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Book Review: The Art of the Sonnet by Stephen Burt and David Mikics

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It is difficult to determine exactly what audience the new critical anthology The Art of the Sonnet is intended for. The book is a collection of 100 sonnets written in English and presented chronologically beginning with the earliest appearances of the genre in the Renaissance and ending with a plethora of examples from contemporary poets. Each poem is accompanied by a short critical essay offering a critical interpretation from a menu of options: citing the significance of the poem in the history of the form, defining terms and allusions, giving information about the poet, relating it to other poems and poets, and any historical information the authors might deem useful. Each essay is written individually by one of the authors. Some are quite well known poems by quite well known poets, Shelley’s “Ozymandias” and Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 for example; some less well known poems by less well known poets, such as Mary Wroth’s Pamphilia to Amphilanthus 46 and John Clare’s “Swordy Well.”

There is an introduction discussing the history of the form and trying to account for its popularity with poets over the years. The authors explain that the book isn’t necessarily meant to be read cover to cover. It certainly can be, but readers may prefer to simply look at individual poems and essays at random almost as if it were a reference book. Indeed, that may well be the best way, since one of the book’s problems is that the methodology the author’s have chosen often leads to a good deal of repetition. Material from the introduction, like the well worn distinctions between the Petrarchan and Shakespearian sonnets, comes up again in the critical essays a number of times. Material from one essay may get repeated in another to make a similar point, as for example John Milton’s role in the expansion of the sonnet’s subject matter. Repetition like this is annoying for anyone reading the book from cover to cover; it might well not even be noticed for the reader using the scatter shot approach.

Back to the question of audience: certainly the book is far too elementary, for the serious student of the sonnet in particular and literature in general. It rehashes much of the content of a general introduction to poetry, defining and illustrating terminology that should be common knowledge for that audience — the pathetic fallacy, Spenserian stanzas, enjambment, just to mention some examples. It offers information about individual authors, their lives and their work, that has to be gratuitous for such an audience. George Eliot is most famous for her novels. Elizabeth Barrett Browning had a long love affair with Robert before they ran off to be married. This is the kind of information more appropriate for the beginning student or the general audience.

Unfortunately that audience may well have some of its own problems with the text. The authors are not always able to unshackle themselves from critical jargon as they explain various texts. They tend to focus on technical matters and specific readings in the context of the period in which the poem was written. They rarely acknowledge the possibility that the reader may have a role to play in a poem’s interpretation that may well differ from what the poet might have thought he or she was doing. Also the selection of poems seems at times less than appropriate for the general reader. Many minor poets are included, while major poems by major poets are omitted. One would think that Shakespeare’s “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day” or Hopkins’ “The Windhover” would be more valuable for the lay audience than Charles Tennyson Turner’s “A Dream.” Besides, in the end one has to wonder how many general readers or beginning students would be likely to pick up a tome devoted to this one verse form alone in the first place.

It is not that this study lacks significance. The Art of the Sonnet has important points to make and it makes them with care and precision. The point is that the authors of a book like this would do well to decide who exactly they want to talk to, and then do so. It is unquestionable that the sonnet has been a genre that has been of particular import in the poetry of the English language. It is a genre that poets through the years have used to produce some of the finest lyric poetry ever written. Despite what would seem to be the limitations of its fourteen-line “narrow room,” the form has attracted most of the greatest poets of not only the English language, but of languages all over the world. A book that explains the genre’s attractions is well worth writing. With a greater focus on an appropriate audience this book could well have been it.

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