The Oxford Book of Sonnets
W.H. Auden believed that the sonnet’s profound appeal has a physiological basis, that its fourteen-line structure subdivides itself into proportions the brain naturally finds beguiling. It’s as plausible an explanation as any for the unparalleled success of this modest prosodic construct conceived in Sicily in the thirteenth century. “Little song” or “little sound” is what the word connotes in the original Italian, and yet it’s a song or sound whose reverberations, eight hundred years later, continue to bear a fresh and haunting music.
The sonnet’s astonishing hardiness is neatly symbolized by two poets in the new, chronologically arranged Oxford Book of Sonnets, edited by John Fuller: Sir Thomas Wyatt, whose “Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind” opens the collection, and Derek Walcott, whose “Le Loupgarou” comes near the close. Born in St. Lucia, a Caribbean island whose very existence was scarcely known in the court of Henry VIII where Wyatt served, into a modern world inconceivable to Reformation England, Walcott nevertheless has repeatedly resorted to a poetic form that Wyatt, four hundred years before him, also found congenial. And the sonnet’s resilience appears more extraordinary still when one considers how, in language after language, a nation’s genius has taken up residence in its cramped quarters: Pushkin, Baudelaire, Rilke, Borges…
Fuller doesn’t concern himself with this latter sort of range, prudently restricting his anthology to the English-language sonnet. Even so, my first response to the book’s compact shape—328 sonnets, one per page—was that it looked too short to represent a form so fecund and profuse. Imagine an Oxford Book of Sestinas—it would surely begin showing signs of padding after something like twenty pages. An Oxford Book of Villanelles? Ten pages at best. But the sonnet is something else again. A mere three hundred sonnets to encompass nearly five hundred years of achievement? Shakespeare alone wrote 152 sonnets, for nearly all of which a plausible case for inclusion could be mounted.
Two years ago, when Time magazine (in whose employ I once served for a year) ran a special issue on the greatest inventions of the millennium, I felt a pang that my opinion hadn’t been solicited. For the answer struck me as both patent and heartening. The greatest literary invention of the last thousand years? What else but the sonnet?
For one thing, the sonnet seemed a true invention. Like the sextant or the inflatable tire, it has adapted itself to conditions all over the globe. Like the internal combustion engine or the popcorn popper, it contrives both to release and to contain exuberant movement.
For another thing, the sonnet possesses—particularly for those who are, like me, hopelessly unmechanical—hints of that unfathomable simplicity common to so many brilliant but elementary inventions. Those of us who have never been quite able to believe that a pulley works as efficiently as it does, or grasp why a slipknot slips, can’t help marveling at the way in which a superficially constrained and unyielding form has, with inexhaustible plasticity, accommodated so many divergent talents and temperaments.
The sonnet’s essential mystery seemingly partakes of a larger riddle: the remarkable potency, in English prosody, of a ratio of four-to-three. Why this should be is something perhaps best explained by a literary historian, or a philologist, or a cognitive scientist—or perhaps a numerologist. In any event, there’s no gainsaying the peculiar utility and ubiquity of this ratio. Four-to-three is, of course, the fraction that results when the Italian (Petrarchan) sonnet’s customary division—an eight-line octave, followed by a six-line sestet—is simplified. But it is also the ratio subtending the ballad stanza, with its alternating four- and three-beat lines. And it is the proportion underlying the only standard, autonomous line in English prosody containing an odd number of syllables: the seven-syllable line left when iambic tetrameter has its first, unaccented syllable lopped off, as in Auden’s “Lay your sleeping head, my love,” or Blake’s “Tyger! Tyger! burning bright,” or Prospero’s farewell to the audience (“Now my charms are all o’erthrown”). Typically, these seven syllables break into constituent portions of either three and four or four and three, as the line’s trochaic opening rhythm yields to an iambic groundswell.
In each of these three cases—the sonnet, the ballad, the headless tetrameter—we encounter what might be called an asymmetric balance, or a dynamic balance, in which two numerically unequal sections push and poise against each other. Back in 1972, John Fuller published The Sonnet, a useful short critical book, or booklet (its text runs less than fifty pages), in which he aptly points out that “the essence of the sonnet’s form is the unequal relationship between octave and sestet.” Much the same argument could be made on behalf of ballad meter or headless tetrameter.
Many literary consequences stem from this marriage of unequals. Because its shorter “half” typically concludes the poem, the sonnet’s characteristic mode is compression. The smaller is called upon to balance—or to answer—the larger. The tone of the sestet therefore is far more likely than the octave to traffic in implication and mystification—to turn vatic or gnomic, abstract or ethereal. Given, too, that it is often the business of the octave to pose a question, or to lodge a complaint, and that of the sestet to provide an answer, or to tender some relief, it’s no surprise that, for the author, getting out of a sonnet is much more difficult than getting in. (Nor is it surprising, in response to these burdens, that so many sonnets offer internal hints of having been written backward. The would-be sonneteer, having spotted what he’s forever in need of—that ever-elusive quarry, a satisfying ending—fashions an argument that will retrospectively lead him there.)
Many poets—including Wordsworth, Keats, Longfellow, and Louise Bogan—have earnestly taken the sonnet itself as the subject of a sonnet. But the most memorable of these mirrored glances is probably Rupert Brooke’s “Sonnet Reversed,” an antic piece of light verse that has, for all its levity, a stinging point to make. The poem begins where so many sonnets are likely to finish—in a couplet evoking a timeless, numinous state of union—and carries us forward, or backward, into the day-to-day. Instead of compression, we have, both formally and thematically, diffusion:
Hand trembling towards hand; the amazing lights
Of heart and eye. They stood on supreme heights.
Ah, the delirious weeks of honeymoon!
Soon they returned, and, after strange adventures,
Settled at Balham by the end of June.
Their money was in Can. Pacs. B. Debentures,
And in Antofagastas. Still he went
Cityward daily; still she did abide
At home. And both were really quite content
With work and social pleasures. Then they died.
They left three children (besides George, who drank):
The eldest Jane, who married Mr Bell,
William, the head-clerk in the County Bank,
And Henry, a stock-broker, doing well.
Implicit here, it seems to me, is the notion that the typical sonnet is engaged in a noble, and bootless, struggle against life itself: an attempt to preserve whatever earthly thing is most passionate and pure, against all those workaday forces that conspire to dilute, to blunt, to level, and to tarnish.
The sonnet form that Brooke “reverses” is actually the Shakespearean variant, in which three quatrains give way to a valedictory couplet. The sonnet’s penchant for compression is necessarily heightened in this case. If there’s a rough parity where six lines are called upon to answer eight, as in the Italian sonnet, an almost insuperable challenge arises where two must speak to twelve.
Thirty years ago, when he wrote The Sonnet, Fuller came across as something of a redoubtable purist. He called the Italian sonnet the “legitimate form,” and inveighed against “freak varieties.” To judge from his introduction to The Oxford Book of Sonnets, his views have softened over intervening decades, but his underlying allegiance still apparently lies with the traditional eight-six arrangement. While Fuller is certainly correct in feeling that the pressure on the Shakespearean couplet often leads to bland-ness, to one-size-fits-all pieties, to sentiments so general they float free of the lines that ostensibly gave them birth, he doesn’t fully acknowledge the unique satisfactions which, in the right hands, a sonnet’s couplet affords. We hunger for some unexpected fillip at the poem’s close, and sometimes that’s precisely what we get, as where Shakespeare urges his young friend toward marriage by means of a poignant paradox:
O none but unthrifts, dear my love you know:
You had a father; let your son say so.
Or where a slippery tongue twister resolves itself into a plainly enunciated pledge of fidelity:
The worth of that, is that which it contains,
And that is this, and this with thee remains.
Or where Frost, in the concluding couplet of a Miltonic sonnet devoted to a spider, lays before us a horrific, exceptionless vision of the universe, all wrapped in an oxymoron:
What but design of darkness to appall?—
If design govern in a thing so small.
In such instances, the sonnet’s distinctive compression gives way to a greater compression, much as a coal bed implodes into a diamond.
The sonnet has long been my favorite literary form, and for some twenty years now an earlier Oxford anthology, Robert Nye’s A Book of Sonnets (1976), has served as a constant traveling companion. But Nye, in effectively stopping with the generation of poets born before the First World War, has grown steadily out of date. More than a decade ago, I first heard that a new Oxford sonnet anthology was in the works, and some of my frustration with Fuller’s book may be fed by hopes bred of long waiting.
On its own terms, Fuller’s anthology often succeeds handsomely. He characterizes his taste as “conservative in representing deviations from the basic types of sonnet,” and his is largely a gathering of civil and euphonious discourse. As a gatekeeper, he turns a forbidding eye upon those “freak varieties”; he doesn’t have much use for structural oddballs. Nor do we encounter many poems of a hell-bent ferocity. We meet here the Shakespeare who-compared-thee-to-a-summer’s-day but not the hot-blooded thirty-something whose lust was “Mad in pursuit, and in possession so,/Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme.” We glimpse the Malcolm Lowry who recounted old Canadian folktales (“About Ice”) but not the flailing drugged-up boozer who shattered a mirror in a cheap Mexican hotel (“Delirium in Vera Cruz”).
Most readers will find here, as I did, many lovely poems not met before. This is a book to place on the shelf beside Nye. Still, some of Fuller’s omissions are—any way you look at it—just plain weird. That he scants Shakespeare’s sonnets is perhaps understandable (he presents eight selections, in contrast to Nye’s twenty-six). After all, these are poems so beloved, and so commonly reprinted, that they might justly yield a place to others which, if not so worthy, are far less well known. Yet readers come to a book of this sort—as they do to a high school reunion—expecting to meet up with old and familiar faces. Why in the world has Fuller excluded Wordsworth’s “The world is too much with us”? Or Keats’s “When I have fears…”? Or Boyd’s “Fra bank to bank…,” which Pound called the most beautiful poem in the language? Or (my own candidate for perhaps the most beautiful sonnet ever written) Hopkins’s “As kingfishers catch fire…”?
If these are capricious omissions, Fuller is more systematic in his scanting of Americans. He might well have done better to leave them out altogether—to compile instead an Oxford Book of English Sonnets. Admittedly, the territory under examination is vast, and nobody can be faulted for not viewing both sides of the Atlantic with an equal clearsightedness. But, as it happens, the sonnet has flourished with particular luxuriance on American shores. Where is e. e. cummings in Fuller’s collection? The work of no other lasting American poet—not even Frost or Ransom—was so shaped by a devotion to the sonnet. (Nye offered three cummings sonnets; Fuller, none.) And where are Louise Bogan, Allen Tate, Elizabeth Bishop, Amy Clampitt, Howard Nemerov, Donald Justice, W.D. Snodgrass? (The list goes on.) Fuller complains of having been constrained by permissions costs, but in their birth dates his handful of Americans trails off in the Twenties, while the English are carried forward into the Thirties, Forties, Fifties, and even Sixties. The result is skewed, to say the least. The imbalance may be partially rectified with the appearance of the Penguin Book of the Sonnet, due out in July.
Where Fuller is most painstaking is in establishing links between the great flowering of the seventeenth century and the Romantic reflorescence of the nineteenth. Although he labels much of the eighteenth century a “sonnet-desert,” he has clearly wandered through miles of dunes in order to present a substantial collection from that era.
From the standpoint of literary history, this trek is perhaps a valuable undertaking, but the general reader may wind up feeling, even so, that in this particular desert there’s too much sand between oases. A journey through Fuller’s selections of Thomas Edwards, Thomas Gray, Thomas Warton, William Cowper, Charlotte Smith, William Lisle Bowles, Mary Robinson, Helen Maria Williams, et al., may convince most readers that the eighteenth century failed to produce a single unforgettable sonnet—certainly nothing to set beside Donne’s “Death, be not proud” or Milton’s “On His Blindness” from the previous century, or Shelley’s “Ozymandias” or Hopkins’s “God’s Gran-deur” from the succeeding one.
Fuller shows us how the sonnet persevered through periods, like the eighteenth century or the second half of the nineteenth, traditionally regarded as fallow. His vision—a productive one—emphasizes continuity. But when he reaches the twentieth century—the period of greatest formal experimentation—he purchases continuity at the expense of things like “eccentricity of rhyme-scheme.” Most of Fuller’s twentieth-century sonnets work in a prosody that Shakespeare or Drayton or Campion would have felt comfortable with.
But there’s another vision of the sonnet—even more productive, it seems to me—based upon discontinuity and disruption. Thumbing forward through Fuller’s collection, or Nye’s, or any comprehensive anthology of English-language verse, the sonnets of Gerard Manley Hopkins leap from the page in just the mesmerizing, ever-startling way that flame leaps from a burning log. No one before Hopkins had ever rethought the sonnet with anything like his radicalism. Keats had expressed impatience with the “pouncing rhymes” of the Italian form and looked to discover a “better sonnet stanza”; Wordsworth and Donne, in their different ways, had tugged at conventional meters; Milton had split his enjambments with such violence that, centuries later, they still vibrate like an arrow shivering in a target—but none of their experiments fully prepares a reader for a Hopkins poem that begins like this:
I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding…
Earnest, earthless, equal, attuneable, | vaulty,
Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist—slack they may be—these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more.
A pious iconoclast, Hopkins took the box of the sonnet apart and put it back together as a vessel more suitable for the singular pilgrimage of his religious faith. Every innovative English-language sonneteer since Hopkins, whether the innovations in question are delicate or drastic, stands in his debt.
In place of Fuller’s continuity, we might see the tale of the sonnet in English as essentially bipartite: first the evolution of various sonnet forms in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries (the Petrarchan, the Spenserian, the Shakespearean), which were largely adhered to until the nineteenth century, and then the emergence of Hopkins and his successors, who systematically tested and tugged on the formal conventions. In the first flowering, the sonnet came together; in the second, it came—beautifully—apart.
It’s striking how many remarkable developments in twentieth-century American poetry flowered in sonnet forms not found in an anthology like Fuller’s: cummings’s defiantly bawdy and satirical expostulations (poems like “I like my body…” and “next to of course god…”); Bishop’s beautiful pair of double sonnets (“The Prodigal” and “Trollope’s Journals”), as well as her sketchy, arresting “Sonnet” (its lines shorter than anything Fuller admits into his book); the mix-and-match of different sonnet forms in Merrill’s “The Broken Home”; Lowell’s panoramic unrhymed sequences; Richard Kenney’s long-lined, quirkily and clangorously rhymed flooded wordscapes.
Devotees of the sonnet know how its form helps to make perceptible even extremely minute structural irregularities. While readers may not immediately register exactly what minor formal constraint has been breached—an off rhyme in place of an exact rhyme, a headless line, a volta (“turn”) that arrives a line too late—they know at once that a norm has been jiggered. No other form, with the possible exception of the rhymed couplet, offers such possibilities for a music of subtle modulation—since none offers a scale whereby the reader’s sensibility is so nicely calibrated. (And the sonnet, far more than the heroic couplet, has proved hospitable to a bountiful range of talents and eras.)
Most serious readers of poetry carry around a set of templates in their brains—prototypes of the Italian and the Shakespearean sonnets—against which all new sonnets are measured and evaluated. (The teenager who falls in love with poetry by way of Frost or Millay or cummings or Keats doesn’t know it, but he or she has begun to construct internal measuring devices for a lifetime of reading lyric poems.) Most of us have no comparable inner templates for, say, the sestina or the pantoum or the ghazal; we haven’t read a sufficient number of them, over a sufficient number of years, to fashion the same sort of mental apparatus. If some poet were to commit against the sestina or the pantoum the sort of wholesale violence that cummings works upon the sonnet, the pummeled result would hardly be a pantoum or a sestina; for these less familiar forms, we lack internal prototypes sufficiently robust to withstand such an onslaught.
The result is a paradox lying at the heart of much twentieth-century poetry: the sonnet, although an old and in many ways old-fashioned form (eighty years ago, T.S. Eliot questioned whether it was still viable), proves particularly open to experimentation. Or, to put it another way, more violence can be done to the sonnet, with satisfying results, than perhaps to any other form.
The struggle to define the sonnet—like definitional battles generally—has a way of quickly turning vexatious and unhelpful. Fuller reasonably restricts his selections to poems of fourteen lines, thereby excluding experiments like Meredith’s sixteen-line sonnets from Modern Love or Hopkins’s truncated curtal sonnets. Certainly, whatever definition you arrive at, there will be troubling borderline cases, as Fuller acknowledges when he points out the difficulty of determining whether fourteen lines of rhymed couplets compose a sonnet or merely seven couplets.
My own sense is that divagations from the form continue to be sonnets so long as a reader still hears within them strong echoes of their primogenitors. In the last 150 years, we’ve seen the sonnet repeatedly pulled apart in terms of its number of lines, line lengths, abandonment of rhyme, and fractured syntax. As is true in the animal kingdom, divergence from the original stock at some point results in speciation; the sonnet disappears, and in its place we have a new creature under the sun. There are moments in cummings, particularly, when his sonnets cease to be sonnets; the requisite number of lines may be in place, and a rhyme scheme may be traceable, but in the cacophony of his scrambled syntax the last remaining sonnet echoes are lost.
When you consider the surpassing range of experiments played upon the sonnet, however, what is most impressive is how variously the form can be shifted and adapted while still remaining recognizably itself. This is somehow all the more heartening at the dawn of the twenty-first century, as humanity grows ever more painfully conscious of its often unwitting, heavy-footed capacity for destroying things. Chopping down a few forests here, a few there, we manage to extinguish species we haven’t yet named. Throwing up a scatter of factories on the shores of the Great Lakes, we poison the world’s largest body of fresh water. Armed with innocuous-looking aerosol cans, we punch holes in the ozone layer. But the little sonnet? Bend it, shake it, squeeze it, starve it, inflate it, dissect it, hammer upon it… It’s tougher than we are.