“A Robust Inheritance”
A Review of
The Art of the Sonnet
By Stephen Burt and David Mikics.
Reviewed by Brett Foster.
The Art of the Sonnet
Stephen Burt and David Mikics.
Hardback: Harvard UP, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]
This collection of one hundred representative sonnets, ranging from the early sixteenth-century English poet Thomas Wyatt to a sonnet published just last year by the San Francisco poet D. A. Powell, presents a series of diversities – chronological, geographical, stylistic – all surprisingly emerging from the same, seemingly straightforward form. Each of these lyric poems does its work in fourteen lines (usually, although even this identifier is open to exceptions, as in “tailed” sonnets or George Meredith’s sixteen-line sonnet sequence Modern Love). The poets also exhibit, as a kind of mental calling card that comes with the mere act of writing sonnets, a consistent engagement with the tradition of sonnets and sonnet writing.
To be clear: these engagements vary tremendously, some being, in Stephen Burt’s and David Mikic’s words, “self-consciously traditional” and others “decidedly impure” instead. Yet The Art of the Sonnet’s compilers and commentators take it as a given that any sonnet will be in communication, or maybe in the midst of a quarrel, with the form’s robust inheritance. For example, a poem such as Alison Brackenbury’s recent “Homework. Write a Sonnet. About Love?”, with its opening line, “There are too many sonnets about love,” is in fact highly sensitive and even beholden to the very tradition and subject it wishes to dismiss— its act of “writing off” remains an homage to this particular written form. This tenacious legacy involves the formal details of how a sonnet is written, as well as the subjects, tones, and values we readers expect to find in any poem we quickly recognize (Aha!) as a sonnet.
With its opening “How to Use These Sonnets” statement and an “Introduction” rich with historical context, this volume begins on a deeply informative note. This quality continues into the collection itself, and the format ensures this continuance. Either Burt or Mikics, both accomplished literary critics, supplies a short evaluative essay after each poem. (Readers can quickly identify the specific author by the initials concluding every essay.) These glosses, comprising eleven or twelve paragraphs, or four pages, on average, usually set up two tasks for themselves: to provide biographical, historical, and what we might call tradition-oriented details that are especially pertinent to the poem in question, and to model for readers superb examples of literary criticism. Especially on display here are the strengths of close reading: attention to word origins and their contemporary meanings and valences, explanations of formal effects within sonnets (developments from one part of a sonnet to another, changes in meter, the presence of caesuras or pauses, departures from expected rhyme schemes), and analyses of how these effects interact with a sonnet’s content, voice, and its meaning overall. Already, having itemized some poetic nuts and bolts here, I fear I do a disservice to the extremely readability of the authors’ essays. The book-flap copy speaks of them as “guides” to the sonnets, and tonally that captures their role nicely. The learning is apparent and persuasive, but it never comes at the expense of an invitational openness. Their enthusiasm for sonnets and poetry’s powers generally is never proprietary.
This reader-friendly attitude announces itself from the outset, when the authors say they don’t expect us to read the book straight through. Read favorite poems first, they suggest, or read all the poems sans commentaries, or read a single sonnet-plus-essay (called a “self-sufficient unit”) and move on from there. Taken together, these units provide a “partial history of the sonnet form.” Despite this nonchalance, casual poetry readers will find these opening sections incredibly helpful. After forecasting the second half of the book’s focus on contemporary poetry in a global English context, Burt and Mikics take care to offer definitions of the sonnet’s terminology and types.
The “Introduction” commences by praising the sonnet’s remarkable versatility— as a lyric form famous for personal meditation or confrontation, as well as capable of “verdicts on public events.” Whatever the case, its power resides in its crystallizing of experience, its making an occasion crucial, its “drive toward idealization.” The following historical survey first establishes the basic characteristics of the earliest sonnets, composed at the Sicilian court of Frederick II in the thirteenth century. The form differed from peasant songs by being asymmetrical in structure, private, and suited more to logic than music. Next, the survey treats the hugely influential Italian sonnets of Dante, in the Vita nuova, and Petrarch even more so, in his Rime sparse (or “scattered rhymes”). In these poets, we encounter the idealized beloved, the suffering lover, and the philosophical explorations of love, desire, and its effects, all of which will look familiar in the early poems in this volume, from the English Renaissance. That period receives generous treatment, with special focus naturally devoted to Shakespeare. He is credited with a “radical expansion” and even a “revolution” in sonnets in English, thanks to his new tonal ambiguities, increased dramatic qualities, refined use of concluding couplets (or rhyming lines), and a resilient mysteriousness overall.
The survey’s second half records a lapse in sonnet practice in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and its reemergence as a “vehicle of nostalgia” later. Soon, though, the form blossoms: by the time Coleridge was writing in 1796, Burt and Mikics argue, it was “nearly the last moment” when even general criteria could be easily applied to sonnets. “The sonnet is suitable for everything,” Baudelaire was soon to write. Even greater diversification now set in, and more regular reactions to the sonnet’s sometimes burdensome conventions. The authors deservedly single out Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Victorian sequence, The House of Life, for encouraging a new sonnet “boom,” and the form’s standing changes again in the twentieth century. Some Modernists relegated the sonnet to a “domestic form, small-scale,” or even a “fascist form” (William Carlos Williams), yet all the while it was continually in play. What resulted was a “dense portfolio” of sonnets by Harlem Renaissance poets, British poets, post-war American poets— nearly everyone, really. This emphasis on variety reaches a crescendo in the last third of The Art of the Sonnet, where the authors seek “limit-cases and self-consciously debatable examples” to spur critical questions— What is a sonnet? How do we know?
And now a few words about specific poems . . . Readers may initially feel least excited about some of the early staples of the form, such as Wyatt’s “Whoso list to hunt” or Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 (“Let me not to the marriage of true minds”). The quality of the essays that follow these poems will disabuse them of these reservations. Mikics admits first thing that Shakespeare’s poem is often recited at weddings and “can be hard to read with fresh eyes,” but then proceeds to show how it is anything but the bland, certain, completed sonnet that its nuptial settings imply. Instead it is mightily suspenseful and paradoxical, insofar as “the mortar of doubt makes his poem more solid, rather than precarious.” The “fool” in the phrase “Love’s not Time’s fool,” means that Love is not the darling of Time, but also not its dupe (the sense clearer today). Love realizes that the two are “predator and victim” and yet presses on. Similarly, Mikics illuminates Wyatt’s poem by pressing its overall hunting metaphor into the mental oscillations of the hunter-lover. Thus, in the lines “Yet, may I by no means, my wearied mind / Draw from the deer,” he invites us to imagine the drawn mind as a figurative arrow affixed to the obsessed-over deer. Finally, in another early, but less known poem, from Samuel Daniel’s sonnet sequence Delia, the commentary establishes a network of “seize the day” sources or influences (or rather, “you’re going to regret that the day was not seized” examples!) Placing beside Daniel a pair of Shakespeare’s sonnets, but also the Continental influences of Ronsard and Tasso, along with a modern imitator of Ronsard, William Butler Yeats— such a network substantiates effectively the book’s overall argument about the rich history of this form.
Stephen Burt provides a similarly revelatory reading of George Herbert’s powerful, uniquely structured sonnet “Prayer,” which, as Burt first informs us, is the “most accomplished sonnet in English to lack a main verb,” consisting as it does of twenty-seven nouns or noun phrases. He next asks interesting questions about the implications of the order of these objects or phrases meant to equate with, or stand in for, prayer’s peculiar powers, its purported recourses that are impossible to fathom. This curious poem will become newly accessible to readers who, following Burt, will approach the poem’s list as a series of accumulating or even self-correcting sections, relating to prayer’s language, then its force, and, in the sonnet’s turn, as something valued “for its own sake, its own end.” Burt later does heroic explicating work on a sonnet by the difficult but rewarding English poet Geoffrey Hill.
In the early selections especially, the essays introduce us to some intriguing personalities – “George Gascoigne was a scholar, a soldier, and by all accounts a well-known scoundrel”; “During his senior year at Harvard, he began to hear the voice of God” (Jones Very) – and existing poetry lovers will quickly appreciate some of the unusual, less anthologized selections here: a sonnet from Edmund Spenser’s The Ruines of Rome, less known poems by Keats and Coleridge, or the mere presence of the generally less known Joseph Blanco White or Alice Meynell. Numerous female poets (Mary Wroth, Mary Robinson, Charlotte Smith) nicely counter and revise the predominantly male cast of the early sonnet tradition as it is usually presented. Likewise, it is a pleasure to find here a pair of intense sibling sonnets by George Eliot, best known for her prose writing, as well as a far less quoted poem from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese— one where the love is not yet mutual, confirmed, and “perhaps already eternal,” but rather particular, excited an exciting, still in the uncertain grips of courtship.
The collection focuses almost exclusively on British and American poets, although very occasionally some crucial European examples appear, such as Baudelaire or Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo.” The chance for a discovery or rediscovery is the most obvious benefit of a collection like this. For me, they included the remarkable sonnet from Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s House of Life, reflecting the poet’s translation of Dante’s Vita nuova, as is said, but also, and even more germanely in this case, of Dante’s contemporary Guido Cavalcanti; Thomas Hardy’s “A Church Romance”; Wallace Stevens’ exuberant “Nomad Exquisite,” which he sent to Poetry magazine’s Harriet Monroe on a postcard; and Countee Cullen’s “At the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem.” This last poem shows, as few modern illustrations do, how sonnets derive their power from correspondences—here, between the Israelites and African Americans, who both need “their given place / To rehabilitate the overthrown,” but even more centrally, between the outer temple or wall and the inner reality to which it speaks, that “battered temple of the heart / That grief is harder on than time on stone.” That double correspondence there takes the breath away, or adds that breath to the prayers at the wall.
These happy discoveries will proliferate for most readers toward the end, in part because poetry readers are arguably less familiar with more contemporary, very recent verses, and partially because Burt and Mikics take pains to diversify the final poets and poems represented here. A good number of these poets have been associated with more avant-garde poetics or postmodern schools. (Burt frequently writes about them and knows that crowded landscape well.) Selections by the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh and Ted Berrigan display memorably how the durability of sonnet form can raise to Homeric levels a “local row” or conflict, or capture for readers decades hence the exciting first days of an Oklahoman in New York City, complete with a bricolage sensibility. Finally, the Elizabethan virtuosity of Paul Muldoon and the immemorial warning of D. A. Powell (“o you who are young, consider how quickly the body deranges itself”) become forceful reminders that, in the words of the “Introduction,” the “sonnet form works especially well when a poet wants to remind us that the present is surprisingly like the past[.]” This form has rarely felt as present as it does in The Art of the Sonnet.
Brett Foster‘s poetry and criticism have recently appeared in Books & Culture, Image, Kenyon Review, Poetry East, and Raritan. He teaches creative writing and Renaissance literature at Wheaton College.