ANALYZING THE SONNET

analyzing the sonnetIntroduction

The sonnet is a tight form, and needs careful phrasing if the rhymes are not to appear contrived. We analyze a piece by D.G. Rossetti, where his weighty diction and jewelled phrasing are given an unusual impetuosity by the metre.

Types

The sonnet is a 14 line iambic pentameter form rhymed ababcdcdefefgg (Shakespearean) or abbaaccadefdef (Petrachian). More importantly, sonnets express the themes of their time, and the personality of their authors: those by William Shakespeare, John Milton, William Wordsworth, D.G. Rossetti, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Annie Finch and countless others are all distinctive. {1}

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

D.G. Rossetti generally {2} {3} used the Petrarchian form, though he often varied the defdef rhyme scheme of the final sextet, as in this example, which runs deffed. {4}

Soul's Beauty

Under the arch of Life, where love and death,
Terror and mystery, guard her shrine, I saw
Beauty enthroned; and though her gaze struck awe,
I drew it in as simply as my breath.
Hers are the eyes which, over and beneath,
The sky and sea bend on thee,— which can draw,
By sea or sky or woman, to one law,
The allotted bondman of her palm and wreath.
This is that Lady Beauty, in whose praise
Thy voice and hand shake still,— long known to thee
By flying hair and fluttering hem,— the beat
Following her daily of thy heart and feet,
How passionately and irretrievably,
In what fond flight, how many ways and days!

Soul's Beauty by Dante Gabriel Rossetti: The House of Life. 1881

 

Analysis

Life, love, death, terror, mystery, beauty . . . Rossetti was never afraid to use the great commonplaces of poetry, but he does so here by saying something unusual in English poetry: the awe that beauty brings to someone of his sensitive but unstable temperament. Rossetti was a deeply sensual artist {5} and there is a lingering over the words which the rhythms emphasize.

We look first at the rhythmic phrasing, where I record | as a pause and || as a long pause — relatively speaking: there will some debate over placings, and the pauses won't have the same duration in different lines. The numbers refer to metrical beats between the pauses:

1. Under the arch of Life || where love and death | 3 2
2. Terror and mystery | guard her shrine | I saw 2 2 1
3. Beauty | enthroned || and though her gaze struck awe | 1 1 3
4. I drew it in as simply as my breath. || 5

5. Hers are the eyes | which over and beneath | 2 3
6. The sky and sea | bend on thee, || — which can draw 2 2 1
7. By sea | or sky | or woman| to one law | 1 1 1 2
8. The allotted bondman of her palm and wreath. || 5

9. This is that Lady Beauty | in whose praise | 3 2
10. Thy voice and hand shake still, || — long known to thee 3 2
11. By flying hair and fluttering hem, | — the beat | 4 1
12. Following her daily | of thy heart and feet || 2 3
13. How passionately | and irretrievably | 2 3
14. In what fond flight | how many ways | and days | 2 2 1

Now, with this sort of patterning in our heads, we write our own piece, on a similar theme, and with the same rapt attention:

1. I saw her flaunted | as in Eve's undress || 2 3
2. From when | in rising| she puts up her hair || 1 1 3
3. And was enamoured | of the nimbused air | 2 3
4. That with her odour had an | otherness || 3 2

5. And so | from others | in this strange | distress | 1 1 2 1
6. I grew | in canvasses | Bellini painted | 1 2 2
7. To find | both soul and body | were acquainted || 1 2 2
8. That all was simple| a mere naturalness || 2 3

9. Beyond her | through the startled | day's embrace | 1 2 2
10. In ache of dancehalls | ever younger years | 2 3
11. I forced from bodies | their most fervent | sighs || 2 2 1
12. But to all she said | I am a little space | 2 3
13. A sense of falling and diminishing | after tears | 3 2
14. Far as the starlight | out of quiet eyes || 2 3

Now, as far as metrical correctness goes, ours is more a sonnet than is Rossetti's: quietly moving under a predominantly iambic beat. In Rossetti's, lines 1 to 3 and possibly 9 start with a stress that pushes the movement on. Lines 4 and 8 break that movement but it picks up again in the sextet, becoming so impetuous in lines 11 to 13 that a double rhyme (ways and days) is needed to slow the rhythm and bring the piece to satisfactory conclusion. Indeed, Rossetti loses control in lines 6 and 7, with a crash of gears at thee || which. Have we outdone the master?

Let's look at what the poem is saying, the phrasing by content. I show by italics where Rossetti pushes the sense on, not allowing a pause for thought, even at violence to the metre:

1. Under the arch of Life, where love and death,
2. Terror and mystery guard her shrine | I saw
3. Beauty enthroned || and though her gaze struck awe
4. I drew it in as simply as my breath. ||

5. Hers are the eyes which over and beneath
6. The sky and sea bend on thee | — which can draw
7. By sea or sky or woman to one law
8. The allotted bondman of her palm and wreath. ||

9. This is that Lady Beauty || in whose praise
10. Thy voice and hand shake still, — long known to thee
11. By flying hair and fluttering hem, — the beat
12. Following her daily of thy heart and feet ||
13. How passionately and irretrievably |
14. In what fond flight | how many ways and days ||

So the impetuosity of the verse, with sense units continually shortening as the poem speeds up. Also possibly why Rossetti has placed I drew it in as simply as my breath at line 4 rather than using it to round off the octet. This type of very simple line, without ornament or heavy rhetoric, Rossetti learnt from his translations of Dante and his contemporaries: {6}

To the dim light and large circle of shade
I have clomb, and to the whitening of the hills,
(Of the Lady Pietra degli Scrovigni: Cino da Pistoia)

and:

And by the scent, in truth, the plant I found,
And rested in its shadow a great while.
(Of a Lady's Love for him: Ubaldo di Marco)

Line 8 is a standard iambic, but it is not negligible: open vowels, assonance in b and p, the m's in bondman and palm:

The allotted bondman of her palm and wreath

Try rewriting, and the aptness of the original becomes apparent:

The allotted serving man of palm and wreath.

That is the bondman of her palm and wreath.

Reworking Our Draft

We should now see that what we have written is correct, but something taking fewer risks than Rossetti's piece, which is imperfect but comes from deeper levels, being thereby the more moving. Poetry is something produced through language, and that something has to be sincerely held — contra deconstruction and some New Formalist work. It may be true that "Whatever autobiographical elements may be found in Rossetti's poetry, the love he described is never simply the love of Gabriel Rossetti for Lizzie Siddal, or for Fanny Cornforth, or for Jane Morris; rather it is, like the love Shelley described, a love for an ideal of perfection." {7} And also that the "complex, often convoluted, imagery of Rossetti's later work, such as the later sonnets in The House of Life, appear to attempt to create a poetry out of the richness of language rather than out of the way that such language describes any objective reality." {8} But the matter is not that simple. All writing uses language and its conventions, but poets of any distinction use certain parts of both for more individual purposes. A diary entry refers to real people and real events, but it does so with conventions that do not generally make for poetry. And just as a painter does not produce a photographic record but uses elements of the visual in a more abstract and constructive manner, so the poet manipulates the conventions that govern words to say something that has existence only within those conventions. Modernism, to be more contemporary and individual, threw out many of those conventions, but the result was often a Pyrrhic victory, with poetry that was fresher but not so moving or memorable.

To repeat, a successful poem has to believe in what it is saying, and make others so believe, at least for the period of its construction and reading. Any sonnet we write in the manner of Rossetti's, unless a simple pastiche, will therefore be how we ourselves respond to the theme of Soul's Beauty, employing comparable but not identical devices. With a much quieter ending than Rossetti's, and a simpler construction, I would probably correct the draft along these lines: {9}

The Painter

To sense her all day long in Eve's undress
From when in rising she puts up her hair:
To be enamoured of the nimbused air
That had her odour and her otherness,

I took from others in this strange distress
Among the canvasses Bellini painted
A soul and body that was new acquainted
Where all was simple, a mere naturalness.

When past her, through the startled day's embrace,
In thirst for innocent and withheld years,
I forced from bodies their most fervent sighs.
To which she said, 'I am a little space,
A sense of falling and diminishing in tears,
Far as the starlight, out of quiet eyes.'

A 568-page free pdf ebook on practical verse writing is available from Ocaso Press. Click here for the download page.

References

1. Sonnet Central. http://www.sonnets.org. Focusing on the sonnet, with classic and contemporary examples.
2. Dante Gabriel Rossetti — Biography. Glenn Everett. 1988. http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/dgr/dgrseti13.html
3. Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Bibliography. http://www.umd.umich.edu/casl/hum/eng/jonsmith/eng432/dgrbib.html NNA
4. Soul's Beauty. Dante Gabriel Rossetti: The House of Life. http://www.poemhunter.com/p/m/poem.asp?poem=32297
5. Rossetti's Real Fair Ladies: Lizzie, Fanny, and Jane. Caroline Healey. Dec. 2004. http://www.victorianweb.org/painting/dgr/paintings/healey12.html.
6. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, The Early Italian Poets (Smith, Elder & Co. 1861).
7. Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Love Poetry. George P. Landow. Nov. 2004. http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/dgr/dgrseti9.html.
8. Symbolism and Imagery in Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Poetry. George P. Landow. Nov. 2004. http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/dgr/image1.html.
9. Since correcting the draft I have discovered a similar last line in a Dante translation by George Santayana: 'But beauty and the starlight of her eyes.' Three Poems in Mark Van Doren (Ed.), An Anthology of World Poetry (Albert and Charles Boni, 1928), 587. Many prose stylists were also good verse writers — Thoreau, Bunin, Fromentin, etc.

 

 

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