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[personal profile] lnhammer
The Making of a Sonnet, ed. Eavan Boland & Edward Hirsch. Large and diverse, and especially good on 20th century experiments.

The Oxford Book of Sonnets, ed. John Fuller. This is smaller and was economically constrained to include fewer 20th century sonnets, but otherwise manages a greater variety. It's also only general anthology I've met that acknowledges the role of women poets of the late 18th century in the revival of the English sonnet, even if the selection of their poems is still thin.

Complete cycles: the best sonnet cycle in English is Sidney's Astrophel and Stella (original spelling). The next-best Elizabethan cycle would be Drayton's Idea; two good Victorian cycles are D.G. Rossetti's The House of Life and C. Rossetti's "Monna Innominata." For contemporary cycles, I'm especially partial to Hacker's Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons; if the form used in Hollander's Powers of Thirteen counts as a sonnet (and this is highly debatable, though it's certainly a sonnet-analog of roughly the same size), I like that as well.

And fwiw, in The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, the articles "Sonnet" and "Volta" were especially useful to me this week.

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[personal profile] lnhammer
Sonnets are one of the great cultural exports of Italy, up there with pastas and perspective drawing -- modern poets have written sonnets in most languages that use rhymes, ranging from Icelandic to Chinese. Here's one from one of the most influential Modernist poets worldwide, Marie Ranier Rilke. Note that it's not a love sonnet, except insofar as Rilke always wrote about philosophy as if it were love.

Confession: I wanted to pick something from Sonnets to Orpheus, but there are no English translations in the public domain in the States and my German's too rusty for the task, so I'll just link you do a couple different versions, the last of which compares several translations -- and post here instead a famous one from 1907:

Archaïscher Torso Apollos

Wir kannten nicht sein unerhörtes Haupt,
darin die Augenäpfel reiften. Aber
sein Torso glüht wie ein Kandelaber,
in dem sein Schauen, nur zurückgeschraubt,

sich hält und glänzt. Sonst könnte nicht der Bug
der Brust dich blenden, und im leisen Drehen
der Lenden könnte nicht ein Lächeln gehen
zu jener Mitte, die die Zeugung trug.

Sonst stünde dieser Stein enstellt und kurz
unter der Schultern durchsichtigem Sturz
und flimmerte nicht wie Raubtierfelle;

und bräche nicht aus allen seinen Rändern
aus wie ein Stern: denn da ist keine Stelle,
die dich nicht sieht. Du mußt dein Leben ändern.

translation by Jessie Lemont )

While I have questions about this poem, they aren't about sonnets per se so I'll leave it -- and this week -- at that. Though I should put together a for-further-reading post for tomorrow.

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[personal profile] lnhammer
Enough theoretical discussion -- back to the love poems. Here's one by one of the better love poets of the last century.

What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning; but the rain
Is full of ghosts to-night, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply,
And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain
For unremembered lads that not again
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.
Thus in the winter stands the lonely tree,
Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,
Yet knows its boughs more silent than before:
I cannot say what loves have come and gone,
I only know that summer sang in me
A little while, that in me sings no more.

Do you have a favorite love sonnet?

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[personal profile] lnhammer
There are many ways to build larger structures out of sonnets -- at least as many as there are of building sonnets. The classic example is, of course, a sonnet sequence, in which individual poems are snapshots from a larger story -- though sometimes, as with Shakespeare, the story may be so diffused or confused as to be impossible to make out. But the units can be bound more tightly, to the point that any given sonnet is not readily detachable as an independent poem. One formal way is in a corona or "crown" of sonnets, in which the last line of one is repeated as the first of the next. The classic form of crown has seven sonnets, but fourteen-sonnet versions can also be found -- and for bonus points, there's the sonnet redoublé of fourteen in which the repeated lines form a fifteenth sonnet (here's an example).

The consensus seems to be that a corona's units are still sonnets even though they're almost never reprinted separately. But you can also in effect use sonnets as stanzas, in which case the issue is even less clear, a classic example being Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind." Here's another:


Lift up thy lips, turn round, look back for love,
    Blind love that comes by night and casts out rest;
    Of all things tired thy lips look weariest,
Save the long smile that they are wearied of.
Ah sweet, albeit no love be sweet enough,
    Choose of two loves and cleave unto the best;
    Two loves at either blossom of thy breast
Strive until one be under and one above.
Their breath is fire upon the amorous air,
    Fire in thine eyes and where thy lips suspire:
And whosoever hath seen thee, being so fair,
    Two things turn all his life and blood to fire;
A strong desire begot on great despair,
    A great despair cast out by strong desire.


Where between sleep and life some brief space is,
    With love like gold bound round about the head,
    Sex to sweet sex with lips and limbs is wed,
Turning the fruitful feud of hers and his
To the waste wedlock of a sterile kiss;
    Yet from them something like as fire is shed
    That shall not be assuaged till death be dead,
Though neither life nor sleep can find out this.
Love made himself of flesh that perisheth
    A pleasure-house for all the loves his kin;
But on the one side sat a man like death,
    And on the other a woman sat like sin.
So with veiled eyes and sobs between his breath
    Love turned himself and would not enter in.


Love, is it love or sleep or shadow or light
    That lies between thine eyelids and thine eyes?
    Like a flower laid upon a flower it lies,
Or like the night's dew laid upon the night.
Love stands upon thy left hand and thy right,
    Yet by no sunset and by no moonrise
    Shall make thee man and ease a woman's sighs,
Or make thee woman for a man's delight.
To what strange end hath some strange god made fair
    The double blossom of two fruitless flowers?
Hid love in all the folds of all thy hair,
    Fed thee on summers, watered thee with showers,
Given all the gold that all the seasons wear
    To thee that art a thing of barren hours?


Yea, love, I see; it is not love but fear.
    Nay, sweet, it is not fear but love, I know;
    Or wherefore should thy body's blossom blow
So sweetly, or thine eyelids leave so clear
Thy gracious eyes that never made a tear—
    Though for their love our tears like blood should flow,
    Though love and life and death should come and go,
So dreadful, so desirable, so dear?
Yea, sweet, I know; I saw in what swift wise
    Beneath the woman's and the water's kiss
    Thy moist limbs melted into Salmacis,
And the large light turned tender in thine eyes,
And all thy boy's breath softened into sighs;
    But Love being blind, how should he know of this?

Au Musée du Louvre, Mars 1863.

When sonnet-formed units are integrated this tightly into a unified work, are they still sonnets? Can you have a poem of poems? or is the set definted to not include itself?

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[personal profile] lnhammer
Before going on to other formal variations, a glance another metrical experiment that brings up the question of topic. This one has of course nothing to do with romantic love -- which would be odd indeed for a devout Jesuit priest to write about.

It is sometimes tempting to claim that if the sound of a Hopkins poem does not move you, you have no soul. I don't, mind you, but it is tempting. Read this one aloud, especially if you haven't before. A windhover, by the way, is a type of small falcon usually called a kite, for its hovering in the wind over the downs, and sillion is a dialect word for a furrow. Note again a classic volta, one drawn even more sharply than either Petrarch's or Sidney's.

The Windhover
To Christ our Lord

I caught this morning morning's minion, king-
    dom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
    Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
    As a skate's heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
    Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, –- the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
    Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

    No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
    Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.

More or less five feet per line, depending on how much you agree with Hopkins' own analysis of the meter, but definitely not iambic -- and yet I'd argue it still is quite recognizably a sonnet. Compare to his "Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves," a more extreme metrical experiment that doesn't feel sonnet to me, despite the orthodox rhyme and volta -- plus others such as such as "God's Grandeur" (fairly orthdox), "I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day" (the darkest of his dark sonnets, and an object lesson in how many spondees you can substitute and still count as iambic).

Are there any subjects you consider particularly inappropriate for a sonnet -- whether because it's unsuitable to the form, or the form won't suit it, or whatever?

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[personal profile] lnhammer
The line-length for sonnets is usually the default line-length for the language it's written in -- hendecasyllables in Italian, alexandrine in French, iambic pentameter in English, and so on. Usually, but not always, and just as poets have always played with words, so they have with forms. Phillip Sidney's cycle Astrophel and Stella was experimental in so many ways, above and beyond the obvious one of being the first sonnet cycle in English: not only does the opening play merry heck with the conventions of renaissance rhetoric, it's in hexameter:

Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show,
That the dear She might take some pleasure of my pain:
Pleasure might cause her read, reading might make her know,
Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain,
    I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe,
Studying inventions fine, her wits to entertain:
Oft turning others' leaves, to see if thence would flow
Some fresh and fruitful showers upon my sun-burned brain.
    But words came halting forth, wanting Invention's stay,
Invention, Nature's child, fled step-dame Study's blows,
And others' feet still seemed but strangers in my way.
Thus great with child to speak, and helpless in my throes,
        Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite,
        "Fool" said my Muse to me, "look in thy heart and write."

What line-lengths and meters other than iambic pentameter do you consider acceptable in a sonnet? Do the lines always have to be the same length? Can you provide examples?

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[personal profile] lnhammer
Sonnets were for a long time strongly identified with the Petrarchan tradition, and even now the form can have connotations of love poetry despite extensive proof that it's useful for a two-part argument of a certain size on any subject. Not to mention, there's quite a few sonnets having nothing whatsoever to do with Laura in Petrarch's Canzone. But to start us off, an actual Petrarchan sonnet, with a more-or-less literal translation (cribbed together from ponies and rusty Spanish) plus a much freer by the poet who introduced the form to English. Note, btw, the classic volta.

Una candida cerva sopra l'erba
verde m'apparve, con duo corna d'oro,
fra due riviere, all'ombra d'un alloro,
levando 'l sole a la stagione acerba.

Era sua vista sí dolce superba,
ch'i' lasciai per seguirla ogni lavoro:
come l'avaro che 'n cercar tesoro
con diletto l'affanno disacerba.

"Nessun mi tocchi" al bel collo d'intorno
scritto avea di diamanti et di topazi
"libera farmi al mio Cesare parve."

Et era 'l sol già vòlto al mezzo giorno,
gli occhi miei stanchi di mirar, non sazi,
quand'io caddi ne l'acqua, et ella sparve.

Literal rendering )

Wyatt's rendering )

Leaving aside the all-too-obvious fact that I am not the poet Sir Thomas Wyatt was, this does raise questions of just how valid adaptations and imitations are as translations and of the role of either in the adoption of forms across languages -- but since this is not translation but sonnet week, I'll set those aside (after linking to this discussion of translations of another Petrarch sonnet by the first two poets to use the form in English). Though doing so leaves me with no question for discussion on this one. Oops. Well, maybe you guys can think of something to ask me. Or we can return to the meta question of what defines a sonnet.

lnhammer: lo-fi photo of a tall, thin man - caption: "some guy" (Default)
[personal profile] lnhammer
I'm [personal profile] lnhammer, and I'll be hosting a week on sonnets.

You can find as almost many definitions of a sonnet as you can prosodists: fourteen lines, rhyming, yadda yadda. "Rhyming," yes, but exactly how is not important. In fact, historically a particular rhyme scheme has never been a defining characteristic of sonnets -- the now-standard abbaabba octave of the various Italian schemata wasn't introduced until a generation after the form was invented in the early 13th century (using abababab).

The closest thing to a definitive marker is 14 lines containing an asymmetric two-part structure with a "turn" of thought, volta in Italian, slightly more than halfway through, most orthodoxly giving it a 8+6 structure (as emphasized by Italian rhyme schemes) but sometimes moved a line or two in either direction. But even that definition can be carped at, given that Elizabethan rhyme schemes with their final couplet often suggest using a 12+2 argument.

But enough of that. This week I'd like to explore some other aspects of sonnets -- starting with my next post later today.

Until then, though, a question: how do YOU define a sonnet?



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February 2017



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