Jul. 20, 2009

Sonnet 91

by William Shakespeare

Some glory in their birth, some in their skill,
Some in their wealth, some in their body's force;
Some in their garments, though new-fangled ill;
Some in their hawks and hounds, some in their horse;
And every humour hath his adjunct pleasure,
Wherein it finds a joy above the rest:
But these particulars are not my measure;
All these I better in one general best.
Thy love is better than high birth to me,
Richer than wealth, prouder than garments' cost,
Of more delight than hawks or horses be;
And having thee, of all men's pride I boast:
   Wretched in this alone, that thou mayst take
   All this away, and me most wretched make.

"Sonnet 91" by William Shakespeare. Public domain. (buy now)

The research used today for the history of the sonnet comes from The Penguin Book of the Sonnet: 500 Years of a Classic Tradition in English, edited and with an introduction by Phillis Levin, published by Penguin Books in 2001.

It's the birthday of Petrarch, (books by this author) born in Arezzo, Italy (1304). There's a sonnet form named after him, the Petrarchan sonnet, also called the Italian sonnet. Petrarch did not actually invent the form that bears his name: It was widely in use by the time he started composing these poems of 14 lines with a distinct rhyme scheme. The first sonnets on record were written about 75 years before Petrarch was born, by a Sicilian lawyer named Giacomo da Lentino, who was a royal notary and senior poet in the court of King Frederick II (the 13th-century king of Sicily, king of Germany, and emperor of the Holy Roman Empire). It was Giacomo da Lentino who first took the eight-line stanza of Sicilian peasant songs (which had a rhyme of abab abab) and fused an additional six-line stanza to the end. For the sestet, he always used the rhyming cde cde pattern.

Soon others were imitating this new poetic form that Giacomo da Lentino had invented, including the Holy Roman Emperor himself. Writing sonnets became all the rage among the literati and intellectuals around the royal court, and the trend soon spread outside of this elite subculture. The octet of the Italian sonnet evolved into the abba abba scheme, called "the kissing rhyme" in Italian. Da Lentino's sestet remained the same.

But it was Petrarch who really perfected the sonnet form that bears his name. He's most famous for his sonnets about Laura, a mysterious woman whom he adored. Years before he completed The Canterbury Tales, English government employee Geoffrey Chaucer traveled to Italy to negotiate matters of trade and maritime commerce, and to borrow money for England's king. There he encountered Petrarch's sonnets. Chaucer translated some of Petrarch's sonnets into English, but in the translation he didn't preserve Petrarch's rhyme scheme or even the 14 line structure. In fact, he took 21 lines to translate Petrarch's Canzoniere 132, which Chaucer then embedded into own long epic poem, Troilus and Criseyde. Petrarch's sonnet appears as a love song that Troilus sings for his beloved.

It misled the English for hundreds of years. "Sonnet" first entered English lexicon meaning "a short poem about love" and was interchangeable with the word "song," the meaning of which has also evolved. It wasn't until 1575 that "sonnet" took on the very specific meaning that it has today. Elizabethan critic George Gascoigne wrote a stern treatise entitled "Certayne Notes of Instruction Concerning the Making of Verse or Ryme in English" (1575), in which he professed:
"Then have you Sonets, some thinke 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 which are fouretene lynes, every line conteyning tenne syllables. The firse twelve do ryme in staves of four lines by crosse meetre, and the last twoo ryming togither do conclude the whole."

And then came along the great playwright and sonneteer William Shakespeare, who wrote a collection of 154 sonnets, nearly all of which adhere to the Shakespearean form, also called the English form. Like Petrarch, he did not invent the form that bears his name — but he definitely perfected it.

Sonneteers over the ages have been fond of writing tribute sonnets to dedicated sonneteers who have come before. King James wrote "An Epitaph on Sir Philip Sidney" in the form of a sonnet. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a sonnet entitled "Chaucer." Mathew Arnold wrote a sonnet to Shakespeare, and numerous sonneteers have alluded to bits and pieces of Shakespeare's sonnets. Wordsworth wrote several cycles of sonnets, and after that, Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Clare each wrote sonnets entitled "To Wordsworth." Hart Crane and Yvor Winters each wrote a sonnet entitled "To Emily Dickinson." Robert Lowell wrote sonnets for Hart Crane, Ezra Pound, and Robert Frost.

Sometimes, sonneteers have played around with specific images of previous sonnets. Leigh Hunt wrote "To the Grasshopper and the Cricket," which begins "Green little vaulter in the sunny grass, / Catching your heart up at the feel of June." Then John Keats, born 11 years after Leigh Hunt, wrote a sonnet "On the Grasshopper and Cricket," which invokes some of the same images, details, and phrasing of Hunt's sonnet. Keats' sonnet begins, "The poetry of earth is never dead: / When all the birds are faint with the hot sun." And it ends, "The Grasshopper's among some grassy hills."

In addition to the oft-visited themes of unrequited romantic love, God, death, spring flowers, and sunny meadows, swans have been a popular subject of sonnets: W.B. Yeats wrote "Leda and the Swan," one of his most famous, and Robinson Jeffers wrote "Love the Wild Swan." Poet Marianne Moore, born the same year as Jeffers, wrote a sonnet entitled "No Swan So Fine."

Edna St. Vincent Millay was one of the great sonneteers of the 20th century. She wrote dozens of sonnets, many of which appear in her collection Fatal Interview. She wrote a sonnet that starts:
"Time does not bring relief; you all have lied
Who told me time would ease me of my pain!
I miss him in the weeping of the rain;
I want him at the shrinking of the tide."

Billy Collins has written a number of sonnets, many of which flout convention or parody the rules. The sestet of his "Sonnet" sonnet:
"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 Laura will tell Petrarch to put down his pen,
take off those crazy medieval tights,
blow out the lights, and come at last to bed."

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