The Sonnet, by Stephen Regan, Oxford University Press, 448 pp, £19.99, ISBN: 978-019883886
Sonnets to Malkmus, by Ellen Dillon, Sad Press, 64 pp, £8, ISBN: 978-1912802272
If you are writing a guide to the sonnet then you are in the same situation as a poet writing a sonnet: plenty of people have been there before you. Stephen Regan’s The Sonnet is more or less unprecedented in its commitment to cover the history of the form in English comprehensively, but it is nevertheless aware of the heavy lifting that has been done in the past by the likes of Helen Vendler, John Kerrigan, Eavan Boland and the rest. Regan draws intelligently on the work of such canonical company, but also asserts his own authority through hot-wired close reading.
His book is particularly good at the history of the form and is especially effective when asserting positively what the sonnet is good at: “The fascination of the sonnet for readers and writers alike is that it calls for discipline and constraint while simultaneously inviting endless permutation and innovation.” He triangulates his study in terms of attitude, address, and adaptability. It is surely significant that the sonnet emerged in the Renaissance just as the concept of an explorable and variable self became culturally pervasive. Sonnets allowed sophisticated selves to show themselves to be sophisticated.
Pleased with winning an argument, pleased with the neatness of their puzzling and figuring, pleased with themselves: maybe sonneteers are just wankers. Or perhaps, put more decorously, sonnets exist to satisfy homo ludens, both for writers and readers. The literary evolutionist Brian Boyd presents a good case for this argument in Why Lyrics Last: Evolution, Cognition and Shakespeare’s Sonnets, suggesting that Shakespeare’s abiding canonicity is related to his use of patterning, although whether sonneteering is an essential part of evolution or merely a digressive variation or adaptation remains questionable.
Less questionable is Vendler’s assertion that the lyric excels at “making thought visible”, and Regan builds on this by asserting that the sonnet does this better than any other form. This reads like a rare moment of special pleading: there is as much thought active in the work of Catullus or Dickinson, sonnet-lacking as they are. What is exceptional about the sonnet is its radical enclosure. Thought shows up there so effectively because it keeps bouncing off the walls. A sonnet is a multi-barred cage within which the heart, mind and body paces like a bear. There is pleasure, but equivalent pain, and in some sonnets the pleasure of working things out feels too much to bear, as in the holy terrors of Donne, where emotion prompts a vicious poetic logic.
Regan is interesting on how the sonnet emerged in Sicily out of the work of a small group of court poets also employed in various administrative roles, thus establishing that poetic eloquence could be indexed to other registers of powerful language. In its beginning, the sonnet can be seen as a laboratory for the perfection of a technocratic rhetoric that could be deployed to win influence and favour. It was poetry adapted from the raw material of poetry by both troubadours and Sicilian peasants, but was designed as a new form of cultural capital for enjoyment by an emerging elite. Regan argues that the sonnet excels at the expression of “political debate precisely because of, and not in spite of, its lyrical qualities”. This convergence of the political and the lyrical might also imply that the sonnet is a peculiarly violent way of bringing form to bear, and as such has flourished in our post-Renaissance world where everything can be relied upon to be cruel.
In the routine tortures of the exam hall, Anglophone states have a default method for finding out whether somebody can pass an English exam or not, setting an unseen poem of fourteen lines and seeing if the student can spot that it is (probably) a sonnet. In this context, a sonnet is a hard thing to like as a category. A productive hatred of the sonnet as an institutional form should necessarily co-exist with an acknowledgement of its awesomely virtuoso history as a creative one. Some of the best sonnets emerge out of an impulse to destroy what “the sonnet” represents, as in Elizabeth Bishop’s “Sonnet” that tries to wriggle free of its encapsulation, even as it acknowledges that such an action will meet a reaction.
So the success story of the sonnet is evidently an account of what it is good for, but also more reductively it is a statement of what modern culture has increasingly emphasised; that excellence and complexity are only as important as consumability. Yet in the hands of sonnet masters like Frost, what is made consumable also feels like it will make you sick; Regan reminds us of the extraordinary power of that poet’s “Design” which demonstrates poetic mastery and magnificence even as it also shows its limitations, raising the spectre of a divine creator who eats the world for breakfast, including its sonnets.
Just like Frost, however, the real power of the sonnet lies not in its generics but rather the incredible range of affective power which poets have wrung from those conventions. One of the remarkable things about reading Paul Muldoon’s early sonnets is how discreet they are as examples of the form, given the phenomenal work going on in them. On the contrary, Regan shows Heaney’s early use of the form as a smash and grab on the English tradition, quoting his desire to use the “official English verse form” to write his memorial for 1798, “Requiem for the Croppies”; Portnoyesque, he wanted to stick the sonnet back up its English background. Just as it is fascinating to remember how Heaney weaponises a poetic form here, it also helps us to view his later use of the form from The Haw Lantern onwards as moving towards an effective decommissioning, settling into the extraordinary proto-pax poetry of Seeing Things and The Spirit Level. In the broader context of the chapter here in the Irish sonnet, this sets up an apt comparison with the heroically inventive and unprecedented Alexandrines of Ciaran Carson in The Twelfth of Never which met the post-ceasefire reality with a torrent of passionate play, vividly contrasting with the sneaky intrigues of Muldoon’s sonnets from the middle of the conflict.
Regan’s book allows for observation of such developments because he adheres to a chronological model throughout for each tradition that he wants to engage with. So for England, we follow a trajectory from Renaissance to Romantic to Victorian, then separate chapters on Ireland and America, finishing with an account of the modern sonnet. The use of periodisation is effective, yet more could be done at times to explore both how the form became particularly successful in some cultural moments, then did not in others. So some detailed enquiry into what became of the sonnet between Milton and the end of the eighteenth century might be interesting to read. Similarly, even as the book excels in giving a comprehensive account of the Italian roots of the form, it does not offer much until its brief afterword by way of subsequent comparison to sonnet production in other cultures, although Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Rilke get some interesting attention in the modernist section. Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin gets ridiculously short shrift in being cited merely as the inspiration for Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate.
Rather than complaining about absences, however, it feels more apt to stress the excellence of what this history actually contains, and especially how it puts relatively minor characters into major company, as in the back and forth of river sonnets between William Lisle Bowles and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, or how Anna Seward saw the renewed potential of the Miltonic sonnet as a mode of republican advocacy in 1789. Important attention is given to relatively unknown American poets of the nineteenth century too, but perhaps the most surprising and gratifying chapter is on the Victorian sonnet, with Hopkins and Elizabeth Barrett Browning to the fore, as well as resurrecting Arnold’s “West London” and “East London” and the work of George Meredith, although regrettably not his deliberately thirteen-and-a-half-line “Lucifer in Starlight” but rather his sequence of sixteen-line “sonnets” Modern Love. The question of whether or not a sonnet can ever be anything other than fourteen lines does not interest Regan, curiously, even if the very notion of a “free sonnet”, as Robert Lowell evolved in the 1960s, seems like a contradiction in terms. Regan likes how the “function” of a sonnet can exist outside of line-limit, and so writes ingeniously about Auden’s twenty-one lines of “Musée des Beaux Arts” as a sonnet and a half; weirdly, however, while acknowledging the innovative brilliance of Shelley in “Ode to the West Wind” by making his ode in reality a suite of interfused sonnets, he does not go into much detail at all about how this is precisely engineered.
Again, however, it is not as if Regan has nothing else to do. This book is busy, because of the sheer range of material it is bound to explore, even as it cannot do everything. Like the sonnet itself, it is compressed and full of tensions. It has too many great poems and poets to talk about at times, as in the American chapter, which is simply hectic. The section on the modern sonnet is equally crowded, and perhaps suggests that it could have been made into two chapters, maybe one on how continuity in traditional sonnet-making has been achieved, while at the same time it has increasingly enabled experiment. As it is, space is found for Ken Edwards and Tony Lopez, and other poetic thrill-makers who might not usually get into a canonical history such as this, but at its very end some room might have been made for Philip Terry’s Oulipo-inspired reversions of Shakespeare, and the other forms of fun that poets and the rest of us continue to have with the sonnet. Just this summer, the Co Limerick poet Ellen Dillon produced an enlivened chapbook called Sonnets to Malkmus, in part a fan letter to the frontman of Pavement and The Jicks but also a fan-poet’s testament to what the sonnet allows her to express, both knowledgeably and infatuatedly, which is the dimensions and the tensions of a passion. In their different ways, both Dillon and Regan provide us with any number of good reasons for reading and writing sonnets, but it all comes down to kinds of loving.
Michael Hinds is an associate professor in the School of English at Dublin City University.