband told her, the best sonnets in English since Shakespeare. And, much more than Shakespeare's sonnets, they are a series rather than simply a collection. To some extent Shakespeare's sonnets should be read roughly in order and in context with one another. To a much greater extent Barrrett's sonnets should be read strictly in order. It is no accident

Friday, October 10, 2008

No Nobel for Yevtushenko. . . yet

Well, I guess that I will have to wait another year to see the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko win his well deserved Nobel Prize for literature. The announcement came today that this year's prize went to French novelist Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio. According to Nobel rules it will be many years (fifty, I think) before they even officially admit that he was nominated. Those Norwegians love their secrecy.

As much as I like to avoid discussing "current events" here, I am breaking my own rules and I will quote from an AP story about this year's prize.

Le Clézio had been considered a strong contender

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Deep in Unfathomable Mines

Among the many great works of William Cowper, is his collaboration with his friend John Newton on a hymnal to be used in their church. That is, in the church of which Newton was pastor and of which Cowper was a member.

The most known song in the book was Newton's Amazing Grace. Most of the many hymns in the book are able to be sung to about four or five tunes. The following hymn which is among Cowper's contributions to the hymnal was probably sung to the same tune as Amazing Grace. It does, however, sound better when read than when sung.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

He That Stabs Deepest

William Cowper spent years preparing to become a barrister, or at least a government clerk. And he was bright. He learned his lessons and was exemplary in testing and in his essays, although also a bit of a mocker of the institution. But there came a day when a final examination was due. It couldn't be passed by. It couldn't be mocked away. He had to do it in order to either gain the job for which he had been nominated, or even to keep the post at which he had been long stationed.

He had to stand in front of a group of lawyers and give answers. Out loud. With them watching him. And listening. And judging.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Let Love Clasp Grief

Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote a long poem, or perhaps a series of poems, to mourn the loss of his friend Arthur Henry Hallam. Although Hallam died less than four years after they had met, both the length of In Memoriam and the depth of loss expressed in it show how close their friendship had grown in that short time. And Tennyson did not mourn for himself alone, for Hallam had been engaged to Emilia, Tennyson's sister, a union for which Tennyson longed.

Most poeple are familiar with the prologue to In Memoriam. It includes the famous stanza:

Thine are these orbs of light and shade;
Thou madest Life in man and brute;

Nashing Our Wolves Teeth at Lord Byron

I love the poem that I posted yesterday so much that I can't resist letting Ogden Nash rip it to shreds.

by Ogden Nash

One thing that literature would be greatly the better for
Would be a more restricted employment by the authors of simile and metaphor.
Authors of all races, be they Greeks, Romans, Teutons or Celts,
Can't seem just to say that anything is the thing it is but have to go out of their way to say that it is like something else.
What does it mean when we are told
That that the Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold?

Friday, October 3, 2008

The Glance of the Lord

The Destruction of Sennacheribby George Gordon, Lord Byron

The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Creeping Through the Thorns

I don't normally like to post a piece of a poem without the whole. But today I will anyway. The scene in the poem is that a rich older woman had kept a garden. After her death it had been left unattended until a small child found it. Here are two stanzas from right in the middle of the poem.

from The Deserted Garden
Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Oh, little thought that lady proud,
A child would watch her fair white rose,
When buried lay her whiter brows,
And silk was changed for shroud!--

Wednesday, October 1, 2008


By Christina Rossetti

Does the road wind up-hill all the way?
- Yes, to the very end.
Will the day's journey take the whole long day?
- From morn to night, my friend.
But is there for the night a resting-place?