Let me say up front that a sonnet is nothing to be afraid of. Sonnets were the Sudoku and the crossword puzzles of their day, that is to say, of the late 16th century. People enjoyed writing them and figuring them out at whatever level they were capable. If sonnets were featured in the New York Times, I wouldn’t get far with the Sunday version but in the spirit of a dilettante, I do the ones I can.
Billy Collins (U.S. poet laureate 2001-2003) in a poem called “Sonnet” reduces the intimidation factor as only a good professor can:
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 bongos 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 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.
OK, he does throw in an added complication in that there are Italian (Petrarchan) sonnets and Elizabethans ones and they differ somewhat. But like the man implies, an Elizabethan sonnet is 14 lines of iambic pentameter with 3 quatrains, a couplet, and a strict rhyme scheme. The Italian sonnet makes a turn (a kind of plot twist) after line eight. The Elizabethan final couplet often, but not always, serves as a punch-line or plot twist or in some way presents the whole point of the exercise.
There’s usually something interesting to find when I separate the parts of a sonnet. This is part of the appeal for me: a sonnet is a game or a puzzle to figure out. Embedded in a sonnet are puns and elaborate metaphors, similes, and hyperbole that build the meaning. It isn’t just what the poet says, it’s how he says it and how many hidden objects, so to speak, I can find. Like the Elizabethans I enjoy mining a sonnet for the clues left by the poet. This much I learned in college. I decided to see what my education was worth 35 years later by picking a sonnet at random seeing what I could make of it. My finger landed on #129. I read it and could make nothing of it:
The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,
Enjoy’d no sooner but despised straight,
Past reason hunted, and no sooner had
Past reason hated, as a swallow’d bait
On purpose laid to make the taker mad;
Mad in pursuit and in possession so;
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.
All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.
I mean nothing.
I had started listening to a wonderful CD called When Love Speaks which features actors and musicians performing the sonnets and songs from Shakespeare. I played it over and over in the car as I drove, at first identifying the voices: John Gielgud, Kenneth Branagh, Gemma Jones, Judi Dench, and letting the words wash over me.
I started paying attention when I heard Ralph Fiennes read Sonnet #129. When he gets to the third line he starts talking faster and faster, piling the words up on top of each other in a frenzy. I thought, “Lust in action. Oh.” I looked at the first two lines again (not while I was driving, mind you, that wasn’t me you honked at) and read them this way: “Lust in action is a shameful expense of spirit.” Then the poem began to open up.
The way Fiennes recites the sonnet is an expression of how lust behaves: madly, wildly, past reason. The iambic pentameter is interrupted as words tumble over each other, falling out of meter. The line “Had, having, and in quest to have” came out like the one-track feeling of–-ok, this is what I thought of—a binge. People can lust after different things.
The first quatrain of #129 is written in present tense, the second is in past tense, and the third encompasses past, present and future. The couplet at first reminded of that line in Romans: “For I do not that good thing which I would: but that evil I do, which I would not.” (Tyndale trans.) But Shakespeare isn’t moralizing. He isn’t saying that lust is evil and to be avoided. He lays out the panoply of hellish and heavenly feelings that accompany lust: savage, rude, cruel, joy, bliss, a dream; and he connects them with the repetition of the word extreme. All this he holds in balance as essentially human.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is about it for me, for now, for this sonnet. I’ll think about it off and on and come back to it. I’ll have conversations about it if I can find someone who’s interested. If you are one of those people, please talk to me!