Nine sonnets

My anthology-in-the-head for sleep promotion includes nine sonnets, Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth first (one each), then Gerard Manley Hopkins, Yeats (2), Rupert Brooke and Allen Curnow. Of these I notice that only Shakespeare and Curnow use what’s now called the ‘English’ sonnet, established by Shakespeare, which rhymes abab cdcd efef gg; the rest use the Petrarchan form (or something close to it) which divides an octave (abbaabba) from a sestet usually cdecde. The Petrarch sonnet is more tightly locked into its two parts, while the English requires a neat closing couplet of the kind Shakespeare often used to round off a scene – mocked once by (I think it was) Max Beerbohm in a parody of 19th century attempts to write ‘Shakespearean’ plays with a scene that ended
Love is sweet, but revenge is sweeter far –
To the piazza – ha, ha, ha, ha, har!
What I find interesting is how different these formally similar poems are, not just in content but in tone and tightness. Here’s Shakespeare, sonnet 116:
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments; love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
Oh no, it is an ever-fixèd mark
That looks on tempest and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand’ring bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not in his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out, even to the edge of doom.
         If this be error and upon me proved,
         I never writ, nor no man ever loved.
The writing is intellectually taught, asserting and reasserting that love defines and proves itself by constancy – something Shakespeare would challenge elsewhere, of course, even in the sonnets themselves. But the strength is in repetition, compactness, refusal to allow contradiction, and in that finishing couplet. Since the evidence that he did indeed write is the sonnet itself, in front of us, and being read by us, there’s no argument. The case is made – Q.E.D! Specious of course, but this is a love sonnet, and extravagance is called for.
The tone of Milton’s sonnet on his blindness is sombre and full of regret.
When I consider how my light is spent
      Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
      And that one talent which is death to hide
      Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
      My true account, lest He returning chide.
      ‘Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?’
      I fondly ask, but Patience to prevent
That murmur soon replies, ‘God doth not need
      Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best
      Bear His mild yoke, they serve Him best. His state
Is kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
      And post o’er land and ocean without rest:
      They also serve who only stand and wait.’
Milton was 42 when he went blind and his father had lived to 84, so he saw it as half a lifetime left in the dark. He wants to serve God but how can he do that, blind? He celebrates God’s power, but joylessly; and the acceptance of his own role in the last line is scarcely triumphant.
My Wordsworth sonnet celebrates Nature and regrets modern industrial life’s disconnection from it.
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune,
It moves us not. Great God, I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea,
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.
Too much of modern life is occupied, and wasted, in ‘getting and spending’; so in an untypically un-Christian outburst Wordsworth says he would prefer to be a ‘Pagan’ and be brought closer to Nature through one or another of the ‘outworn’ mythologies.
To my ear there’s an intellectual heaviness, and even a slight clumsiness, about both the Milton and the Wordsworth which makes Shakespeare’s clever and self-aware overstatement seem deftly superior. Not that one has to make a competition of it, setting one poem against another. But the comparison is a reminder that Shakespeare’s sonnets are an endless treasure of richness, compression, difficulty and reward.
Milton’s, of course, is deeply moving – sad because he feels he has been stopped in his tracks, and there’s nothing to be done. Gerard Manley Hopkins’s (‘Thou are indeed just, Lord…’), one of his so-called ‘terrible sonnets’, is one of the most heart-felt cries of pain in literature, and at the same time faultlessly crafted. Every line but one has precisely its ten syllables (line 7 has 11), and yet few of them are strictly iambic. Far from running naturally de da, de da, de da, de da, de da, they invite you to read according to the run of sense, of meaning, of feeling. To be at once so contained and so free is true sonnet mastery:
Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend
With thee; but sir, so what I plead is just.
Why do sinner’s ways prosper, and why must
Disappointment all I endeavour end?
Wert Thou my enemy, O Thou my friend,
How wouldst thou worse, I wonder, than thou dost
Defeat, thwart me? Oh the sots and thralls of lust
Do in spare hours more thrive than I that spend
Sir, life upon thy cause. See banks and brakes
Now leaved how thick, lacèd they are again
With fretty chervil, look, and fresh wind shakes
Them. Birds build – but not I build; no, but strain
Time’s eunuch and not breed one work that wakes.
Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.
Gerard Manley Hopkins in 1880
I think what makes it doubly painful to the non-Christian (more particularly the non-Catholic) reader is the sense that this barrenness is self-imposed – ‘elected’, as he says in another poem, ‘The Habit of Perfection’. ‘Elected silence sing to me’: there he embraces the denial of the senses. In ‘Thou art indeed just Lord’ he does not resile from it, but asks God why He is so stingy in rewards – protests that if God were his enemy he could hardly treat his loyal servant worse. And that final line is wrung out of so much pain!

Of the two Yeats sonnets in my head, one (‘While I from…’) is in terms of its form a hybrid. Its octave is the English sonnet form, rhyming abab cdcd; and the sestet rhymes Petrarch-style, efgfeg. Some are half rhymes (‘things’ and ‘wrongs’, ‘once’ and ‘companions’) so they don’t sound on the ear and have to be looked for, seen rather than heard. What’s most remarkable about this sonnet, however, is that it is written as a single long sentence – and part of the difficulty and pleasure for the reader is in recognizing the run of its grammar and syntax, and how it all fits together with its parentheses, and is made to work.
While I from that reed-throated whisperer
Who comes at need, although not now as once
A clear articulation in the air,
But inwardly, surmise companions
Beyond the fling of the dull ass’s hoof
– Ben Jonson’s phrase – and find when June is come
At Kyle-na-no under that ancient roof
A sterner conscience and a friendlier home,
I can forgive even that wrong of wrongs,
Those undreamt accidents that have made me
– Seeing that Fame has perished this long while,
Being but a part of ancient ceremony –
Notorious, till all my priceless things
Are but a post the passing dogs defile.
The ‘reed-throated whisperer’ must be the Muse, the inspiration which he used to hear as if from outside himself, but which comes now ‘inwardly’. The word ‘surmise’ in l.4 is odd, but he is thinking again of his fellow-poets of past times and supposing some of them now dead – ‘beyond the fling of the dull ass’s hoof’. This sonnet comes right at the end of a collection Yeats published in 1914, Responsibilities, in which he records the loss of respect for the authority and aristocracy that were symbolized for him by Lady Augusta Gregory and her Irish country estate, Coole Park, where Kyle-na-no was the name of one of seven woods. In that place he has found ‘a sterner conscience and a friendlier home’. Approaching 50, he is feeling his age in these poems, and asks his forefathers to forgive him because his ‘barren passion’ for Maud Gonne has left him with little to offer them – no child, ‘nothing but a book to prove your blood and mine’.
There is a lot of hurt here, and resentment; but it is overcome, like the technical obstacles of the one-sentence sonnet, and the poem finishes with acceptance that is close to indifference. Fame is no longer respected, and the things he values most are just a post for his enemies, characterized as ‘passing dogs’, to piss on.
So that is a very personal poem – whereas my other Yeats example is a quite impersonal attempt to present an event out of mythology – the rape of Leda by Zeus who has disguised himself as a swan.
A sudden blow, the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.
How can those terrified vague fingers push
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can body, caught in that white rush,
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?
A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
                                                Being so caught up,
So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?
Once again we have an English sonnet’s octave and a perfect Petrarchan sestet. The writing is vivid and explicit, and contains the (actually bizarre) Yeatsian idea of cycles of history. This rape engenders Helen of Troy and so initiates the new cycle that begins with the Trojan war. The compression of event into image is astonishing. Yeats had taken from Ezra Pound the idea of the ‘luminous detail’, where a very few items can stand for so much they conjure up a whole episode of history: ‘a shudder in the loins engenders […] the broken wall, the burning roof and tower / And Agamemnon dead.’ The event is a horror for the victim; but the poet wonders whether she had a momentary recognition of its meaning, a vision of the Trojan War and all that is to follow.
Yeats prints this sonnet in his book A Vision in which the rape of Leda is an ‘Annunciation’, equivalent to the visit of the angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary that engendered Jesus Christ and initiated the Christian era. To me it’s yet another example of how Yeats made great poetry out of ideas that in themselves have little to recommend them.
It’s a very visual poem and commentaries have connected it with Michelangelo’s ‘Leda and the Swan’ – but that painting sticks to the myth, where sneaky Zeus, pretending to be a wounded swan, and caressed by compassionate Leda, commits his rape surreptitiously, almost unnoticed. Yeats’s rape is much more physical and violent – much more real – terrifying, abhorrent to the victim (and possibly also to the reader!)
My next sonnet comes from a lovely little book (though it can be found also in a number of anthologies) At Dead Low Water & Sonnets by Allen Curnow, a hardback of 40 pages published by Caxton in 1949, and which I see I bought from the University Bookshop in Dunedin in 1961 for six shillings. It was still new, so a first edition and a reminder of those far-off times when bookshops paid for stock and kept it until it sold. (A pause here for lamentations!)

     In Memoriam
     2/Lieutenant T.C.F. Ronalds

Weeping for bones in Africa I turn
Our youth over like a dead bird in my hand.
This unexpected personal concern
That what has character can simply end
Is my unsoldierlike acknowledgment
To you, cousin, once gentle-tough, inert
Now, after the death-flurry of that front
Found finished too. And why should my report
Cry one more hero, winking through its tears?
I would say you are cut off, and mourn for that;
Because history where it destroys admires,
But O if your blood’s tongued it must recite
South Island feats, those tall snow-country tales
Among incredulous Tunisian hills.
In an earlier blog I wrote of the sometimes tentative, often simply negative, qualities of Curnow’s literary nationalism – his celebrations of what he called ‘the half light of a diffident glory’; but here is genuine affirmation, made possible because made necessary by the occasion, which calls for eulogy. The man is dead, killed in the war with Germany being waged in the Middle East; but if the soldier’s ghost can speak, ‘it must recite / South Island feats’.
Glancing through this little collection (a pleasure because of the book as well as its contents) I’m struck by Curnow’s talent for an opening line that makes you want to read on: ‘Surf is a partial deafness islanders / All suffer from’; ‘Night watchman in some crater of the moon’; ‘Milton made Eve his blonde, but she is dark’; ‘Your “innermost Beethoven” in the uttermost isles’; ‘Rain’s unassuaging fountains multiply’; ‘Old hand of the sea feeling / Blind in sunlight for the salt-veined beaches’. Doesn’t each of those grab your attention and arouse your curiosity? Where will he go next?
My ninth sonnet like all the others has a formal rhyme scheme, which I think of in this context as hand-holds for memory, and as the reason why these, and not unrhymed sonnets by Lowell or the later Baxter, have taken root and are retained. It is Rupert Brooke’s famous ‘The Soldier’. Did it become famous because he wrote it? Or did he become famous because of the sonnet? His death must be part of the equation, and I suspect both must be true. It is certainly not without merit; and yet no educated person can read it without being aware that the war he is celebrating, World War I, produced quite another kind of poetry which, at least for people of literary culture, put this kind into the shade.
If I should die think only this of me:
         That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
          In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
          Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
          Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.
And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
         A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
                       Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
         And laughter learned of friends; and gentleness
                        Of hearts at peace under an English heaven.
Manuscript for "The Soldier" by Rupert Brooke
England, England, England’s, English, England, English: six times in fourteen lines – it doesn’t leave you in any doubt, does it? This is the high tide of patriotism before the dark reality set in. It’s a comforting poem – comfortable, cosy, a lying- in-summer-grass poem, an in-a-punt-with-a-girl-poem, a Cambridge-and-Bloomsbury poem, reassuring that all’s well in the heaven that is England. It is also very accomplished, smooth, like a lovely watercolour. But one does not feel its author has experienced death at close quarters, or experienced the war of trenches and poison gas, of constant shelling, of going-over-the-top and of deaths in thousands on a single day. He did die, but not in battle; he was bitten by a mosquito on his way to Gallipoli, died of septicaemia, and was buried at night on the Greek island of Skyros by a party that included our own Bernard Freyberg who would win a D.S.O. at Gallipoli, and the V.C. in France, and would go on to command New Zealand forces in World War II.
A photo of Rupert Brooke by Sherril Schell 1913
Brooke’s fame was sealed when Winston Churchill made a speech about his death in the British Parliament. His was perhaps at once the posh and the popular war death. It was as if you were congratulated by his poem for giving him the opportunity to die, pro patria mori. The war poems of men like Wilfred Owen and Isaac Rosenberg, who died in the fighting, feel more like a reproach.
In a later blog I hope to write about some of the interesting things that happened to the sonnet form in the mid-20th century, when it became ‘open form’. This will be the last until the new year. Happy Christmas!
– C.K. Stead

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