The Sonnet in the Twenty-First Century
In his biography, Andrew Belsey has typified some of his sonnets
as more or less traditional in theme, presentation and style, others as slightly experimental. In the latter, he feels at
liberty to introduce controlled irregularities of rhythm or rhyme, as well as more intensely emotional thematic content, along
with a colloquial language appropriate to our day and age, even mannerisms typical of the English countryside where he takes
This approach to sonnet writing is neither novel nor revolutionary.
Nor is it so unusual as one might experience, were one's sonnet reading limited merely to Renaissance, classical or Romantic
sonnets, most of which focus either on lofty questions of love, human passion or spiritual exaltation or, in the case of so
many Romantic sonnets, on the realm of Nature, howsoever it may be construed.
Though somewhat more traditional themes are
the stuff of Andrew's conventional sonnets, such as Lost Love and Sonnet
for Myself, clearly they are not of his more experimental, "modern" ones. While he still obsesses as have the majority
of sonneteers throughout history with the process, pangs and outcomes of love, and of its profound impacts on the human soul,
his obsession is marked by a highly personal, emotionally charged anxiety not often addressed in sonnets prior to
the Twentieth Century.
The borderline abusive language of the sonnets,
Trying to Cope and West Dulwich Blues leaves no doubt whatsoever that here he confronts us with the jilted
lover, so commonplace these days, when love is easy-come and easy-go, and relationships are placed under a multitude of stresses
and strains only the modern world can spawn, regardless of our own individual circumstances.
In Andrew Belsey's instance, it is abundantly clear the poet
is speaking of a real woman who has, well, dumped him. He intensely feels bitter resentment over her betrayal of him,
even so far as "getting plastered" on Pilsener beer! There is no pussy-footing around in these sonnets.
His are not the spiritual leitmotifs of a Petrarch
longing after the love of some Ideal Beauty, whom he had stylized as the pure Virgin maiden "Laura" (or in the case of Edmund
Spenser in his sonnet sequel, Amoretti or for Samuel Daniel (1562-1619) idealizing his "Delia", and so on and so
forth), but those of a harsh, unforgiving, intensely personal world, in which the poet himself must live, from which he cannot
escape. Into his small world enters the flesh-and-blood woman he falls in love with. And she is as prone
to human foibles and failure as is he.
This is the very sort of dilemma all too many of us find
ourselves Trying to Cope with in the face of passionate love gone all wrong, no matter where any of us lives today,
regardless of continent, nation, language, social status or sex. It seems to go without saying that those
who suffer most from love, in a world as stressful as ours, are of the working class or "lower classes", or at the most extreme,
Make no mistake about it: class distinctions, which ran so
deeply entrenched throughout English history, still exert a more subtle, if not less pernicious influence in today's England.
Similarly, invisible, insidious and surreptitious class
barriers plague North America, where their roots are economic, well entrenched by the more extreme effects of Capitalism,
most notably, privileged wealth. That too is unmistakably a class distinction. In the case of America, it is sadly also racial.
This is not to say that Andrew's sonnets explicitly expose
us to the harsh realities such class distinctions necessarily impose on those less unfortunate amongst us. On the other hand,
one cannot escape the distinctly uncomfortable feeling that in these sonnets we are actually watching a diaporama playing
out a grievous moment in the life of a poor fellow of modest means, jilted by his girl, and left alone to his own guilt-burdened
psyche to suffer the consequences, however grievous they may be. One has to wonder also whether the woman in this love-affair
gone sour does not also suffer as intensely.
There is just so much despair one can tolerate before one feels
hopelessly at a loss for love. Our sonneteer goes so far, indeed, that he finally concludes, in a paroxysm of self-doubt or
self-pity (have it either way):
"You have no muse nor talent to amuse."
Life has no consolation when you're down,
The greatest unknown poet of the town.
We might reasonably ask ourselves, "Who is weeping
for whom in this sonnet?" Is it the poet for his somewhat unworthy lost object of love, or the poet for himself? So
he winds up in despair, questioning himself: if you cannot love, how can you write convincing love poetry?
Novel Thematic Trends in Sonnet Writing
But are such sentiments as this new to sonnets?
After a fashion, yes; in a literary sense, not really.
When I say, after a fashion, I mean to say that we find many
sonneteers of the last Century and many even of the late Victorian Age, when writers were apt to become increasingly upset
over social inequities, composing sonnets obsessed with issues of human suffering. Such sonnets are in some ways similar to
Andrew Belsey's, in which he raises not unrelated concerns.
Amongst such writers we may count, in the late Nineteenth Century,
Mathilde Blind (English); in the early Twentieth, Rupert Brooke (English) and Alan Seeger and Edna Saint-Vincent Millay (American).
The Nineteenth Century
As early as the third quarter Matthew Arnold
(1822-1888), in his Zeitgeist masterpiece, Dover Beach, stoically laments:
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
Already it is clear that the traditional Romantic mould has
been shattered. Perhaps Arnold has the Crimean War in mind, or some other such similar catastrophe. How strangely uncanny it
is that he appears, however unwittingly, to prophesy the ruination soon to descend upon the World, as it plummeted headlong
into the Twentieth Century.
A little later on, Mathilde Blind (1841-1896) goes even further
than Matthew Arnold in the bluntness of her poetic style. She unflinchingly raises the kindred spectres of poverty, disease
and social despair plaguing so many in the England of her day:
As opiates to the sick on
As light to flowers, as flowers
in poor men's rooms,
As to the fisher when the tempest glooms
The cheerful twinkling of his village lights;
... passim ...
Thou art to me-- a comfort past
and yet again:
Peace, throbbing heart, nor let us shed one tear
O'er this late love's unseasonable glow;
... passim ...
Since thy dear course must end when scarce begun,
Nipped by the cold touch of relentless fate.
All of these poets made a clean break with the traditional
sonnet, no longer suffering its polite preoccupation with Romantic love, however profound. Theirs were the sonnets of a brutish
time; thematically these poets cut even deeper than the earlier socially trenchant sonnets of the likes of Mathilde Blind.
Hear now Rupert Brooke's unadulterated admiration and
love for his fellow men lost to the Great War well up, in his memorial, The Dead III:
There's none of these so lonely and poor of old,
But, dying, has made us rarer gifts than gold.
These laid the world away; poured out the red
Sweet wine of youth; gave up the years to be
That men call age;
There can be no mistaking. His heartstrings, like those
of Mathilde Blind before him, are just rent at the mere thought of knowing so many of his colleagues and friends have been
killed, and that and here lies the very rub of it! It was the World that killed him, his World, as
to an even greater extent, ours is killing us!
Still more bitterly ironic are the words of Wilfred Owen
in his apocalyptic sonnet, The End, where he inveighs:
And when I hearken to the Earth,
'My fiery heart shrinks, aching. It is death.
Mine ancient scars shall not be glorified,
Nor my titanic tears, the seas, be dried.'
How very droll, that he should have uttered that adjective,
all too familiar to almost everyone in his day and age, "titanic", following hard on the heels of
Of work and joy, and that
unhoped serene, In roared the early Twentieth Century with its clash of European nationalistic Titans leading straight
to the outbreak of the Great War, so powerfully evoked in the sonnets of Rupert Brooke (1887-1915), Wilfred Owen (1893-1918)
and Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967), all disillusioned, shell-shocked poets of World War I. That war killed the first two, along
with the American poet, Alan Seeger (See below).
the loss of the world's largest and "unsinkable" liner? Titanic hopes dashed by titanic fears, this had
already, by 1914, turned out to be one of the relentless obsessions of Twentieth Century poetry, sonnets being no exception
to the rule.
The sonnets of the American poet, Alan Seeger (1888-1916),
also killed in World War I, betrayed the same stark thematic shift. Here we find Seeger deploring the fate of the lover jilted
by his woman. The language has become not only bitterly ironic, but mordant. This sonnet I give in its entirety, if only because
in it we clearly see a marked progression, not only in tone and theme, but in literary style, towards the more "experimental"
of Andrew Belseys.
Oh, love of woman, you are known to be
A passion sent to plague the hearts of men;
For every one you bring felicity
Bringing rebuffs and wretchedness to ten.
I have been oft where human life sold cheap
And seen men's brains spilled out about their
And yet that never cost me any sleep;
I lived untroubled and I shed no tears.
Fools prate how war is an atrocious thing;
I always knew that nothing it implied
Equalled the agony of suffering
Of him who loves and loves unsatisfied.
War is a refuge to a heart like this;
Love only tells it what true torture is.
As for Edna Saint-Vincent Millay (1892-1950), her words on
the rigours of love ring unequivocally and intensely true:
"I shall forget you presently, my dear"
I shall forget you, as I said, but now,
If you entreat me with your loveliest lie
I will protest you with my favorite vow.
I would indeed that love were longer-lived,
And vows were not so brittle as they are, ...
Millay's lover had protested (methinks) too much. His
love was not only a lie, it was his "loveliest lie"!
In a word, human angst as intense as this, which we have
also seen in the sexually morbid paintings of Gustave Klimt, rapidly settled in as one of the predominant themes of Twentieth
Century verse in all forms, including the sonnet.
Pablo Neruda, in his fiery Cien Sonetos de Amor,
brought this obsession with love at the gut human level right down to the colloquial Spanish, yet all the while investing
his generally unrhymed, free-form sonnets with the most vivid, passionate imagery. A single instance suffices to drive the
Cien Sonetos de Amor
Plena mujer, manzana carnal, luna caliente,
espeso aroma de algas, lodo y luz machacados,
qué oscura claridad se abre entre tus columnas?
Qué antigua noche el hombre toca con sus sentidos?
One Hundred Love Sonnets
Oh woman rich and fleshy apple, fiery moon,
Oh pungent seaweed, mud and light in masquerade,
What secrecy of clarity is opened in
What ancient night touches a man in his senses?
Century Twenty One
Perhaps we may conclude, Andrew Belsey, along
with so many poets and sonneteers of our day, stands in the ever-lengthening line of the "new tradition" (if we would have
it so) of the modern sonnet, which is concerned far less with the niceties, subtleties and graces of love than with its troubling, deeply
vexing impacts on the human psyche.
We may realistically expect this trend, first established in
the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries, to continue to exert its influence on English poetry in general, and on
the sonnet in particular. There is no reason to think otherwise, in a World as complex, stressed-out, feverish, coldly impersonal
and unfeelings as ours, as we stand on the threshold of the Third Millennium.
Human nature always remains true to itself. The fate alloted
to each of us in our intense and lonely personal suffering in the face of unrequited love is as age old as poetry
itself. The ancient Greek lyricists, Alcaeus, Alcman and Sappho, grieved over Love, as did the great Roman lyric poet,
Petrarch, Joachim du Bellay, Pierre de Ronsard, Thomas Wyatt,
Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, John Keats, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Edna Saint-Vincent Millay, all of these great
poets, wept over the crucible of human love.
The prime differences today are a more colloquial
literary style and the immediacy of psycho-social pressures uncommonly experienced prior to the Industrial Age and the Global
Village, which we all share, all seven billion of us, like it or lump it.
Love, it is true, has always been a hard taskmaster. But, in
a World such as ours, so replete with personal disaffection, anonymity and violence, love is hard even to begin to grasp.
Yet, in the end, we are left alone, as is Andrew
himself, who in his intensely intimate sonnet, Trying to Cope, grieves:
So this affair could never buck the trend
Of chilly disappointments... passim ...
and I am desperate because.
Note how abruptly the poet terminates this sonnet with
the subordinate conjunction, "because.", stopped dead with a period! Subordinate implies an afterthought.
But there is none to be had. The poet is desperate over the loss of his love for an unworthy object; yet he cannot explain
why. He can find no "reason" for his disillusionment. In short, he cannot rationalize it away.
This is the sort of answer one might expect from a mere
child. Yet, ironically, while it may seem a childish ploy, it is not. Here instead is an adult,
jilted by love, who for the life of himself, cannot explain his despair. Nor should he even try.
While it is in the natural order of things for adults to behave at least somewhat responsibly most of the time, when struck
low by love lost, any adult is bound to be left, not only speechless, but as powerless as a child - at least for the moment,
a moment which seems an unendurable eternity.
It is somewhat ironic that the social concerns expressed
in the more worldly sonnets down from Mathilde Blind's day right through the Twentieth Century should once again get submerged
in the personal and private wasteland of one single man's lonely soul. But that is just what has happened in the case
of Andrew Belsey. Have we then come almost full circle? Are sonnet writers of this Century about to re-embark on a road
towards the inner landscape of the love-torn psyche?
Only time may tell.
© by Richard Vallance, Editor, Sonnetto Poesia, September 19th., 2002