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The Sonnet in the Twentieth Century





by Anthony Robinson   




In his 1575 treatise, Certayne notes of Instruction, concerning the making of verse or ryme in English, George Gascoigne codified the rules of the English sonnet. While the form was introduced into English poetry from the Italian by Sir Thomas Wyatt and the Earl of Surrey, it wasn’t until Gascoigne’s letter that a written formula for what constituted a sonnet came into existence. Although Sixteenth century contemporaries of Gascoigne and later practitioners of the form altered the rules freely, and continue to do so to this day, his description still seems the most apt and correct:

"Then have you Sonets; some think that all Poemes (being short) may be called Sonets, as in deede it is a diminutive worde derived of Sonare, but yet I can beste allowe to call those Sonets whiche are of fouretene lynes, every line coneteyning tenne syllables. The first twelve do ryme in staves of foure lines by crosse meetre, and the last twoo ryming togither do conclude the whole." (English Sixteenth Century Verse, An Anthology. Richard S. Sylvester, 326.)

Through the years, this conception of the form has, despite small changes and the idiosyncrasies of individual poets, remained fairly stable. While the sonnet’s heyday was the Elizabethan era, when as P. H. Frye notes, "...there were more than 300,000 Sonnets produced in Western Europe...particularly those of an amorous nature," in the Twentieth century, particularly in recent years, the sonnet has come back into fashion, practiced by a large number of contemporary poets. The present examination of the sonnet will focus on the flexible nature and variability of the sonnet, a "closed form," and include modern examples by Cummings and Millay, as well as the work of contemporary poets like Mark Jarman. I will conclude with an example of work from my own sonnet series, "Dante and Bea."

The Sonnets:

Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sonnets are peculiar in that they ostensibly address modern concerns but operate with an almost Elizabethan sense of diction and syntax. The result is a sonnet that sounds "poetic" and somewhat old-fashioned. Despite this quirk, or perhaps because of it, many of her poems are distinctive and masterful.


Only until this cigarette is ended,
A little moment at the end of all,
While on the floor the quiet ashes fall,
And in the firelight to a lance extended,
Bizarrely with the jazzing music blended,
The broken shadow dances on the wall,
I will permit my memory to recall
The vision of you, by all my dreams attended.
And then, adieu,—farewell!—the dream is done.
Yours is a face of which I can forget
The colour and the features, every one,
The words not ever, and the smiles not yet;
But in your day this moment is the sun
Upon a hill, after the sun has set.

Millay’s poem has the structure and feel of a traditional Italian sonnet. The only real hints at modernity here are the cigarette and "jazzing music." We know by these features that this is a modern poem, but its heavy reliance on end-stopped lines and exact rhyme help it to achieve a bizarre effect in the mind and mouth of the reader. If the imagery and linguistic slipperiness were not so strong, one may be tempted to dismiss this poem as mere affectation or imitation. Instead, though, the very strangeness of Millay’s diction and mechanics plunges the reader further into the poem. The first foot of the poem, a trochaic inversion, so common to many traditional sonnets prepares us to expect the ordinary. The cigarette that quickly follows pulls us in the other direction. Millay has established a tension between tradition and modernity which lasts throughout the poem. On a strictly imagistic level, the quietly burning cigarette, the shadows on the wall, and the lover’s blurred face provide us with a strong visual component that momentarily confuses the intellect. We read the poem the first time and get a strong sense of image and emotion, the feeling of loss. But, on a semantic level, we are a bit confused. How can one forget a lover’s face but not the lover’s smile, for example? The equation of a moment spent with a cigarette in front of a fire, and a now-absent sun seems a bit clearer—by the end of the poem, and the end of the cigarette, this moment is forgotten, it is a sun already set. The confusing element, however, is "your day." We are unsure as to whether "your day" is a temporal distinction (‘at this or that particular time’), or an experiential/positional one (‘how it seems to you/where you are’). It is precisely this confusion that makes the ending of this poem so satisfying. The smoking lover ostensibly vows to forget and by the end of the poem states that she has forgotten. The final metaphor, however, that of the setting sun, is attributed to neither lover with certainty. The speaker seems to want badly to forget, and imagines her lover has already forgotten. This conflict causes her to declare her forgetfulness, but then fall back on her declaration, as shown in lines 10-12. The concluding two lines—which interestingly, function semantically but not structurally as a couplet—attempt to clarify the forgetting/burning trope but only further confuse it, and in doing so attempt to implicate the absent lover, but really, only intensify the speaker’s inability to deal with her loss. In her day, the moment spoken of in these lines, is very much real, not forgotten. The poem fails to achieve the self-negation it so desperately tries to effect. In this failure, then, lies its strength. We feel that we know this woman with a cigarette—that we have been this woman at one time or another—the loss of love having created the calm sense of denial that allows one to create (despite interlineal protestations to the contrary) this indelible utterance against forgetting, the poem.

If Millay represents modern achievement within the confines of traditional form, E.E. Cummings is emblematic of the stretching of form. Often seen as an iconoclast and radical experimenter, Cummings was very much a traditionalist in subject matter and in form. While his experimentation can’t be ignored, his allegiance to the sonnet is extraordinary. Nearly one-fourth of his collected poems are sonnets. Cummings’ genius is making these sonnets seem "un-sonnetlike." Working extensively within the form but refusing to be mastered by it, he created poems of soaring beauty that stretched the definition of the sonnet, while attesting to its elevance in a modern age.

now winging selves sing sweetly,while ghosts(there
and here)of snow cringe;dazed an earth shakes sleep

begins a sonnet celebrating the arrival of spring. Like many of Cummings’ poems, this one seems crammed. The persistent alliteration of s and w sounds, the shoved-together look of the punctuation, and the startled syntax combine to create a sense of newness in the reader. While we may not know initially what the poet means by "winging selves sing sweetly," it certainly sounds marvelous. We read on, held captive by the almost Hopkins-esque attention to sound, and the sense that something is going on, although we’re not quite sure what. This is a technique quite different than that employed by Millay. In the previous poem, we only think we know what’s going on until we realize finally that we, like the speaker, are fooling ourselves. In Cummings’ poem, however, our confusion about sense is part of what carries us on to the next lines:

out of her brightening mind:now everywhere
space tastes of the amazement which is hope

The hope spoken of here is, of course, spring. We may by now, have that sense, especially with the startling image of the cringing snow fresh in our mind. The earth is awakened by a new hope of spring. Like William Carlos Williams in "Spring and All," Cummings is subtly relegating the idea of  the "Waste Land" to the status of a mere contrivance of winter, at once trivializing the sort of despair found in Eliot’s poem, and celebrating the other side of the coin. "April’s green endures," Wallace Stevens reminds us. Cummings, it seems, didn’t need reminding. At this point, after four lines, we may begin to see the rhyme scheme at work, the insistent meter, and feel an initial bit of amazement at the energy produced by the adherence to such a "confining" form. With the sudden recognition that spring is what is being sung about, we also begin to see the reason behind the crammed appearance—like spring itself, Cummings’ poem is frenzied, restless, after a long sleep, and ready to burst open like April’s first flower.

The English rhyme scheme and fairly strict pentameter continues for the next two stanzas, before concluding on this:

winter is over—(now for me and you,
darling!)life’s star prances the blinding blue

Particularly remarkable about the ending is the abundance of strong stresses in the concluding line. The trochee "winter" heads line 13, which quickly reverts to iambic regularity before diving back into trochaic territory with the exclamation "darling!" in the last line. Then, however, three emphatic stresses follow—a shouting-out of spring—before returning to a final two gentle iambs. The trochee-spondee-trochee configuration, the only major departure from metrical regularity in the poem, hammers home the speaker’s constantly increasing enthusiasm.

Among contemporary poets, Alan Michael Parker is one of many who, admirably, works the sonnet. In his poem "The Ticket," a tale of a drunken speeding ticket becomes a somber and surprising meditation on the hurried pace of modern life. Parker uses a modified English form (four stanzas: abba, cddc, effe, gg) with a surprising amount of off-rhymes. Like many of his peers, Parker’s sonnet is startling because it doesn’t initially feel or look like a sonnet. The rhymes are subtle (elm/tomb, proof/love) and, the quantity of enjambment, the employment of long sentences, actually disguise the form itself on a first and even second reading. Used this way, the sonnet becomes less a form for form’s sake, and more a tool by which to funnel one’s poetic excess into a succinct box. While one can produce good poems this way (Parker’s poem is a fine example), the use of the sonnet as a mere structural apparatus may cause one to wonder whether the sonnet is any longer a worthwhile form. Arguably, if the form is merely a funnel, then a short poem, carefully composed in free verse could achieve the same effect as the "funneled" sonnet.

Mark Jarman does seem to be writing sonnets with attention to both form-as-container and form-as-extension-of-function. His "Unholy Sonnets" follow in the tradition of the sonnet-as-devotional, most notably practiced by John Donne. "Unholy Sonnet 13" fuses the devotional with the earthly as two loves are described, remembered, and questioned.

Drunk on Umbrian hills at dusk and drunk
On one pink cloud that stood beside the moon,
Drunk on the moon, a marble smile, and drunk,
Two young Americans, on one another,
Far from home, and wanting this forever—

Jarman’s use of the form is subtle, but less contrived than that of Parker. The constant repetition of the word "drunk" and the alliteration of harsh d and k sounds, as well as the mixing of soft f and m sounds, give these first five lines a sense of giddy confusion. The tone is forceful, but not harsh, excited but not hurried. The rhyme scheme here is more complex than that of Parker’s sonnet as well. The identical rhyme of "drunk/drunk" sets us up for an immediate rhyme for "moon," but it doesn’t come as expected. Instead, the couplet "another/forever" intercedes, causing a momentary jarring effect. This well-placed disruption sets the reader up for the even more jarring content of the next line:

Who needed God? We had our bodies, bread,

Who needed God? This poem about two lovers suddenly becomes a meditation on the divine. The drunkenness spoken of at the start of the poem, attributed to pink clouds, to the moon, to each other, gains a new attribution here. Bodies and bread, equal in Christian symbolism, set the stage for an earthly source of drunkenness in the next line:

And glasses of a raw, green, local wine,

And here’s the long-anticipated rhyme for "moon": wine! The genius of Jarman’s form becomes apparent when we arrive at this rhyme. The first five lines of the poem seem wholly focused on an entirely human love. The peculiar thing (and we don’t notice it’s peculiar until it’s too late) is that these human beings are drunk on hills, dusk, clouds, smiles, the moon! The drunkenness is being attributed in these early lines to God-made things. The unsuspecting reader, however, either ignores or dismisses the divine implication, until line 6. Now, plunged into a state of divine questioning, the drunkenness is attributed to an earthly item, wine. It’s as if, recognizing God’s presence has made the lovers, or us the reader, question God’s divinity. It is easier then to place responsibility on the wine (which cleverly, is placed next to bread and bodies here, indicating that try as we might, we can’t escape the divine for long.) The poem concludes:

And watched our Godless perfect darkness breed
Enormous softly burning ancient stars.
Who needed God? And why do I ask now?
Because I’m older and I think God stirs
In details that keep bringing back that time,
Details that are just as vivid now—
Our bodies, bread, a sharp Umbrian wine.

Jarman has performed in these last lines a poetic transubstantiation. The "Godless" former bodies of the young Americans and their wine and bread are finally realized by the older speaker as being imbued with the divine. The very things that convinced the lovers that they didn’t need God have become testament to God’s existence in the speaker’s later life.

My own sonnet sequence, "Dante and Bea," is a series of vignettes about two contemporary lovers, but rooted in a historical tradition. Much of the imagery comes from Eliot and Dante, and the form, while consistently fourteen lines, is altered poem by poem. Most of these sonnets were, in fact, originally written in a very strictly metered and rhymed form, but were in revision altered so as not to stifle the poem itself. In other words, I tried to ensure that the form didn’t choke function, or act as simply a generic container for a poem that could probably stand as free verse. The following poem is an example of the "broken form" sonnet that I employed, in varying incarnations, throughout the series:

III. Beatrice Speaks

I’m not exactly sure what drew me to him—
it was summer and his body seemed so still
while everything around him was in motion.

He sat in front of a house, black hair in his face,
drinking from a glass half-filled with pennies
or hay—a liquid the color of honey.

When he lifted his eyes, I knew right then
I would give him my whole burnished body.

The frenzied hum and buzz of bodies being
grafted onto the same copper track
is like yellowjackets dancing—it sounds best
to those who know the pattern—to the rest
of us, it’s a drunken yellow and black
blur, and beyond that, the pale ache, the sting.

The poem retains the traditional octave and sestet but uses them a bit differently than in traditional practice. Here, the italicized octave is the voice of Beatrice, explaining in mostly-iambic pentameter, the first time she saw Dante. The rhyming sestet (abc cba), acts as a narrative comment on Bea’s non-rhymed speech. This conscious turn to the poetic replaces the rather plain tone of Bea’s octave with the more ornate diction and rhythm of the narrator. Rather than lower Bea’s diction considerably, I chose to simply remove the rhyme employed in the earlier version, and concentrate on her recollection. I employed a similar division in the next poem, italicizing Dante’s (more poetic) words, and appending narrative comments to the end of his "quote", completing the sonnet form.

VI. Winter

In the dark alley of error that wrapped
fast around my days (before and after)

—over the crackly cushion of dead leaves,
discarded butts, and broken glass—
          I tapped
soft at Bea’s window until her laughter
drifted, burnt and pungent through the screen.

On pale nights like this he still reflects
on what was and what could be and on her:
white limbs, cherry hair, veined lips, empty stare.
It was more than shared addictions or sex,
but what was there before, what passed away,
makes little difference now in winter’s cold.
She is gone, the alley bare and grey
like the tree in Dante’s yard, white and old.

The traditional Italian rhyme scheme is reversed as well. Dante’s ruminations form the sestet, which begins instead of ends the sonnet, rhyming (abc, abc). The octet consists of the following rhyme scheme: (deedfgfg).

The sonnet in the Twentieth century is alive and well, spanning the gamut from the strictly traditional to the experimental, at times barely recognizable but for the line count.

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