Here’s a short list of the milestones in my journey of poetic discovery:
• Jack Gilbert, “Poetry is a kind of lying” – The first line of the poem announces the main point: poetry is not to be taken literally. But keep reading! Poetry nevertheless tells the truth.
• G. K. Chesterton, “Sound and Sense in Poetry,” Illustrated London News, May 30, 1931 – Chesterton uncovers a world in the analysis of one line of poetry.
• William Mouser, Walking in Wisdom ($403.47 new on Amazon?!?!) – This brilliant little book made the biblical Proverbs fifty times more interesting to me than they were before. Among its treasures is a section on figures of speech that explained to me what my high school English teachers should have.
• Laurence Perrine, Sound and Sense – I feel like I earned a minor in poetry by going through this excellent guide.
• Carper and Attridge, Meter and Meaning – The best explanation of poetic meter and scansion I’ve found.
I hope that list proves helpful. I’ve been putting off writing in detail about a Shakespeare sonnet, concerned that I’m not up to the task. So I wrote a few days ago about one aspect of the poems without getting into any actual poetry. And today I wrote a long introduction to delay even further the moment of truth. And now I’m writing an explanation of the delay tactic in order to delay yet more. One last delay: here’s the poem itself that I’ll have a couple of things to say about momentarily . . .
Shakespeare, Sonnet 65The first clause is a bit odd: it seems to lack a verb. But who wants to begrudge the Bard a dull and lifeless “There is”? In any case, there is no piece of brass, nor stone, nor plot of earth, nor ocean that does not eventually meet with decay and dissolution. As with most lists in good poetry, this one has an intesifying progression: each item in the list is larger than the last, each death a little harder to believe. I can easily imagine a brass gewgaw in the trash heap, but the death of the Pacific Ocean? Unfathomable. (I’m groaning, too.)
Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,
But sad mortality o'ersways their power,
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?
O how shall summer’s honey breath hold out
Against the wrackful siege of batt'ring days,
When rocks impregnable are not so stout,
Nor gates of steel so strong but time decays?
O fearful meditation! Where, alack,
Shall time’s best jewel from time’s chest lie hid?
Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back?
Or who his spoil or beauty can forbid?
O none, unless this miracle have might,
That in black ink my love may still shine bright.
But then the defensive power suddenly diminished: least powerful of all against the ravages of death is the beauty of a human form and face. The words Shakespeare associates with beauty contrast poignantly with those he uses to describe time and mortality. Beauty gets “flower” and “summer” and “honey” and “jewel.” There’s not a hard stopped consonant in any of those words; they are sweet both in sound and in sense. Time on the other hand gets the k’s and t’s of fierce words like “wrackful” and “decay” and “batt’ring” and “swift foot.”
And now, a last point that may sound a little crazy. Many music theorists have at least a mild fascination with the Golden Section, a division into two parts of some length in such a way that the ratio of the smaller part to the larger is the same as the ratio of the larger part to the whole. Mathematicians would probably point out the error in my explanation, since that“ratio” involves one ir-ratio-nal number, a number very close to but not exactly equal to .618. Divide a mile into two parts: the first part .618 of a mile long, and the second .382 of a mile long (the amount left over when you subtract .618 from 1). The ratio of the smaller part to the larger is also approximately .618. (Try it!) Many ancient Greek sculptures and buildings display this ratio. Musicians get interested when they find an especially pleasing piece has its climax 61.8% of the way through. (Disney’s Donald Duck in Mathmagic Land gives the best possible explanation and visual demonstration of the Golden Section.)
It occurs to me that English-sonnet form might take advantage of the Golden Section. Many of the sonnets take some sort of turn after eight lines. Our sonnet today interrupts itself with the exclamation “O fearful meditation!” after its eighth line. Any sonnet has fourteen lines, and 8 divided by 14 is approximately.57143, a little low for the Golden Section. The last six lines, though, also have a dividing point: after four lines, the alternating rhyme scheme is replaced by a couplet that renders the culminating point of the poem. The ratio of 4 to 6 is approximately .6667, a little high for the Golden Section. But average the two, and you get .619, close enough to allow any power this time-honored mathematical relationship might actually have to work on our psyches.
Update from six years later: Divide the poem after "O fearful meditation!" That makes the first part 8.7 lines long, and 8.7 divided by 14 is approximately .6214, as close as you can get to the Golden Section in a poem of exactly one-hundred-forty syllables. Now consider the remaining part of 5.3 lines. The final couplet starts after 3.3 of those 5.3, and 3.3 divided by 5.3 is approximately .6226: again, as close you can come in splitting up 53 syllables!