Sunday, April 20, 2008

Life is a Sonnet

I mentioned a few days back that I like poetry which uses formal structures. It's amazing how many poets have worked with one of the most popular forms, the sonnet. I first heard Madeleine L'Engle compare life to a sonnet in A Wrinkle in Time:

Mrs Whatsit: It is a very strict form of poetry is it not? There are fourteen lines, I believe, all in iambic pentameter. That's a very strict rhythm or meter, yes? And each line has to end with a rigid rhyme pattern. And if the poet does not do it exactly this way, it is not a sonnet, is it?

Calvin: You mean you're comparing our lives to a sonnet? A strict form, but freedom within it?

Mrs Whatsit: Yes. You're given the form, but you have to write the sonnet yourself. What you say is completely up to you.

She was such an erudite author, she may have been quoting someone else, but that is where I first heard this comparison, and I'm as fond of it as I am of L'Engle herself.

There's a week of sonnets coming up, and who better to begin with than Madeleine L'Engle. This is one of her sonnets that I'm most fond of, as it's richly romantic and yet gives a sense of the fleeting impermanence of life and love.

You are still new, my love. I do not know you,
Stranger beside me in the dark of bed,
Dreaming dreams I cannot ever enter,
Eyes closed in that unknown, familiar head.
Who are you? who have thrust and entered
My very being, penetrated so that now
I can never again be wholly separate,
Bound by shared living to this unknown thou.
I do not know you, nor do you know me,
And yet we know each other in the way
Of our primordial forebears in the garden.
Adam knew Eve. As we do, so did they.
They; we; forever strangers: austere, but true.
And yet I would not change it. You are still new.


  1. That's a great passage from L'Engle and a great comparison she makes! I like reading sonnets to see what authors do with the form -- it's fun to figure out what innovations and changes they make.

  2. Dorothy - I love L'Engle's comparison here. And so many poets adapt the sonnet form, it's endlessly intriguing.


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