Oh, I Could Write a Sonnet . . . About Your Easter Bonnet

Mention the word “sonnet” and people tend to get intimidated. It’s some kind of archaic structured verse with fourteen lines, and who needs it? Well, our guide William Perry shows us why we all need it.

I’m not aware that Irving Berlin, who wrote the title of this column, ever composed a sonnet about a bonnet or anything else. It just made a great rhyme for his very charming “Easter Parade” melody, (which, incidentally, was originally set to the title, “Smile and Show Your Dimple.”)

Mention the word “sonnet” and people tend to get intimidated. It’s some kind of archaic structured verse with fourteen lines, and who needs it? Well, we all need it if we respond appreciatively to such lines as “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day” (Shakespeare), “They also serve who only stand and wait” (Milton), or “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways” (Elizabeth Barrett Browning). These all came from sonnets.

And consider how much extraordinary poetry we would miss if we passed by the sonnet altogether. After all, Keats wrote 64 sonnets, Shakespeare 154, and Wordsworth, hold on, 523. (One wonders how Wordsworth ever found the time to “wander lonely as a cloud.”)

Moreover, it would be downright un-American to disregard the sonnet. Over these many decades, every immigrant who arrived in New York by sea was greeted by the Statue of Liberty and . . . a sonnet!

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

The author was Emma Lazarus (1849-1887), and the official name of the poem is “The New Colossus.”

Bronze plaque inside the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal.

So what exactly is a sonnet? Well, as noted, it’s a poem that’s fourteen lines long. The internal rhyming pattern can differ in a variety of ways, but not the number of lines. It’s always fourteen. We may think that having such a fixed structure would restrict creativity, but it’s quite the opposite. As one critic has said, ”Limiting can be liberating.”

We might look at it this way: the great Broadway tunesmiths of yore wrote their timeless songs in exactly 32 or 64 bars, and it didn’t stifle their imaginations one semi-quaver. Similarly, the challenge of having just fourteen lines to pour forth a completed lyrical thought is what makes the sonnet so special.

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By way of history: the father of the sonnet was the Italian poet, Petrarch (1304-1374), who wrote 317 fourteen-line poems idealizing his chaste and unrequited love for a young woman named Laura whom he had spotted at a church service in Avignon. Two English poets, Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542) and the Earl of Surrey (1516-1547) later translated the Petrarch sonnets into English and then added many of their own. I recall that in poetry class these two were simply lumped together as Wyatt and Surrey, which to me suggested London shirtmakers.

Edmund Spenser (1552-1599) and, as one might expect, William Shakespeare, perfected the sonnet at the height of the Elizabethan period. Here is one of Shakespeare’s finest:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimm’d:
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall Death brag thou wand’rest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Thereafter, sonnets continued to be written through the years, especially in the Romantic and Victorian periods, right up to modern times. Robert Frost (1874-1963) embraced the form but characteristically said, “The sonnet is the strictest form I have behaved in, and only then by pretending it wasn’t a sonnet.” His approach is quite colloquial:

Over back where they speak of life as staying
(‘You couldn’t call it living, for it ain’t’),
There was an old, old house renewed with paint,
And in it a piano loudly playing.

Out in the plowed ground in the cold a digger,
Among unearthed potatoes standing still,
Was counting winter dinners, one a hill,
With half an ear to the piano’s vigor.

All that piano and new paint back there,
Was it some money suddenly come into?
Or some extravagance young love had been to?
Or old love on an impulse not to care–

Not to sink under being man and wife,
But get some color and music out of life?

Robert Frost and e e cummings

Second only to Robert Frost in readership in the mid-20th Century was Edward Estlin Cummings (1894-1962) whose name was frequently presented in lower case as e e cummings. He wrote around 2700 poems including more than 200 sonnets, often unpunctuated and often dazzling.

‘next to of course god america i
love you land of the pilgrims’ and so forth oh
say can you see by the dawn’s early my
country ’tis of centuries come and go
and are no more what of it we should worry
in every language even deafanddumb
thy sons acclaim your glorious name by gorry
by jingo by gee by gosh by gum
why talk of beauty what could be more beaut-
iful than these heroic happy dead
who rushed like lions to the roaring slaughter
they did not stop to think they died instead
then shall the voice of liberty be mute?’

He spoke. And drank rapidly a glass of water

And be assured that the sonnet today is still alive and well. When Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of “Hamilton,” received a Tony Award in 2016, he wrote a sonnet for his acceptance speech, a tribute to his wife:

My wife’s the reason anything gets done
She nudges me towards promise by degrees
She is a perfect symphony of one
Our son is her most beautiful reprise.
We chase the melodies that seem to find us
Until they’re finished songs and start to play
When senseless acts of tragedy remind us
That nothing here is promised, not one day.
This show is proof that history remembers
We lived through times when hate and fear seemed stronger;
We rise and fall and light from dying embers, remembrances that hope
and love last longer

And love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love cannot be
killed or swept aside.
I sing Vanessa’s symphony, Eliza tells her story
Now fill the world with music, love and pride.

Lin-Manuel Miranda reading a sonnet at the Tony Awards 2016.


For those of you who may still be hesitant about embracing sonnets, beware! Here are three of the greatest. Stephen Arlen presents Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias;” Jill Tanner brings us Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “How Do I Love Thee?” and from Mary Arden’s house near Stratford-upon-Avon, Alan Howard offers my favorite Shakespearean sonnet, “Let Me Not to the Marriage of True Minds.”