A reflection on sonnets: ‘When life was sweet because you call'd them sweet’

Through a close reading of two sonnets, Richard Price looks at the history of the 14 line poem and considers a tradition of conventions and a tradition of alternatives.

The sonnet: those particular 14 lines of poetry are central to the Anglophone tradition. As a poet it wouldn’t matter if you were a Warwickshire upstart (Shakespeare), the son of an Ulster farmer (Seamus Heaney) or a fast-talking, fast-thinking New Yorker (Bernadette Mayer), if you are interested in poetry you have to be interested in the sonnet. And if the poets have to be interested, up to a point readers have to be, too.

I bridle at any ‘have to be’ in reading. Reading is a freedom thing, and I balk at the trend, even in bookish circles, of top tens, top fives, book bucket lists, starred recommendations and labelling this or that book ‘essential’. Books and poems are all interconnected with each other and with the living, breathing, individual-but-shared world of their readers. To apply thou shalts to this or that text is to misunderstand the shape and chance and surprising connectivity of such lived experience. Yet, despite poetry’s reputation as a particularly cruel variety of difficult homework, surely to read a sonnet is one of the gentlest have-to-be’s there is.

Take Christina Rossetti’s ‘Come back to me’, for example. This is a poem which starts with a plea for a lover’s return, only, as soon as the first line is over, to qualify that secular prayer with what essentially translates as, ‘hold on, actually, stay there! – I am enjoying the anticipation!’:

Come back to me, who wait and watch for you –
Or come not yet, for it is over then,
And long it is before you come again,
So far between my pleasures are and few.
While, when you come not, what I do I do
Thinking “Now when he comes," my sweetest when:
For one man is my world of all the men
This wide world holds; O love, my world is you.
Howbeit, to meet you grows almost a pang
Because the pang of parting comes so soon;
My hope hangs waning, waxing, like a moon
Between the heavenly days on which we meet:
Ah me, but where are now the songs I sang
When life was sweet because you call'd them sweet?

‘Come back to me’ – Christina Rossetti (1830–1894)

This is a poem about the deferral of one pleasure (actually meeting) for another: thinking about the person you are going to meet. Everyone can understand how complicated relationships can be in exactly that way, even though it is not always best to admit it.

I find the last two lines, which take the poem in an entirely different direction, particularly touching. While the whole poem has been about the enjoyment of missing someone, specifically focussed on painful but pleasurable intensity, the ending almost anaesthetises that pain – with specific recollection of the lover praising the poet. Until now, we have not been given any detail about the lover at all, it has all been about their effect on the poet – now we know that they have been attentive and expressive towards the speaker.

In this way, these last lines reciprocate the waiting and watching of the first lines, as if, in a sense, lover is now replying to lover, even if this is only a trick of the speaker’s memory. One name for such inebriation in the face of pain is fondness; here, the fond recollection of fondness. There is also a metaphoric play with the idea of singing: the sonnet’s roots in singing (it comes from the continental Troubadour tradition) and the standard use of ‘song’ in poetry to represent the poem itself, suggests that the poet is cherishing being cherished as a poet.

This poem/song duality in poetry, and in the sonnet in particular, reminds me that, looking down the years in the history of the sonnet, the sonnet leads a complex multiple life. Put simply, there is a tradition of convention and a tradition of alternatives. These are, of course, the same tradition, criss-crossing over the years and even changing tradition according to retrospective interpretation.

Here is a simple table I’ve made which sets out these two sides to the history of the sonnet, polarised in this way to draw out the sonnet’s range of characteristics rather than to firmly assert cast iron differences:

Convention Alternative history
Sonnet as a love poem Sonnet as social, political, or abstract
Sonnet as spoken, as ‘writerly’ Sonnet as song, sonnet as visual object
Sonnet as a man’s form Sonnet as a woman’s form, as anyone’s form, as no-one’s form, as a machine form
Sonnet as a single solitary voice Sonnet gregarious, sonnet impersonal: dialogue, drama, social commentary, collage, remembering sonnet history
Strict formal rules Liberties and vestiges, new rules
Deliberative (slow), Contemplative, Intellectual, Genteel Stream of consciousness, Fast, Multi-paced, Explicit, Visceral, Profane
Sonnet in Received Pronounciation Sonnet in a wealth of Englishes
Sonnet as a room, as sequence Sonnet out in the open, sonnets in a gathering, in a mansion

Where is Rossetti’s poem located under such analysis? Pleasingly, it has characteristics on both sides. Is it contemplative? – perhaps, but it seems both passionate and stagey (‘Ah’! ‘O’!) as well. However, clearly the sonnet in Rossetti’s hands is proven to be no ‘man’s form’ solely. In fact, it reminds me a little of a much older set of sonnets by the French Renaissance poet Louise Labé (1524–1566). Here is a poem in which, like Rossetti’s, the speaker records how the pleasures of the mind, with luck, are a kind of compensation when the pleasures of reality are not possible. For Labé it is the landscape of dreams which can provide this:

Tout aussitôt que je commence à prendre
Dans le mol lit le repos désiré,
Mon triste esprit, hors de moi retiré,
S’en va vers toi incontinent se rendre.

Lors m’est avis que dedans mon sein tendre
Je tiens le bien où j’ai tant aspiré,
Et pour lequel j’ai si haut soupiré
Que de sanglots ai souvent cuidé fendre.

O doux sommeil, ô nuit à moi heureuse!
Plaisant repos plein de tanquillité,
Continuez toutes les nuits mon songe;
Et si jamais ma pauvre âme amoureuse
Ne doit avoir de bien en vérité,
Faites au moins qu’elle en ait en mensonge.

Louise Labé, 'Sonnet IX', 1555

I have translated this as:

From the moment I welcome to my bed
long pursued, long desired sleep,
my creature thought starts its creep –
crawls, no, runs, flies to you instead.

Then I’m gripped, or held, or fed
by everything I’ve hoped for, hold deep.
Agonised sighs seem trite, pat, cheap.
I soon forget what idle anguish said.

Sweet sleep. A night, perhaps, of happiness?
Sultry slumber, the tease of tranquility –
lavish, please, all my nights with such slow dreams

and if it’s no to love, to tenderness,
no to the sweetest in all humanity,
let me at least enjoy the feast – of all that seems.

As with Rossetti’s sonnet, there are elements in this poem which I am glad to say make a mockery of dividing tradition from alternative. Once again, as far as discipline and freedom are concerned, the sonnet has it both ways: among other things, it is a concentrated, rule-based form for the expansive liberty of feeling.

  • Richard Price
  • Richard Price is Head of Contemporary British Collections at the British Library. He is the author of the poetry collections Lucky Day, Rays, Small World, and Moon for Sale (all published by Carcanet), and the co-author of British Poetry Magazines 1914-2000: a history and bibliography of ‘little magazines’.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.