One of the coolest things the Renaissance gave us, besides heliocentrism and The Prince, was the sonnet sequence. All the hot boys had one in the 1500s: Edmund Spenser did (much less boring than The Faerie Queene), Sir Philip Sidney did, Shakespeare did, of course. Jump forward to the Victorian era, and you’ve got Modern Love, George Meredith’s queasy portrait of a dead marriage (it’s like a Noah Baumbach film) that is almost unknown by contemporary readers. Around the same time, Elizabeth Barrett Browning dropped Sonnets from the Portugese, which is admittedly kind of disappointing next to the intermittently awesome novel-in-verse Aurora Leigh. But still, sonnets!
Many keystrokes have been devoted to poetry’s death in modernity. We don’t, the narrative goes, have the patience to read and savor it anymore; we would rather be on social media or watching Netflix. We can’t sit down and pay attention. But even if you buy this story–and I’m not always sure I do–you can’t deny that lyric poetry, in some forms at least, is structurally similar to a dominant media platform, Twitter. In the sonnet and the tweet, compression of rhetoric, wit, and image is what matters; in a nice bit of mathematical coincidence, sonnets have 14 lines, while tweets can’t go over 140 characters. (At a weird, half-articulate limbic level, I don’t even think it is a coincidence.)
Brevity might be poetry’s evolutionary advantage in the contemporary media ecosystem. Most readers are no longer able to stomach Bleak House, but at least some still have energy to read a fourteen-line tidbit. Some might even re-read: while Twitter infects you with the urge to obsessively check for new content, sonnets urge you to go back over the territory, and you can, because sonnets are so compact.
Granted, given their gender politics and all-male authorship, sixteenth-century lyrics can sometimes sound like men’s-rights activist blogs in verse, but that is only if you read them as a blunt presentist, expecting four-hundred-year-old sonnets to accord with contemporary progressive thought instead of viewing each text’s motifs (e.g. the scornful, icy, or oblivious beloved) as rhetorical equipment shared by European poets of the period. While you can do some biographical mapping–Whom was Sidney in love with? Who is Shakespeare’s “Mr. W.H.”? Was Poet X trying to tup Poet Y’s mistress? et cetera–ultimately these aren’t texts about the lives of real people, but performances within (and individual reworkings of) a literary tradition. Still, I understand why Sonnet #31 from Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella, for instance, might grate a little. When the speaker’s “long-with-love-acquainted eyes” survey the “sad steps” and “wan” face of the moon in the night sky, he concludes that the earth’s satellite knows what’s up. The sonnet’s sestet is elegant whining:
Then, even of fellowship, O moon, tell me,
Is constant love deem’d there but want of wit?
Are beauties there as proud as here they be?
Do they above love to be lov’d, and yet
Those lovers scorn whom that love doth possess?
Do they call “virtue” there, ungratefulness?
I’ve enjoyed Astrophel and Stella‘s opener since I first read it ten years ago, sitting in my back yard in Charlottesville, Virginia, on a poetic spring day. The speaker’s partly ironic faith in a spontaneous, organic afflatus–a natural lyric style–a anticipates the Romantics and Walt Whitman; the pregnancy metaphor for artistic creation is arresting; and I love the image of a “sunburn’d brain.” Come to think of it, that’s what Twitter does to the mind. To paraphrase the Clipse, it gets hot ’round here, so when you come to the Reader, bring your sunblock.
Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show,
That she, dear she, might take some pleasure of my pain,
Pleasure might cause her read, reading might make her know,
Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain,
I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe:
Studying inventions fine, her wits to entertain,
Oft turning others’ leaves, to see if thence would flow
Some fresh and fruitful showers upon my sunburn’d brain.
But words came halting forth, wanting invention’s stay;
Invention, Nature’s child, fled stepdame study’s blows;
And others’ feet still seem’d but stranger in my way.
Thus, great with child to speak, and helpless in my throes,
Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite:
“Fool,” said my Muse to me, “look in thy heart and write!”