Three sonnets for National Poetry Day
It was at the age of 17 that I was introduced to the sonnet, during my ‘A’ level year when curious minds feed on endless titbits offered by teachers, minds open to exploration and suggestion. I loved the ingenuity of the form, at once restrictive and inviting of creativity, and I admired those poets who could mould phrases and sentiments around its strict rhyming requirements.
One of these was Edna St. Vincent Millay, whose Sonnet I committed to memory and have never since forgotten. It’s an elegy of love and loss, touchingly personal yet universal, words of beauty and simplicity that spoke to my teenage self.
Time does not bring relief; you all have lied
Who told me time would ease me of my pain!
I miss him in the weeping of the rain;
I want him at the shrinking of the tide;
The old snows melt from every mountain-side,
And last year’s leaves are smoke in every lane;
But last year’s bitter loving must remain
Heaped on my heart, and my old thoughts abide.
There are a hundred places where I fear
to go,—so with his memory they brim.
And entering with relief some quiet place
Where never fell his foot or shone his face
I say, “There is no memory of him here!”
And so stand stricken, so remembering him.
Another I adored was Menelaus and Helen by Rupert Brooke, snatches of which come back to me on occasion, though I have never been able to recite it in its entirety. Hot through Troy’s ruin is so evocative an opening, and I’m endlessly impressed by the poet’s frugality with words and phrases to make his meaning fit within the structure. This work introduced me to such words as ‘sate’ and ‘garrulous’, my teenage study requiring as much time thumbing through the dictionary as reading the poem.
Hot through Troy’s ruin Menelaus broke
To Priam’s palace, sword in hand, to sate
On that adulterous whore a ten years’ hate
And a king’s honour. Through red death, and smoke,
And cries, and then by quieter ways he strode,
Till the still innermost chamber fronted him.
He swung his sword, and crashed into the dim
Luxurious bower, flaming like a god.
High sat white Helen, lonely and serene.
He had not remembered that she was so fair,
And that her neck curved down in such a way;
And he felt tired. He flung the sword away,
And kissed her feet, and knelt before her there,
The perfect Knight before the perfect Queen.
So far the poet. How should he behold
That journey home, the long connubial years?
He does not tell you how white Helen bears
Child on legitimate child, becomes a scold,
Haggard with virtue. Menelaus bold
Waxed garrulous, and sacked a hundred Troys
’Twixt noon and supper. And her golden voice
Got shrill as he grew deafer. And both were old.
Often he wonders why on earth he went
Troyward, or why poor Paris ever came.
Oft she weeps, gummy-eyed and impotent;
Her dry shanks twitch at Paris’ mumbled name.
So Menelaus nagged; and Helen cried;
And Paris slept on by Scamander side.
Though widely regarded as the father of the sonnet, it wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I first encountered Shakespeare in a meaningful way. I was seeing an older man at the time, a well-read, artistic type who wore long flowing shirts and tied his hair back in a ponytail. His knowledge of literature intimidated me; I was desperate to impress him or at least appear to match his intellect. We were out for a walk one day, a long, lazy walk around the suburbs of Leeds when we spotted a fridge in someone’s back garden. There were poetry magnets on its door, a novelty at the time, some of which had been arranged into the opening lines of Shakespeare’s sonnet 29: When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes I all alone beweep my outcast stat (there had been no final ‘e’ to complete the word; perhaps it had fallen off). To my amazement my companion proceeded to recite the entire poem. He took the letters and gave them to me; I think I fell in love with him then. The sonnet was quickly committed to memory, the magnets given pride of place on our fridge at home. They have since been lost or rearranged, my father perhaps not realising their sentimental significance, and though the relationship ended not long afterwards, Shakespeare’s words still reside in my head.
When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
(Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth) sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.