Click on the pictures to see enlarged versions of the images.

Saturday, December 31, 2011

The New Year

(World without Shadows by Maud Lewis, 1903-1970,
Canadian folk artist)

Best wishes for a Happy New Year, dear Readers.


The Old Year’s gone away
To nothingness and night:
We cannot find him all the day
Nor hear him in the night:
He left no footstep, mark or place
In either shade or sun:
The last year he’d a neighbor’s face,
In this he’s known as none.

All nothing everywhere:
Mists we on mornings see
Have more substance when they’re here
And more of form than he.
He was a friend by every fire,
In every cot and hall —
A guest to every heart’s desire,
And now he’s naught at all.

Old papers thrown away,
Old garments cast aside,
The talk of yesterday,
All things identified;
But times once torn away
No voices can recall:
The eve of New Year’s Day
Left the Old Year lost to all.

~ John Clare (1793-1864), English Romantic poet

Friday, December 30, 2011

Pied Beauty

Each Friday we provide the link to the blog that is hosting a celebration of poetry around the blogosphere. At that site you can find the links to the many other blogs that are posting poems (new and old), discussions of poems, and reviews of poetry books.

Enjoy the festivities!

The host this week is Julie Larios. You can visit her here at The Drift Record.

(Wild Boar Piglet, 1578, by Hans Hoffmann, circa 1530-
1591, German artist whose watercolors of animals are
sometimes mistaken for Albrecht Dürer’s work)

We conclude this month’s study of the sonnet with one of my favorites.

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1899) is an English poet of the Romantic tradition. Like Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Keats, and John Clare, he looks not to man’s technological achievements but to Nature as the source of happiness and beauty, a mortal beauty that “keeps warm / Men’s wits to the things that are.”

The poem below is one of Hopkins’s variations on the Petrarchan sonnet, which he calls a “curtal” or restricted sonnet, made up of only ten and a half lines. With an “octave” of six lines of specific examples and a “sestet” of four and a half lines of descriptive adjectives, the sonnet explains Hopkins’s definition of beauty.

According to the Hopkins scholar Peter Milward, this is “essentially ‘pied beauty’ — beauty that is intricately interwoven with white and black, light and darkness, summer and winter, day and night, heaven and earth. Upon this fundamental contrast supervene the varied colors of the rainbow, even as the rising of the sun over the earth imparts to all things a dappled or mottled appearance and diversifies them in almost unlimited individuality.”


Glory be to God for dappled things —
For skies of couple-color as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced — fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swíft, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

A Sonnet

(Illuminated text in pen and ink for A Sonnet, by Dante
Gabriel Rossetti, 1828-1882, English poet, painter, and
illustrator; Rossetti created the illustration for his mother
on her birthday in 1880)

The sonnet below is one of a sequence of poems, The House of Life, that concern themselves with the fragility of time. We cannot hold on, Rossetti writes, to those fleeting instances of beauty or happiness. Poetry, including the sonnet, is only “a moment’s monument,” memorializing a memory even as it takes note of its passing.


A Sonnet is a moment’s monument —
Memorial from the Soul’s eternity
To one dead deathless hour. Look that it be,
Whether for lustral¹ rite or dire portent,
Of its own intricate fullness reverent:
Carve it in ivory or in ebony,
As Day or Night may rule; and let Time see
Its flowering crest impearled and orient.

A Sonnet is a coin²: its face reveals
The soul — its converse, to what Power ’tis due —
Whether for tribute to the august appeals
Of Life, or dower in Love’s high retinue,
It serve; or, ’mid the dark wharf’s cavernous breath,
In Charon’s³ palm it pay the toll to Death.

¹ lustral – connected with ceremonial purification
² coin – the ancient Greeks buried their dead with coins over their eyes or mouth to pay for the crossing to the Underworld
³ Charon – in Greek mythology, the ferryman who carried the recently deceased across the rivers from the world of the living to the world of the dead

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

all worlds have halfsight

(Black Door with Red by Georgia O’Keefe, 1887-1988,
American artist)

Almost one-quarter of the approximately 770 poems published by e. e. cummings (1894-1962) are sonnets. This may surprise some readers, that this most non-traditional of poets would favor such a traditional poetic form.

As he does in all his works, however, in his sonnets e. e. cummings also transforms the formal structure, arranging the text into eccentric typography or appearance of the words, dividing the stanzas into variable patterns, and making up his own rules for the rhyme and rhythm of the lines.

But the poet does follow the rule that the sonnet takes on one idea, with a proposition and then a response.

In the sonnet below, he makes the case that only through love can we see “the beauty of the truth.”

from 73 POEMS

all worlds have halfsight,seeing either with

life’s eye(which is if things seem spirits)or
(if spirits in the guise of things appear)
death’s:any world must always half perceive.

Only whose vision can create the whole

(being forever born a foolishwise
proudhumble citizen of ecstasies
more steep than climb can time with all his years)

he’s free into the beauty of the truth;

and strolls the axis of the universe
— love. Each believing world denies, whereas
your lover(looking through both life and death)
timelessly celebrates the merciful

wonder no world deny may or believe

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Fold a Letter

(Canada Goose Preparing for Flight by Benjamin Chee
Chee, 1944-1977, Canadian artist of Ojibwa descent)

As we have seen, the rules governing the traditional sonnet sometimes tempt poets into a bit of playfulness. Last Friday, we saw how the fourteen-lines, set rhyme schemes, and iambic pentameter rhythms of the sonnet can be reduced meaningfully to a very short and sweet couplet of four letters and numbers.

Today’s poem is another experiment on the sonnet by a Canadian poet. Alfred Noyes explains his intentions in preparing the collection of
Compression Sonnets:

“[S]omething in the [sonnet] form will not let go. Its practice, at its best, was a form of condensation; I have sought here only to see how far such condensation may be taken. Fourteen lines, if nothing else, every student recalls at least this.

“What might come of only fourteen words? What of the ‘sonnet’ remains? A turn after the eighth word? At the thirteenth (a concluding ‘couplet’ of words)? What of the sonnet’s traditional themes? I am interested only in economy — in what might be said with less. In reducing the poem until it turns in on itself, turns itself inside-out. Becomes something else. Becomes nothing. What becomes of form and its tradition, through compression?”

Indeed, what does become of form and tradition, through such compression? Is something lost in the translation? Could well be. For example, in a typical sonnet, the ninth line, which begins the sestet, takes a “turn” or “volta” from proposition to resolution or to effect a change in tone.

Noyes’s verses are missing the volta. In the end, they resemble more the meditative haiku, but are composed of fourteen words rather than seventeen syllables.

Fold a letter
Bright dream tinsel
Thin blue spine
This book’s almost
Done paparazzi

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Coming of Light

(Hanukkah Brass Menorah, circa 1962, by Ludwig
Wolpert, 1900-1981, German-born sculptor and
designer who worked and taught in Israel and

Hanukkah celebrates the victory, in 165 BCE, of the Jews under the leadership of Judas Maccabeus in Judea over their Syrian rules, who had banned all parts of Jewish culture. The feast celebrates “the joyous day / when we regained the right to pray / to our one God in our own way,” in the words of American poet Aileen Fisher (1906-2002).

The eight-day Festival of Light began on the evening of December 20 this year. The daily lighting of the candles commemorates the miraculous expansion of one day’s oil to an eight-day supply of light, enough to allow the Jews the time needed to rededicate their Temple.


Even this late it happens:
the coming of love, the coming of light.
You wake and the candles are lit as if by themselves,
stars gather, dreams pour into your pillows,
sending up warm bouquets of air.
Even this late the bones of the body shine
and tomorrow’s dust flares into breath.

~ Mark Strand, born 1934, Canadian-born American poet and translator

Sunday, December 25, 2011

B. C.: A. D.

Merry Christmas, dear Readers.

B. C.: A. D.

This was the moment when Before
Turned into After, and the future’s
Uninvented timekeepers presented arms.

This was the moment when nothing
Happened. Only dull peace
Sprawled boringly over the earth.

This was the moment when even energetic Romans
Could find nothing better to do
Than counting heads in remote provinces.

And this was the moment
When a few farm workers and three
Members of an obscure Persian sect

Walked haphazard by starlight straight
Into the kingdom of heaven.

~ U. A. Fanthorpe (1929-2009), English poet

To listen to a beautiful Christmas carol performed by the great contralto Mahalia Jackson (1911-1972), please click here.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Angels for the Nativity of Our Lord

(Christmas Eve by Henri Matisse,
1869-1954, French printmaker,
painter, and sculptor)

A sonnet.


Run, shepherds, run where Bethlem blest appears,
We bring the best of news, be not dismayed,
A Savior there is born more old than years,
Amidst heaven’s rolling heights this earth who stayed:
In a poor cottage inned, a virgin maid
A weakling did him bear, who all upbears;
There is he, poor swaddled, in a manger laid,
To whom too marrow swaddlings are our spheres:
Run, shepherds, run, and solemnize his birth,
This is that night — no, day, grown great with bliss,
In which the power of Satan broken is;
In heaven be glory, peace unto earth!
Thus singing, through the air the angels swam,
And cope of stars re-echoed the same.

~ William Drummond of Hawthornden (1585-1649), Scottish poet

Please click here to read the collection of poems for the season posted last December.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Short and Sweet

Each Friday we provide the link to the blog that is hosting a celebration of poetry around the blogosphere. At that site you can find the links to the many other blogs that are posting poems (new and old), discussions of poems, and reviews of poetry books.

Enjoy the festivities!

The host this week is Doraine Bennett. You can visit her
here at Dori Reads.

(Sonnet for Bonnie
by Darren Wershler-
Henry, born 1966,
Canadian poet,
writer, and critic)

What looks to be a hieroglyphic formula above is actually a Petrarchan sonnet. It is also a love sonnet, we can guess from the title. The sonnet’s message is put into a most private and intimate form, to be understood only by the writer and the recipient.

The first part is the octave. It asks the question, “Whom do I love?” eight times, or to the eighth power. The second part is the sestet. It states the answer “You” six times, or to the sixth power.

“If we define poetry as a kind of economical, expressive form,” writes the Canadian poet Christian Bök, “in which a poet must strive to speak as abundantly and as eloquently as possible, using as few words as possible, then this sonnet does constitute an efficient, if not essential, mode of expression. . . . [D]espite the fact that this poem, at first glance, appears very cryptic and austere, it is in fact a delicate, precious object, free from much of the sappiness that often plagues a rhapsodic outpouring of affection.”

Thursday, December 22, 2011

So What

(Jazz at Tacoma Station by Joseph Holston, American
Cubist Abstractionist artist)

In our study of the sonnet this month, we have noted several times that rules or restrictions can encourage creativity.

Two corollaries follow from that: rules are meant to be broken, but you have to know the rules before you can break them creatively.

One rule governing the use of metaphors is to avoid mixing them. Combining two elements that are incongruous only confuses the reader.

But even that rule can be broken, in the hands of a skilled poet. A famous example of the effective use of mixed metaphors is found in Hamlet’s soliloquy:

To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them: to die, to sleep
No more; and by a sleep, to say we end
The heart-ache, and the thousand Natural shocks
That Flesh is heir to. . . .

Similarly, the sonnet below succeeds despite its blatant mixing of metaphors.


Guess what. If love is only chemistry —
phenylethylamine, that molecule
that dizzies up the brain’s back room, smoky
with hot bebop, it won’t be long until
a single worker’s mopping up the scuffed
and littered floor, whistling tunelessly,
each endorphin cooling like a snuffed
glass candle, the air stale with memory.
So what, you say; outside, a shadow lifts
a trumpet from its case, lifts it like an ingot
and scatters a few virtuosic riffs
toward the locked-down stores. You’ve quit
believing that there’s more, but you’re still stirred
enough to stop, and wait, listening hard.

~ Kim Addonizio, born 1954, American poet, novelist, and writer of guides to composing poetry

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Ann Arbor Elegy, for Franny Winston Died September 27, 1969

(“El” Second and Third Avenue Lines, Bowery
and Division Street, New York, 1936
, by Berenice
Abbott, 1898-1991, American photographer)

In 1964, the American poet Ted Berrigan (1934-1983) published The Sonnets, his collection of sonnets re-invented into a modern expression of the personal. Berrigan acknowledged the influence of diverse poets like Shakespeare and T. S. Eliot and Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery. He also felt free to play with syntax and diction, to reflect the simultaneous structure of events in time.

The verse below, a sonnet with variations in length, rhythm, and rhyme, is a good example of how Berrigan uses free association to tell the story as seen from the middle of it all.

It is an informal elegy, a lamentation for a vibrant life now lost. In a sonnet workshop, Berrigan explained that he was “trying to make a very mild poem. . . . that would be an elegy, and the elegiac touch, is perhaps only in the tone, in the mildness, and in the kind of vowels that are used — and then in the fact that it ends in something that you could use in a newspaper.

“I didn't read in the newspaper that Franny Winston had died, but rather I had read that [the boxer] Rocky Marciano had died, in a plane crash in a field in Iowa.

“So, reading of his death made me write a poem about her death, which was on my mind. The sonnet seemed to me a proper vehicle for this, that is, to write an elegy, and at the same time, to write a poem in which I was making the events happen in the present, even though obviously I wasn’t writing the sonnet while they were going on. And finally, there was the transference of having read something in the newspaper about someone’s death who was not the person I was writing about. Again, the sonnet form seemed to allow me to do all those things.”


Last night’s congenial velvet sky
Conspired that Merrill, Jayne, Deke, you & I
Get it together at Mr. Flood’s Party, where we got high
On gin, shots of scotch, tequila salt and beer
Talk a little, laugh a lot & turn a friendly eye
On anything that’s going down beneath Ann Arbor’s sky.
Now the night’s been let to slip its way
Back toward a mild morning’s gray
A cool and gentle rain is falling, cleaning along my way
To where Rice Krispies, English muffins & coffee, black
Will make last night today. We count on that, each new day
Being a new day as we read what the Ann Arbor News has to say.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Sonnet for Hélène

(Azalea by Carl Larsson, 1853-1919, Swedish painter
and interior designer)

The Italians have a saying, “Traduttore, traditore” or “a translator is a traitor.” It is impossible for a translator to avoid misrepresenting the original.

This is particularly true when translating poetry. There is no one way to proceed. Should the rhyme pattern be repeated? What about the meter? How should one translate figures of speech like metaphors and alliteration and onomatopoeia?

Some argue for a more literal translation of words and expressions, while others favor an indirect but poetic translation, focusing on the spirit of the original verse. Many do agree that the best translators of poetry often are published poets themselves.

The original poem below, in the French of the time of its first definitive publication in 1587, is part of a sequence of sonnets written by Pierre de Ronsard, a much-respected French poet. He is speaking to the much younger Hélène, who is declining his passionate offer of love.


Quand vous serez bien vieille, au soir à la chandelle,
Assise aupres du feu, devidant et filant,
Direz chantant mes vers, en vous esmerveillant :
Ronsard me celebroit du temps que j’estois belle.

Lors vous n’aurez servante oyant telle nouvelle,
Desja sous le labeur à demy sommeillant,
Qui au bruit de mon nom ne s’aille resveillant,
Benissant vostre nom de louange immortelle.

Je seray sous la terre et fantôme sans os,
Par les ombres myrteux je prendray mon repos:
Vous serez au fouyer une vieille accroupie,

Regrettant mon amour et vostre fier desdain.
Vivez, si m’en croyez, n’attendez à demain:
Cueillez dés aujourd’huy les roses de la vie.

~ Pierre de Ronsard (1524-1585), French poet

This English version below, also in sonnet form, is a quite literal yet still poetic translation.

from SONNETS FOR HÉLÈNE, Book II: xlii

When you are truly old, beside the evening candle,
Sitting by the fire, winding wool and spinning,
Murmuring my verses, you’ll marvel then, in saying,
“Long ago, Ronsard sang to me, when I was beautiful.”

There’ll be no serving-girl of yours, who hears it all,
Even if, tired from toil, she’s already drowsing,
Fails to rouse at the sound of my name’s echoing,
And blesses your name, then, with praise immortal.

I’ll be under the earth, a boneless phantom,
At rest in the myrtle groves of the dark kingdom¹:
You’ll be an old woman hunched over the fire,

Regretting my love for you, your fierce disdain,
So live, believe me: don’t wait for another day,
Gather them now the roses of life, and desire.

~ translated by A. S. Kline, born 1947, English poet and translator

¹ myrtle groves of the dark kingdom – groves located in the underworld, according to classical mythology

At first glance, the second version of the poem in English below does not appear to be a translation of the original Ronsard sonnet. Its form is somewhat different, only three quatrains long, two lines shorter than a sonnet. Most significantly, it seems to tell a different story, of a woman in her old age sitting by the fire, reading a book rather than spinning wool. But W. B. Yeats is repeating Ronsard’s point, reminding his beloved that the great love of her youth remains faithful to her many years later, even after he is gone.


When you are old and gray and full of sleep,
And, nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

~ W. B. Yeats (1865-1939), Irish poet and dramatist and winner of the 1923 Nobel Prize in Literature

Monday, December 19, 2011

Well Water

(Moorish tiles at the Alhambra in Andalusia, Spain)

Sometimes a poem will appear to be a sonnet, until you count the lines and examine the rhyme and rhythm.

The first of today’s poems, by Randall Jarrell, is one line short, at thirteen, while the second, by Robert Frost, has too many lines, at fifteen. Neither follows the rhyme scheme or the iambic pentameter rhythm of a traditional sonnet form.

We could conclude that these two poems are not sonnets at all or we could decide that they are sonnets in blank verse, with some variations.

At first glance, they both seem to be about well water. But that’s just a coincidence.

Both poems are divided into two parts like a sonnet, first asking the question and then proposing an answer. Each describes the problem that arises if we dismiss the importance of the commonplace of life, the “dailiness,” as Jarrell calls it, the “something,” as Frost does. We remain alone in our loneliness. The water in the first well goes through a rusty pump and keeps everything hidden from sight. The water in the second well is so shiny that we can see only our own Narcissus-like reflections.

Each poem then brings up a solution. In the first, we find the water is nevertheless clear enough to draw our attention to the quotidian parts of life. And in the second, as one unexpected drop from a living thing disturbs the surface of the water, we see new details at the bottom of the well.


What a girl called “the dailiness of life”
(Adding an errand to your errand. Saying,
“Since you're up . . .” Making you a means to
A means to a means to) is well water
Pumped from an old well at the bottom of the world.
The pump you pump the water from is rusty
And hard to move and absurd, a squirrel-wheel
A sick squirrel turns slowly, through the sunny
Inexorable hours. And yet sometimes
The wheel turns of its own weight, the rusty
Pump pumps over your sweating face the clear
Water, cold, so cold! you cup your hands
And gulp from them the dailiness of life.

~ Randall Jarrell (1914-1965), American poet, essayist, and novelist, appointed poet laureate 1956-1958


Others taunt me with having knelt at well-curbs
Always wrong to the light, so never seeing
Deeper down in the well than where the water
Gives me back in a shining surface picture
Me myself in the summer heaven godlike
Looking out of a wreath of fern and cloud puffs.
Once, when trying with chin against a well-curb,
I discerned, as I thought, beyond the picture,
Through the picture, a something white, uncertain,
Something more of the depths — and then I lost it.
Water came to rebuke the too clear water.
One drop fell from a fern, and lo, a ripple
Shook whatever it was lay there at bottom,
Blurred it, blotted it out. What was that whiteness?
Truth? A pebble of quartz? For once, then, something.

~ Robert Frost (1874-1963), American poet, appointed poet laureate 1958-1959

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Sonnet (1979)

(American Treasures: Gee's Bend, Alabama, Quilts, U. S.
postage stamps, 2006)

In her review of The Complete Poems (1927-1979) of Elizabeth Bishop, the poet Adrienne Rich wrote that “Bishop left behind, in the last unpublished poem of the last year of her life, her own last word on division, decision, and questions of travel.”

Bishop’s own title for this poem (below) insists it is a sonnet.

It may not look like a sonnet. It is much too narrow. The lines are short, without the traditional iambic pentameter of five pairs of short/long, unstressed/stressed meters, of ten syllables per line.

It may not sound like a sonnet, either. The rhyme is eccentric, with only three pairs of rhymes, each irregularly spaced between the rhyme of one line and its mate. For example, the word “level” of line 2 rhymes with “bevel” of line 11.

And its two stanzas are reversed, with the sestet preceding rather than following the octave.

But its length is the required fourteen lines. Most important, it does follow the structure and intention of a sonnet in establishing its theme, in this case first posing the problem, “Caught,” then proposing an answer, “Freed.”

SONNET (1979)

Caught — the bubble
in the spirit level,
a creature divided;
and the compass needle
wobbling and wavering,
Freed — the broken
thermometer’s mercury
running away;
and the rainbow-bird
from the narrow bevel
of the empty mirror,
flying wherever
it feels like, gay!

~ Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979), American poet


As promised, here are the answers to yesterday’s sonnet-riddle.


by R. S. Gwynne

A man is haunted by his father's ghost.

Boy meets girl while feuding families fight.
Romeo and Juliet

A Scottish king is murdered by his host.

Two couples get lost on a summer night.
A Midsummer Night’s Eve

A hunchback murders all who block his way.
Richard III

A ruler's rivals plot against his life.
Richard II

A fat man and a prince make rebels pay.
Henry IV

A noble Moor has doubts about his wife.

An English king decides to conquer France.
Henry V

A duke learns that his best friend is a she.
Twelfth Night

A forest sets the scene for this romance.
As You Like It

An old man and his daughters disagree.
King Lear

A Roman leader makes a big mistake.
Julius Caesar

A sexy queen is bitten by a snake.
Antony and Cleopatra

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Shakespearean Sonnet

(Sketch by thirteen-year-old Orson Welles, of the young
Will Shakespeare; Welles, 1915-1985, went on to become
famous for his work in film, television, and the theater)

Like all of us, poets like to have fun, — even with sonnets, as can be seen in the following poem.


With a first line taken from the tv listings

A man is haunted by his father’s ghost.
Boy meets girl while feuding families fight.
A Scottish king is murdered by his host.
Two couples get lost on a summer night.
A hunchback murders all who block his way.
A ruler’s rivals plot against his life.
A fat man and a prince make rebels pay.
A noble Moor has doubts about his wife.
An English king decides to conquer France.
A duke learns that his best friend is a she.
A forest sets the scene for this romance.
An old man and his daughters disagree.
A Roman leader makes a big mistake.
A sexy queen is bitten by a snake.

~ R. S. Gwynn, born 1948, American poet

(The answers to this riddle will appear in tomorrow’s post.)

Friday, December 16, 2011


Each Friday we provide the link to the blog that is hosting a celebration of poetry around the blogosphere. At that site you can find the links to the many other blogs that are posting poems (new and old), discussions of poems, and reviews of poetry books.

Enjoy the festivities!

The host this week is Kate Coombs. You can visit her here at Book Aunt.

(Alice Meynell by John Singer
Sargent, 1856-1925, American
portrait painter)

Alice Meynell (1847-1922) was an English journalist, suffragette, and poet. She was so respected for her poetry that her name was mentioned as a possible candidate for her country’s poet laureateship.

“The disciplined spareness and surface simplicity of her poetry was unusual in a late Victorian period characterized by much poetic ornamentation. Her friend and admirer G. K. Chesterton stated that ‘she was different from most of the advanced artists of the period in the detail that she was facing the other way, and advancing in the opposite direction.’. . .

“In fact, a number of critics compared her work to that of the seventeenth-century metaphysical poets, whom she much admired. Her poetic restraint was regularly noted, as in the
Pall Mall Gazette review of Later Poems in 1901: ‘She has accustomed us to look for quality rather than quantity and we are not disappointed. The rarity of her verses, measured by the gross test of counting pages and lines, is paralleled by the uncommon beauty of the poetry they embody, and the distinction wherewith it is expressed.’” ~ F. Elizabeth Gray, in Encyclopedia of Catholic Literature, vol. II

The English poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) wrote that he thought the sonnet below is one of the finest love sonnets ever written.


I must not think of thee; and, tired yet strong,
I shun the love that lurks in all delight —
The love of thee — and in the blue heaven’s height,
And in the dearest passage of a song.
O just beyond the sweetest thoughts that throng
This breast, the thought of thee waits hidden yet bright;
But it must never, never come in sight;
I must stop short of thee the whole day long.

But when sleep comes to close each difficult day,
When night gives pause to the long watch I keep,
And all my bonds I needs must loose apart,
Must doff my will as raiment laid away, —
With the first dream that comes with the first sleep
I run, I run, I am gather’d to thy heart.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Sonnet: More of the Same

(Plowing, 1936, by Grant Wood, 1891-1942, American

It’s come to this — there are rules now on how to ignore the rules governing the sonnet. The poet John Ashbery (born 1927) puts his argument into sonnet form, but without the required fourteen lines in iambic pentameter.


Try to avoid the pattern that has been avoided,
the avoidance pattern. It’s not as easy as it looks:
The herringbone is floating eagerly up
from the herring to become parquet. Or whatever suits it.
New fractals clamor to be identical
to their sisters. Half of them succeed. The others
go on to be Provençal floral prints some sleepy but ingenious
weaver created halfway through the eighteenth century,
and they never came to life until now.

It’s like practicing a scale: at once different and never the same.
Ask not why we do these things. Ask why we find them meaningful.
Ask the cuckoo transfixed in mid-flight
between the pagoda and the hermit’s rococo cave. He may tell you.

What does it mean for the sonneteer?

“Perhaps this suggests that the form is a formula with which to beat poetry over the head,” writes the poet Hans Ostrom. “Another way to look at the issue, however, is to view the form as ever-adaptable, as only an illusory formula, . . .”


(after Ashbery)

A sonnet’s “just more of the same”? Uh, no.
It’s rather like less of the different.
There is no formula involved, you know.
True, syllables and lines and rhymes get spent
At predetermined intervals: mirage
Or order. Inside, sonnets are a mess
Of words, a slew of syntax, a barrage
Linguistically set off; are nonetheless
Provisionally impish — and as free
As freest verse to chat up any ear
Or signal any eye. The form, you see,
Is just a well mapped route from which to veer.
A sonnet is a disobedience
Of sounds, a flaunt of form, a tease of sense.

~ Hans Ostrom, born 1954, American poet, editor, and writer of short fiction

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

I Am in Need of Music

(Four Musical Angels by Bernardo Daddi, circa 1280-1348,
Early Italian Renaissance painter)

As we see with Millay’s “On Hearing a Symphony of Beethoven” yesterday and today’s verse by Elizabeth Bishop, the sonnet, the “little sound” or “song,” is particularly well suited, with its length and rhythm and rhyme, to celebrate the magic made by music.


I am in need of music that would flow
Over my fretful, feeling fingertips,
Over my bitter-tainted, trembling lips,
With melody, deep, clear, and liquid-slow.
Oh, for the healing swaying, old and low,
Of some song sung to rest the tired dead,
A song to fall like water on my head,
And over quivering limbs, dream flushed to glow!

There is a magic made by melody:
A spell of rest, and quiet breath, and cool
Heart, that sinks through fading colors deep
To the subaqueous stillness of the sea,
And floats forever in a moon-green pool,
Held in the arms of rhythm and of sleep.

~ Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979), American poet, appointed poet laureate 1949-1950

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

On Hearing a Symphony of Beethoven

(Edna St. Vincent Millay among the Magnolias,
1914, by Arnold Genthe, 1862-1942, American

Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950) is a prolific writer of novels, libretti, lyric poems, and some of America’s finest sonnets.


Sweet sounds, oh, beautiful music, do not cease!
Reject me not into the world again.
With you alone is excellence and peace,
Mankind made plausible, his purpose plain.
Enchanted in your air benign and shrewd,
With limbs a-sprawl and empty faces pale,
The spiteful and the stingy and the rude
Sleep like the scullions in the fairy-tale.
This moment is the best the world can give:
The tranquil blossom on the tortured stem.
Reject me not, sweet sounds! oh, let me live,
Till Doom espy my towers and scatter them,
A city spell-bound under the aging sun.
Music my rampart, and my only one.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Two Households, Both Alike in Dignity

(Engraving of Verona, Italy, the home of Romeo and Juliet,
by an unknown artist, from The Illustrated Shakespeare,
published 1847)

William Shakespeare (1564-1616) so perfected the English sonnet that it carries his name. His fame in this regard rests largely on the 154 love sonnets published in his life time. His sonnets are divided into three quatrains in abab, cdcd, efef rhyme, concluding with an epigrammatic or pointed couplet in gg rhyme.

But Shakespeare also includes sonnets in the scripts of his plays. The romance of Romeo and Juliet is introduced by a prologue in sonnet form setting out the family feud that will lead to tragedy.

CHORUS. Two households, both alike in dignity¹,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean².
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
Whose misadventur’d piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents’ strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark’d love,
And the continuance of their parents’ rage,
Which, but their children’s end, nought could remove,
Is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage³;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.

¹ dignity – status or rank
² civil blood makes civil hands unclean – the bloodshed from strife soils the hands of the citizens
³ two hours’ traffic of our stage – the expected length of this play

(The first meeting of Romeo and Juliet, at
a ball, by Edwin Austin Abbey, 1852-1911,
American artist and illustrator)

The two protagonists, Romeo of the Montagues and Juliet of the Capulets, first meet at a ball. They immediately fall in love. They speak a mere fourteen lines before they kiss, fourteen lines of a shared sonnet echoing the pattern of rhyme and rhythm established by the ominous sonnet in the prologue.

ROMEO. If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.
JULIET. Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims' hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers' kiss.
ROMEO. Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?
JULIET. Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.
ROMEO. O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do;
They pray — grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.
JULIET. Saints do not move, though grant for prayers' sake.
ROMEO. Then move not, while my prayer's effect I take.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Sonnet for Minimalists

(White Peony, 1950, woodblock print by
Kawarazaki Shodo, 1899-1973, Japanese

By the twentieth century, poets felt free to experiment with the rules governing the different kinds of sonnets in English.

This sonnet follows the Shakespearean form of three quatrains of
abab, cdcd, and efef rhyme, with a concluding couplet of gg rhyme. But its meter goes its own way, completely avoiding the traditional iambic pentameter of five feet, or ten syllables, of short/long or stressed/unstressed meters per line.


From a new peony,
my last anthem,
a squirrel in glee
broke the budded stem.
I thought, Where is joy
without fresh bloom,
that old hearts’ ploy
to mask the tomb?

Then a volunteer
stalk sprung from sour
bird-drop this year
burst in frantic flower.

The world’s perverse,
but it could be worse.

~ Mona Van Duyn (1921-2004), American poet, appointed poet laureate 1992-1993

Saturday, December 10, 2011


The picture today is a popular image by an artist known for his “genre” paintings, small works of art depicting everyday life and surroundings. Carl Spitzweg (1808-1885) is a German Romantic painter and poet whose work often expresses a gently humorous satirical point of view.

The Poor Poet depicts a man in a garret. (Click on the image to see an enlarged version.) We can guess that he is not well off. He had tried to replace the coal with pages from a manuscript but the stove is now cold enough for a top hat to hang from the pipe. To stay warm, he keeps his nightcap and cravat on as he huddles under a blanket on a mattress on the floor. The frayed umbrella keeps him dry from rain falling through leaks in the ceiling.

But he does try to keep up appearances: he has a good coat, sturdy leather boots, a walking stick, and that top hat.

We can also guess that he is a poet. He is surrounded by the requisite heavy books of reference and many pages of manuscripts tied into bundles. And he is counting on his fingers the meters of the words he is putting to paper as he holds a quill in his mouth.


The directions are clear if you want to compose your own sonnet. Just follow Billy Collins’s instructions below. The Petrarchan sonnet begins with an octave setting out the question and then makes a turn into a sestet with the answer. The Elizabethan sonnet keeps to three quatrains and a concluding couplet.

But wait — Collins is ignoring the rules governing the rhyme and rhythm of this form of poetry. Is this just another occasion of “do as I say, not as I do” or, could it be an example of how “the exception proves the rule”?


All we need is fourteen lines, well, thirteen now,
and after this one just a dozen
to launch a little ship on love’s storm-tossed seas,
then only ten more left like rows of beans.
How easily it goes unless you get Elizabethan
and insist the iambic bongos¹ must be played
and rhymes positioned at the ends of lines,
one for every station of the cross.
But hang on here while we make the turn
into the final six where all will be resolved,
where longing and heartache will find an end,
where Laura² will tell Petrarch to put down his pen,
take off those crazy medieval tights,
blow out the lights, and come at last to bed.

~ Billy Collins, born 1941, American poet, appointed poet laureate, 2001-2003

¹ iambic bongos – iambic is the foot or pair of syllables that establishes the rhythm or meter of traditional verse and verse drama. Each foot is expressed with a pair of short/long or unstressed/stressed syllables, for example, four-TEEN. Iambic pentameter, made up of five such feet, totaling ten syllables, is the rhythm favored in traditional verse and verse in drama in English.

² Laura – the poet Petrarch’s love for her was actually unrequited; Laura married another man

Friday, December 9, 2011

My Letters!

Each Friday we provide the link to the blog that is hosting a celebration of poetry around the blogosphere. At that site you can find the links to the many other blogs that are posting poems (new and old), discussions of poems, and reviews of poetry books.

Enjoy the festivities!

The host this week is Robyn Hood Black. You can visit her here at Robyn Hood Black — Children’s Author.

(Portraits of English poets Elizabeth Barrett Browning,
1806-1861, and Robert Browning, 1812-1889, by Thomas
Read, 1822-1872, American painter)

“I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett, — and this is no off-hand complimentary letter that I shall write, — whatever else, no prompt matter-of-course recognition of your genius, and there a graceful and natural end of the thing.

“Since the day last week when I first read your poems, I quite laugh to remember how I have been turning and turning again in my mind what I should be able to tell you of the effect upon me, for in the first flush of delight I thought I would this once get out of my habit of purely passive enjoyment, when I do really enjoy, and thoroughly justify my admiration . . .”

This letter precipitated one of the most famous of Victorian romances.

Elizabeth Barrett had just published a book of poetry to great acclaim. She was almost forty years old, unmarried, an invalid living in the home of her strict father, when this letter arrived. It was written on January 10, 1845, by Robert Browning, a poet six years her junior. “I had a letter from Browning, the poet, last night,” she wrote to a friend, “which threw me into ecstasies — Browning, the author of
Paracelsus, the king of the mystics.”

The two met, fell in love, and became engaged — but eloped when her father refused to approve the marriage and disinherited her.

In the two years before they married, she wrote a series of forty-four love sonnets in the Petrarchan form as a gift to Robert. The collection,
Sonnets from the Portuguese, gets its title from his pet name for her, “my little Portuguese.”

Most readers are familiar with the penultimate sonnet in the sequence, the one that asks, “How do I love thee?”

Fewer, however, have read this sonnet below from the collection. It is full of tumult. Elizabeth has trouble holding on to five letters from her beloved. The sheets of paper quiver, her hands tremble, and the letters fall to the floor. She is having just as much trouble controlling her emotions, expressing them with exclamation marks, incomplete sentences, many words of one syllable, and caesurae, or breaks, of ellipses and dashes that express the turns her feelings are taking.



My letters! all dead paper, mute and white!
And yet they seem alive and quivering
Against my tremulous hands which loose the string
And let them drop down on my knee to-night.
This said, — he wished to have me in his sight
Once, as a friend: this fixed a day in spring
To come and touch my hand . . . a simple thing,
Yet I wept for it! — this, . . . the paper's light . . .
Said, Dear, I love thee; and I sank and quailed
As if God's future thundered on my past.
This said, I am thine — and so its ink has paled
With lying at my heart that beat too fast.
And this . . . O Love, thy words have ill availed
If, what this said, I dared repeat at last!

Thursday, December 8, 2011


(Percy Bysshe Shelly in Italy writing Prometheus Unbound,
a “closet drama” meant to be read out loud rather than
performed on stage, by Joseph Severn, 1793-1879, English

Sometimes poets direct their work to their colleagues. They conduct conversations in verse with other poets, like their responses to Christopher Marlowe’s passionate shepherd. And they compete with each other, writing poems about the same theme, like Leigh Hunt’s and John Keats’s sonnets about a grasshopper and a cricket, and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s and Horace Smith’s sonnets below about an ancient tyrant.

Both of today’s sonnets look at the fate of Ozymandias, believed to be Ramesses II of Egypt (1303-1213 B. C.), a pharaoh who built giant monuments, palaces, and temples in his own honor. A Greek historian of the first century B. C., Diodorus Siculus, recorded that the inscription on the base of one of Ramesses’ monuments read: “King of Kings am I, Ozymandias. If anyone would know how great I am and where I lie, let him surpass one of my works.”

Both of these sonnets are composed in a variation of the Petrarchan form.

The first sonnet is by Horace Smith (1779-1849). In the octave, he describes the remains of a giant statue of a tyrant in a destroyed city of ancient Egypt. In the sestet, he imagines a time in the future when the city of London is similarly annihilated.


In Egypt’s sandy silence, all alone,
Stands a gigantic Leg, which far off throws
The only shadow that the Desert knows:
“I am great Ozymandias,” saith the stone,
“The King of Kings; this mighty City shows
The wonders of my hand.” The City’s gone,
Nought but the Leg remaining to disclose
The site of this forgotten Babylon.

We wonder, and some Hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when thro’ the wilderness
Where London stood, holding the Wolf in chase,
He meets some fragments huge, and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.

The second sonnet is by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), another Romantic poet like Wordsworth, Keats, Coleridge, and John Clare. It is by far the more famous version.


I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed¹:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

¹ the hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed – the mocking hand of the sculptor, and the tyrant’s heart that fed on his vanity

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

On First Looking into Chapman's Homer

(John Keats, 1795-1821, English Romantic poet)

John Keats is a Romantic poet like Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, and John Clare.

Writing in the Petrarchan form, he composed the sonnet below after his friend Charles Cowden Clarke had introduced him to the translation of the Greek poet Homer by the Elizabethan dramatist George Chapman (circa 1559-1634). Clarke recalled how Keats “shouted with delight” at certain passages and then went home to write the poem.

“It is not hard to imagine Clarke’s amazement as he read the sonnet over,” Aileen Ward writes in John Keats: The Making of a Poet. “The poem was a miracle; not simply because of the mastery of form, or because Keats was only twenty when he wrote it, or because he wrote it in the space of an hour or two after a night without sleep [reading Chapman]. Rather because nothing in his earlier poetry gave any promise of this achievement: the gap between this poem and his summer work could only be leaped by genius. . . . The unity of form and feeling that begins in the first line and swells in one crescendo of excitement to the final crashing silence was instantaneous and unimprovable.”


Much have I travel’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow’d Homer¹ ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez² when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific — and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise
Silent, upon a peak in Darien³.

¹ deep-brow’d Homer – Homer, the great Greek intellect
² Cortez – an error of no import to this poem: it was the Spanish explorer Balboa, not Cortez, who first gazed upon the Pacific after crossing the Isthmus of Panama in 1513
³ Darien – an area in Panama

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The World Is Too Much with Us

(William Wordsworth, 1770-1850, English poet who
served as poet laureate from 1843-1850)

“The World Is Too Much with Us”

These words could serve as the headline over an editorial in your daily paper, but here they form the title of a surprisingly up-to-date sonnet written more than two centuries ago.

William Wordsworth is one of the English Romantic poets, like Coleridge and Keats. These poets favor Nature as the source of happiness over the spiritual poverty of materialism they believe came with the Industrial Revolution. Many of their verses, like this one, make full use of the pathetic fallacy, bringing in Nature by ascribing human qualities and emotions to an inanimate object.

The sonnet below is in the Petrarchan form. The octave sets out the problem — man is out of tune with the world and is losing his soul to wasteful “getting and spending.” The sestet suggests a possible answer — to make himself “less forlorn,” man should gaze at Nature with the same wonder as beheld by the ancient pagans.


The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. — Great God! I'd rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea¹,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus² rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton³ blow his wreathed horn.

¹ lea – meadow
² Proteus – sea god in Greek mythology who can take many different shapes
³ Triton – another sea god in Greek mythology; he blows on a twisted conch shell to control the sea

Monday, December 5, 2011

On His Blindness

(Portrait in pastel of John Milton,
1608-1674, after an engraving by
William Faithorne, circa 1616-1691)

It is said that the works of the poet John Milton, along with the King James Bible and the writings of Shakespeare, transformed the English language.

Milton’s greatest work is
Paradise Lost, published in 1667. This is the epic story, told in blank verse, of the rebellion against God launched by the archangel Lucifer and his cohort. Their defeat was total. Lucifer was banished to the depths of Hell where, as Satan, he plotted his revenge. Satan eventually entangled Man in his evil plans. He began with his temptation of Adam and Eve, which led to their expulsion from the Garden of Eden.

The purpose of
Paradise Lost, Milton explained, was to "justify the ways of God to men."

Milton is also regarded as having written some of the finest sonnets in English. Like Donne, he favored the Petrarchan form of the sonnet. In the verse below, he uses an enjambment to link the octave to the sestet.

And like Donne, he took advantage of the restrictions imposed by the sonnet to concentrate his mind on the argument at hand. He wrote this sonnet after he had become completely blind in middle age. His eyesight had been poor since his youth, but his practice of reading by candlelight late into the night most certainly put a great strain on his eyes. Now he expresses his despondency and wonders how he can serve God without the eyesight that every writer needs.

As we have seen, the sonnet form seems particularly fitting for such contemplations.


When I consider how my light is spent
E’re half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent¹ which is death to hide
Lodg’d with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide,
“Doth God exact day labor, light deny’d?”
I fondly² ask. But patience, to prevent
That murmur³, soon replies: “God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts: who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly; thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er Land and Ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.”

¹ Talent – from the Parable of the Talents in the New Testament, which tells the story of a master asking his servants to account for the talents or money he had given them
² fondly – foolishly
³ murmur - complaint

Sunday, December 4, 2011

O, My Black Soul, Now Thou Art Summoned

(Marble funeral effigy of John Donne, 1631,
at St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, where he
is buried)

John Donne (1572-1631) is among the finest of the English poets. He is one of the Metaphysical poets, the lyric poets who often used one surprising metaphor to bring together two very different ideas. And he is a master of the sonnet.

Donne favored the Petrarchan form of the sonnet but added his own touches. Sometimes he made slight changes to the rhyme or to the meter and he used enjambment or the run-on line to allow for a more free expression of sentiment.

His sonnets demonstrate the truth of an interesting paradox about art: the limits imposed by hard and fast rules often encourage creativity.

In the sonnet below, for example, in a mere fourteen lines, Donne reveals a profound insight into man’s most difficult question, how to confront his mortality. Here, as in his other works, he displays his usual fanciful imagery and subtlety of thought.


O, my black soul, now thou art summoned
By sickness, Death’s herald and champion;
Thou’rt like a pilgrim, which abroad hath done
Treason, and durst not turn to whence he’s fled;
Or like a thief, which till death’s doom be read,
Wisheth himself deliver’d from prison,
But damn’d and haled to execution,
Wisheth that still he might be imprisoned.
Yet grace, if thou repent, thou canst not lack;
But who shall give thee that grace to begin?
O, make thyself with holy mourning black,
And red with blushing, as thou art with sin;
Or wash thee in Christ's blood, which hath this might,
That being red, it dyes red souls to white.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

One Day I Wrote Her Name upon the Strand

(Edmund Spenser, 1552-1599, English poet and

The Spenserian sonnet is a combination of two of the main forms of the sonnet. Like the Shakespearean sonnet, it is made up of three quatrains and a closing couplet. But it resembles the Petrarchan sonnet with its connective pattern of rhyme, in this case an interlinking scheme of abab, bcbc, cdcd rhyme before it closes with an epigrammatic couplet of ee rhyme.

This sonnet form was devised by a much-admired and prolific poet, Edmund Spenser. He began his career with his
Shepheardes Calendar, a twelve-part pastoral poem written in somewhat archaic dialect, resembling Chaucer in parts. His fame rests on his epic poem, The Faerie Queene, an allegory honoring Queen Elizabeth.

The sonnet below is part of
Amoretti, his cycle of 89 sonnets commemorating his courtship of Elizabeth Boyle and their marriage.


One day I wrote her name upon the strand,
But came the waves and washed it away:
Again I wrote it with a second hand,
But came the tide, and made my pains his prey.
Vain man, said she, that dost in vain assay
A mortal thing so to immortalize!
For I myself shall like to this decay,
And eek my name be wiped out likewise.
Not so (quoth I), let baser things devise
To die in dust, but you shall live by fame:
My verse your virtues rare shall eternize,
And in the heavens write your glorious name;
Where, whenas death shall all the world subdue,
Our love shall live, and later life renew.

Friday, December 2, 2011

When Forty Winters Shall Besiege Thy Brow

Each Friday we provide the link to the blog that is hosting a celebration of poetry around the blogosphere. At that site you can find the links to the many other blogs that are posting poems (new and old), discussions of poems, and reviews of poetry books.

Enjoy the festivities!

The host this week is Carol. You can visit her here at Carol’s Corner.

(The Cobbe Portrait of Shakespeare,
so-called because it was found in the
collection of the Anglo-Irish Cobbe
family in 2006, is believed to be the
only portrait of the playwright painted
in his lifetime. The Latin inscription
Principum amicitias! or “Friendship
of Princes” alludes to a passage in
Horace’s Odes.)

William Shakespeare (1564-1616) did not invent the English version of the sonnet but he so perfected it that it carries his name. This form of the sonnet is divided into three quatrains in abab, cdcd, efef rhyme, which set out three clear statements. The poem concludes with an epigrammatic or pointed couplet in gg rhyme.

The verse below is the second of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets that are not in his plays. It shows to great effect his wit and skill. He praises the young man’s youth and beauty, only to warn him that they will not last. He then urges him to have a son who will inherit from him his appealing qualities.


When forty winters shall besiege thy brow,
And dig deep trenches in thy beauty’s field,
Thy youth’s proud livery, so gaz’d on now,
Will be a tatter’d weed, of small worth held:
Then being ask’d, where all thy beauty lies,
Where all the treasure of thy lusty days,
To say, within thine own deep-sunken eyes,
Were an all-eating shame and thriftless praise.
How much more praise deserv’d thy beauty’s use,
If thou couldst answer “This fair child of mine
Shall sum my count and make my old excuse,”
Proving his beauty by succession thine!
This were to be new made when thou art old,
And see thy blood warm when thou feel’st it cold.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

She Ruled in Beauty

(Petrarch, 1304-1374, Italian poet
and humanist, pictured here crowned
with a laurel wreath in honor of his
renown as a poet)

As a form of poetry, the sonnet can be traced to thirteenth-century Italy. Petrarch, one of the literary giants of the Italian Renaissance, so perfected the love sonnet that one form bears his name. Many of Petrarch's sonnets express an unattainable love for the sublimely ideal woman.

In his work, Petrarch was inspired by his own experience of unrequited love. His muse, the beautiful Laura, married another man.

The Petrarchan (or Italian) sonnet begins with an octave in
abba, abba rhyme, which sets out the question or theme. This is followed by a sestet in cde, cde or cd, cd, cd rhyme, which provides the answer or solution.

She ruled in beauty o’er this heart of mine,
A noble lady in a humble home,
And now her time for heavenly bliss has come,
’Tis I am mortal proved, and she divine.
The soul that all its blessings must resign,
And love whose light no more on earth finds room,
Might rend the rocks with pity for their doom,
Yet none their sorrows can in words enshrine.
They weep within my heart; and ears are deaf
Save mine alone, and I am crushed with care,
And naught remains to me save mournful breath.
Assuredly but dust and shade we are,
Assuredly desire is blind and brief,
Assuredly its hope but ends in death.

~ Petrarch, or Francesco Petrarca (1304-1374), Italian humanist and poet, translated by Thomas Wentworth Higginson (1823-1911)