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 has been the prevailing assumption from the time that they were first introduced into English. The great Latin and Italian sonnets exemplify that assumption. English poets before, during and after Donne, Milton and Herbert have overwhelmingly assumed it. Christina Rossetti made the assumption explicit.

But it is wrong, or at least it is insufficient. Sonnets, in the hands of the right people, can perfectly hold a wide variety of themes, without any sense of awkwardness.


Prayer, the Church's banquet, Angels' age,
God's breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav'n and earth;
Engine against th' Almighty, sinner's tower,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days'-world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well dressed,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church bells beyond the stars heard, the soul's blood,
The land of spices, something understood.

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