26 August 2016

poetry friday: wordsworth, sayers, & me.

The sonnet is beyond doubt my favorite poetic form; one of my more questionable skills is the ability to instantly identify fourteen-line blocks of text even in free verse, prose, and internet comments. Moving into my dorm this week, I was reminded of one of my very favorite sonnets, Wordsworth's "Nuns Fret Not at Their Convent's Narrow Room."
Nuns fret not at their convent's narrow room;
And hermits are contented with their cells;
And students with their pensive citadels;
Maids at the wheel, the weaver at his loom,
Sit blithe and happy; bees that soar for bloom
High as the highest Peak of Furness-fells,
Will murmur by the hour in foxglove bells:
In truth the prison, into which we doom
Ourselves, no prison is: and hence for me,
In sundry moods, 'twas pastime to be bound
Within the Sonnet's scanty plot of ground;
Pleased if some Souls (for such there needs must be)
Who have felt the weight of too much liberty,
Should find brief solace there, as I have found.
It's beautiful. On the most literal level I love it because I've always liked small rooms, enclosed spaces, a quiet place to focus on my work. I love it too as a defense of the sonnet (a Petrarchan sonnet at that, which in English is far more difficult than the Shakespearean sonnet), with all its constraint and freedom. And on this reading it reminded me of another sonnet about the contemplative life, Dorothy Sayers' from Gaudy Night. Within the novel Harriet Vane writes the first eight lines and then accidentally puts them in a bundle of papers that she gives to her suitor/detective partner Peter Wimsey. When she gets it back, he's completed her poem with a sestet.
Here then at home, by no more storms distrest,
Folding laborious hands we sit, wings furled;
Here in close perfume lies the rose-leaf curled,
Here the sun stands and knows not east nor west,
Here no tide runs; we have come, last and best,
From the wide zone in dizzying circles hurled
To that still centre where the spinning world
Sleeps on its axis, to the heart of rest.

Lay on thy whips, O Love, that me upright,
Poised on the perilous point, in no lax bed
May sleep, as tension at the verberant core
Of music sleeps; for, if thou spare to smite,
Staggering, we stoop, stopping, fall dumb and dead,
And, dying so, sleep our sweet sleep no more.
It's a gorgeous and terrifying tension, inaction as rest versus inaction as death, and it encapsulates the central tension of the novel, Harriet's internal battle over whether it's possible for an educated woman to have both a life of the mind and a life of the heart, whether Harriet herself can have her career as a novelist and love Peter. "What," in Harriet's words, "are you to do with the people who are cursed with both hearts and brains?" In Peter's sestet he offers her a picture of the dangers of contemplation, the idea that being still and contemplative, "poised on the perilous point," is acceptable only so long as we are kept upright by the whips of love. It's love, of course, that keeps us alive; it always was.

Thinking about these two Petrarchan sonnets, I wrote my own. I have perhaps prejudiced you against it by prefacing it with the works of two far superior sonneteers. Nevertheless, I'm pleased with it, and I enjoyed making it. It's about my freshman year at Wheaton, and about the consolations of study.
It wasn't quite a pensive citadel,
Those four white walls I shared with stranger soul.
I felt condemned to play a foreign role
And longed for peace, a silent monkish cell.
That was a loneliness I could not quell
When I was young and scared and far from whole.
And being far from home took its sure toll:
It was in exile Dante wrote his Hell.

But I was saved by friendship with the dead.
In their words comfort came and strength anew.
In study found I gifts from God above:
In Homer's wars, in Chaucer's pilgrim tread,
In thought, in word, in quest for something true,
In fourteen lines that sang an ancient love.
It's a poem for last year, inspired largely by observing the new freshmen, and I suppose this time next year you can expect a poem about sophomore year. Poems take time, even when you're not actively writing them; this morning in my English class I learned that the two-line "In a Station of the Metro" took Actual Fascist Ezra Pound a year and a half to write after the experience it describes, and all that time he was thinking how best to put it into words. (His first draft was thirty lines long.) "Emily Dickinson could have done it overnight," my professor said, "but most of us need time for our ideas to distill and ferment." (A paraphrase based on my notes, but she really did say that about Dickinson and it really is true; in 1862 she wrote 366 poems.)

It's only now that I have the perspective I need to write the above sonnet, and that's reflected in the fact that moving in this year has been incalculably easier than last year. I'm feeling a confidence and peace that would have been almost incomprehensible to me this time last year. Indeed the sheer number of conversations I've had today would have seemed absurd to me: a friend I ran into in the dining hall at breakfast, a professor from last year who told me I should drop by and talk to her, another friend on the way to lunch who proclaimed himself a faithful follower of this blog (hi)—and others. My sonnet's most grievous omission, which I can only explain with the phrase "scanty plot of ground," is that I've left out all my wonderful living friends and teachers. Fourteen lines, remember, and if there is one certainty in this life it is that there will always (always, always) be more poems.

Less importantly, I'm slightly troubled by the implication that we studied Wordsworth in my English classes last year; we did not, but I'm fond enough of the wording that I'm keeping it as it is.

I'm happy; I wasn't sure I would be, but I am. I'm writing a lot. It's good.

My building, feat. trees, fountain, and a bit of lamp post.
This is most of what I do in my dorm.

The roundup is here.


  1. Great sonnets. . . all three of them! Love the blog post

  2. I'm so happy you're happy. And I love your sonnet. Love, Mom

  3. Wonderful post. Hope you have a fruitful and nourishing year!

  4. Hold the phone! Your are RuthfromHaiti's SON? A sophomore in college? I thought this blog was written by a retired college professor! You are wise beyond your years and your writing is AMAZING (poem, literary analysis, ALL of it.)

    Wow. Just wow. My mind is blown.

    (Thanks for "outing" him, Ruth!!)

    1. Daughter, but you're welcome. :-) She definitely is amazing.

  5. Hope you have a year filled with sights, sounds, and friends (living) that we will read about next year!

  6. Oh, what a lovely sonnet you've written.

    When I was an English major in college, Pound's "In a Station of the Metro" mesmerized me.

    I'll look forward to next fall's sonnet. :)

  7. Borne with the dead, who never answer mail,
    Through kinship of the written word, the friend
    Petrarch found Cicero, as we pretend
    If they could only hear our distant hail
    Across the winds of time, beyond the gale,
    Then they would love us back, our goals one end
    And that an introduction, as we spend
    Our joy in aiming high, to sometimes fail.
    Here in our sonnet nutshell, infinite,
    The chosen cell, here, where it all inclines
    To work well done and better worlds, we sit
    And see the living learning light that shines
    Illuminating hope, and love, and wit,
    The bounding freedom of your fourteen lines.

    1. I, wow. Yes. Thank you for this; it's beautiful.