Hearing the Sonnet


David Wheldon



On the other side of the valley from our house ran an old railway. It had been abandoned over sixty years before. My father frequently walked along it to visit his mother, and sometimes he would take me with him. At one high and lonely place at a moor’s beginning the track passed through a shallow cutting; here, a spring broke through the rocks; constant in summer or winter, its cave-cold water would fall from a lip into a stone trough. And as it fell this water had a voice. After discovering this place I would visit it alone, a six year old who had said that he was going to play with friends. I would sit by this spring, listening to its voice. In that voice was the place’s history, one of unbelievable antiquity — ten of my lives, end to end, had passed since the track had closed. Fretful in the wind, cold and aloof at the frosty end of day, bright in the noon sunshine: all human emotion was in the cadence of this falling stream, wordless, but filled with the sense of place. A young child accepts the idea of the universality of mind as a natural part of the world. That this idea often wears away in later life is an adult’s loss.
Poems worth calling poems are akin to that water’s voice. In language a physiology becomes exterior. In poetry feeling is drawn outwards. In reading, an inner emotion is recognized. In reading in different mood, in a different hour of the day, another depth of emotion, a remembrance of the first recollection, the harmony of the many recalls of the many readings. The wordless resonance of person and a sense of place emerge within the deepening journey.
The sonnet form used by Shakespeare is a sonnet only in the loosest sense; it bears little relation to the Petrarchan form. It is remarkably suited to the english language. In its fourteen lines of iambic pentameter a train of thought can be introduced, studied, reflected upon and, ultimately, resolved. Within the most formal of structures the most fluid of thoughts may be examined: it is analogous to water falling from stone lip to stone receptacle.
Iambic pentameter: soft beat followed by accentuated beat, ten in a line. Vowels steal time from consonants: how much time is stolen depends on what forms stand next to each other. Examples out of the air: Father, patter, weather, scatter, vigour, summer. The poet must understand (deep within himself) how this stealing of time works if his poetry is to be natural. If he wishes to lay a stress away from the natural, illumining the boundary between the natural and the artificial, he must still understand the physiology of time as it takes place within the mind. The early work of Dylan Thomas shows an extraordinarily adept understanding of this repeated rhythm of altered time.
So poetry is like the simultaneous playing and hearing of music. Feeling lies not simply in the perfection of the form but in its sympathetic use.
There are many voices in a single voice; of statement, of questioning, of answering, of resolving, of meeting, of parting, of praying: and each voice is unique within a dialect. In the speech of Somerset (where most of my youth was spent) a statement often ends in an upturning pitch; the stranger may assume a question where none is intended. Yet once this is understood a natural musicality appears. All speech is dialect; and the pitch and cadence of its stream should be understood, heard naturally, spoken mutedly or with emphasis, as the day calls. Emotions flatten or heighten speech, and not in ways which are foregone. The measure of the poem is in the hearing of the speaking: for the brief life of its lasting, the spoken form becomes the unseen plenum of the world.
A break or a pause within a line signifies a change of emphasis or direction of thought. This pause, or caesura, is instrumental in giving a weight or a balance to the line: it is a kind of fulcrum or pivot. Formal verse of the eighteenth century often possesses a central and unvarying caesura—a page of such verse if read aloud tends to sound dull and pendulomic to our ears. Some modern formal poetry uses the caesura as a stop of such emphasis that it overshadows both line-ending and end rime. Here, a caesura becomes less of a pivot and more a node or nexus, simultaneously gathering the meaning of the phrase which precedes it, and allowing the meaning of the phrase which will follow.

One in a multitude

One day, lost, indistinguishable now
amongst the host and multitude of days;
the stripes of yellow light upon the brow
behind the dark heads of the pines amaze,
define, strike dumb with sense; and so it treads
in wonderment, the moving silence seen
in distance, while, within oneself, threads
of heavy pasts work loose: what might have been
is at its brink. This day draws out; the rush
of life assumes a skyline surge, then goes
towards the certainty unvoiced. The flush
of colour sinks to grey – the quick stress slows –
the sky is pleated in a clouded sense
of time – rapidity to haste – and rain
is rolling in at nightfall. Soon the tense
reverts, disparages the dusk, and, sane
----upon the spattered sash, a local gust,
----directionless, which blows because it must.

Although this poem is written as a sonnet—extended by four lines or one quatrain—it could equally well have been written as an irregular verse with each line ending at a present caesura. Then the casual reader would not see that the poem contained a sonnet within its frame. As it is, the poem stands within the frame of an extended sonnet-form. Which is the additional quatrain? It is impossible to tell. Which of the pauses in the lines is the caesura? And this is important to the meaning: this poem is a hesitant speculation upon the nature and location of consciousness. A life is paraphrased both as a progressing day and as a progressing poem; at some stage in its progression the insight comes that progression itself is but one reading of the perspective that seems to end in mute closure (but might extend to unknowable distance): it is implied that, just as the poem is framed by the form and yet contains the form, so consciousness lives within a life and, at the same time, contains, upholds and, ultimately, transcends that single life.

So the poem could be written formally, as above; it could equally well have been written less formally, the line endings governed by pauses rather than by the convention of iambic pentameter. Were the poem spoken aloud, I guess that its formality would not become apparent until the approach of the end. Perhaps an underlying order does not have to be perceived for the poem to be appreciated. In poetry, and beyond, order enables the expression and enunciation of freedoms without itself becoming perceptible. But, were it not there, the freedom of meaning would not be conceivable. In the same way the physiology which continually construes my personhood seems to be so finely ordered that it is unknowable; but without it I could not be.


The hardness or softness of line-endings mould the individuality of a poem within its order, and express emotion, or follow a train of reasoning. A line may be fully end-stopped or may run on to the next line. The last line of one sonnet may run on to the first line of the next. Where many run-on lines follow one another the final line with its inevitable end will fall like a hammer blow. End-stopping can heighten feeling, and may be used to purposefully divorce one line from the next:

My self is empty in its own defence.
My words in other ways frustrate their tense.

Fourteen lines: three interior verses, each of four lines: the first lines of these quatrains rime with the third; the second with the fourth. At the end is a riming couplet. What is rime? Classically, it is divided into masculine (on a beat) or feminine (ending on a grace-note after a beat)

Unsensed, it makes, and yet is has no name;
No chain of words the way of its enduring
Nor adjective by which its being came:
Against its freedom, freedoms are immuring.

Here, the first and third lines are masculine, the second and fourth are feminine. Why these endings are given genders I do not know, but it seems appropriate: the feminine rimes of enduring and immuring moderate the end-stopping of the lines. The alternation of masculine and feminine rimes give a sense of completeness.
English is relatively poor in words which rime; a sequence of poems which utilised only ‘perfect’ end-rimes would have a limited vocabulary. Indeed, Shakespeare’s sonnets contain many ‘imperfect’ rimes; this master-poet, unwilling to compromise his argument, was willing to compromise the form, and indeed add resonance to his work by this compromise. Some commentators, wishing for formal perfection in Shakespeare, have re-written the history of english pronunciation to this end. It is never wise to pour history into the mould of opinion. [A parallel example: on the strength of a couplet where Hooper is rimed with Cowper, that poet’s name in literary circles is pronounced Coo-per. However, in the town of Olney, Buckinghamshire, where he spent much of his life, his name is invariably pronounced Cow-per. I would put money on the Olneian pronunciation being the correct one.] ‘Imperfect’ end-rimes can give an elliptic quality to the poem. Wystan Auden used this quality with great intelligence.
Internal rime, when purposed within the integrity of the poem, has an extraordinary effect, balancing or counterbalancing end-rime, flow, and caesura. Many poems which show a great integrity posses an inner counter-rime: that is, the sounds of the words which fall at the caesura carry an antiphonal pattern. If counter-rime is coupled with variation of caesura and an observance of end-rime, the result can be purposefully insecure and hesitant. Some of Philip Larkin’s poems show this strikingly. The effect is that of a half-muffled counter-argument which rises and shadows the surface structure.
The sonnet is a capable form for the elucidation of feelings within oneself or about another person. The three quatrains allow for the introduction of the argument and a progressive and subtle examination of claims and counter-claims about its subject. The final couplet can sum up a resolution directly or allow the poet to stand aside from his own words, remaining on the side-lines, finally observant, uncommitted: the poem stands unresolved, the metre itself dismissed:

Led thought, the spurious analogy,
Daylight’s end and tower of tautology.

The poet has done with empty thinking; he has led himself on, and now leaves the poem to go elsewhere. Form collapses in the last line.
And yet every good poem, every poem that one might call a sonnet, is in some way irregular, turning the phrase of the rule. In the poem which follows—Shakespeare’s second sonnet (of which there are two variants in existence)—the iambic pattern almost unnoticeably falters in the twelfth line, just before the couplet. The poet is telling the young man to father a son to bring his beauty forward beyond his own time. His arguments are meant to persuade: but, as they reach their final conclusion, they do not ring true.
[1] The poet is well aware that the young man’s son will not be the young man’s image, but a person in his own right, making what he can of the unknown time, speculated upon in the poem, when the poet will be mute in death and the poet’s friend in that misery of age which the poet had foretold. And it is here that the pattern of the poem stumbles. The couplet which follows is less the emphatic summing up that it first appears and more an oblique consideration of the effect of time on every generation: and this is one of the dark catalysts of history.
Listen to a poem read aloud. In your hearing, hear. Leave aside the consideration of meaning. What will you hear? Well, that depends on the quality of the poem. A good poem will have a musical integrity to it. The finest will have a quality comparable to a chamber-work by a wonderful composer, which, every voice heard, yet in its phrasing contains the world. Emotion, feeling, explanation, question, answer, resolution — all these will come out, vital and unmuffled. No technicalities will come to mind, not even the fact of rime. We are in the realm of a great mystery here. What we are hearing is music. We are in the presence of the working of a mind made manifest. And, as yet, we have not ventured into the meaning of the words of the first reading of the poem. Nor yet into the world of time: how this brief but vast period of timelessness will resound in all our readings throughout our lives.




When forty winters shall beseige thy brow,
And dig deep trenches in thy beauty’s field,
Thy youth’s proud livery, so gazed on now,
Will be a tattered weed of small worth held.
Then being asked where all thy beauty lies,
Where all the treasure of thy lusty days,
To say within thine own deep-sunken eyes
Were an all-eating shame and thriftless praise.
How much more praise deserved thy beauty’s use
If thou couldst answer ‘this fair child of mine
Shall sum my count and make my old excuse,’
Proving his beauty by succession thine.
----This were to be new made when thou art old,
----And see thy blood warm when thou feel’st it cold.


William Shakespeare

[1] Joel Fineman, Shakespeare's Perjured Eye, 1986, University of California Press


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