Sonnets have no rival. They've been written about kingfishers, love, squirrels, the moon (too often), God, despair, more love, grief, exultation, time, decay, church bells beyond the stars heard, war, statues, castles, rivers, revolutionaries, architecture, madness, seascapes, letters, kisses, and more or less everything else from apocalypse to zoos. Since its invention in 13th-century Sicily the sonnet has been the most versatile and enduring of poetic forms. It has been pumped with inscape and instress by Gerard Manley Hopkins, filled with sentiment by Anna Seward, cut and pasted by Ted Berrigan (his 1964 Sonnets were apparently assembled with the help of the 1960s equivalent of a Pritt Stick), and worked into a tortuous frenzy by Michelangelo. Blank verse and the heroic couplet, the staples of English versification from the 16th to the 19th century, seem small-timers by comparison. Sestinas have come and gone. Ottava rima and rhyme royal had their day, but lost favour when readers ceased to want long poems which combined storytelling with epigrammatic cleverness. Even now, when set poetic forms are generally snarled or snored at, the sonnet is probably the only verse shape that almost all literate people would be able to identify, if only through having seen Shakespeare's 'Let me not to the marriage of true minds' printed in the order of service at weddings. Most people of a certain age could recite a sonnet or two by Wilfred Owen, or Keats, or Shakespeare.
LRB 24 June 2010 | PDF Download