Sunday, October 26, 2008

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? Dante did not marry Beatrice. Petrarch found Laura unreachable. Rossetti wrote her sonnets after she had to break her engagement. Always Astrophel is longing for his (or her) Stella, but Stella is always out of reach.

Rossetti even mildly criticized her friend and hero Elizabeth Barrett Browning:

"Or had the Great Poetess of our own day and nation only been unhappy instead of happy, her circumstances would have invited her to bequeath to us, in lieu of the 'Portuguese Sonnets', an inimitable 'donna innominata' drawn not from fancy but from feeling, and worthy to occupy a niche beside Beatrice and Laura."

Rossetti felt that EBB's sonnets suffered from their author being happy! That is, being actually in hope of gaining the object of her love. Yet it is well worth remembering that although EBB was engaged when she wrote most or all of the Portuguese Sonnets, she was not married. They still were parted, and in fact were kept apart to a very great extent. These were happy sonnets perhaps, but they were also sonnets of great longing for fulfillment. After their marriage the new Mrs. Browning does not seem to have written more sonnets to her husband.

So, my question: Why are sonnets not only perfectly fitted to love, but also seem to be perfectly fitted to love from a distance?



Rosa said...

Very interesting!

Perhaps sonnets written by one who is longing for something, rather than a person whose desires are fulfilled, speak with more meaning because of the acuteness of their yearning. The saying, "you never know what you have until you lose it" could be applied, somewhat, to this idea.

Doug P. Baker said...

Good thought, Rosa. I'm sure that's part of it.

J. Andrew Lockhart said...

Yes, I've always loved sonnets, but I now find myself leaning toward tanka. One side of the world to another, I guess. :)

Doug P. Baker said...


You are so at home in haiku and tanka. They seem your natural voice.

I had a couple of posts on haiku toward the end of Sept. You may have seen them. Of course they wouldn't tell you anything new!

But I remain perplexed about what exactly it is that seems to somewhat limit the themes that well fit in a sonnet. These seeming limits do not at all apply to the blank verse of Shakespeare or Milton, although all of them are written in the same iambic pentameter.

I enjoy being perplexed. I'll lose sleep over this, but I won't mind it at all!

Teri said...

Perhaps it is because the structure of the sonnet invites an opening question or dilemma - and happy lovers rarely ask "why?"

But I would disagree with CR: I don't think EBB's sonnets would have improved with sorrow. Some of Herbert's are also wonderful and motivated by zeal for God.

Doug P. Baker said...


You are quite right. I was overlooking George Herber's and John Donne's Holy Sonnets.

They are gorgeous and do seem to contradict the necessity of my premise here.

While the vast majority of poets have, I think, found the sonnet to fit more perfectly in the rather limitted range to which I ascribe it, Milton, Donne and Herbert have shown that it need not be so.

Hmmm, perhaps I will do a couple of posts contradicting this one. Yes, I will.

And your thought about how the opening of a sonnet "invites an opening question or dilemma" is a good one. That fits with what Rosa suggested. The opening invites a dilemma, and the last couplet is so often used to provide either a twist or a punch. These all naturally play into the hands of the lovesick, but in the greatest poets' hands they can also be exploited for a wider range of themes.

Hmm, so much to ponder.