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 …