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Stephen Regan, The Sonnet
by Joshua Reid

Stephen Regan, The Sonnet. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019. xi + 433pp. ISBN: 9780192893079 £69.00 hardback. ISBN: 9780198838869 £20.99 paperback.

 

Regan’s Miscellany

 

In December 2019, Susan Gubar, who has been chronicling her ordeal with ovarian cancer in The New York Times, wrote a column titled ‘When in Distress, Try Sonnets’, finding solace in a form ‘large in scope but small in size’ that speaks directly to the hopes, pains, and fears accompanying chronic disease. She writes, ‘Readers of sonnets observe writers negotiating within rigid formal constraints and often within inflexible psychological or political circumstances, as many of us do’.[1]

After Donald Trump’s election to the American presidency in 2016, the poet Terrance Hayes began writing a series of unrhymed Jazz Sonnets (inspired by Wanda Coleman’s pioneering ‘American Sonnets’) as a coping mechanism for the new political reality and the ongoing issues of systematic racial violence. He published a collection of seventy of these therapeutic sonnets in 2018 with the title American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin. The seventh poem in the sequence is a metasonnet in the tradition of Robert Burns, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and William Wordsworth, reflecting on the form’s fit for foreboding times: the ‘pretty rooms’ of John Donne have been renovated into ‘part prison, / part panic closet … part music box, part meat / Grinder to separate the song of the bird from the bone’.[2]

On March 22nd, 2020, as the despairing reality of COVID-19’s reach and breadth became apparent, and the walls of enforced quarantine closed in, the actor Patrick Stewart began his sonnet-a-day social media readings from William Shakespeare, with the recording of Sonnet one receiving 3.7 million views on Facebook.[3] One day later, Jacqueline Saphra began writing one sonnet each day, publishing her results in One Hundred Lockdown Sonnets in 2021: ‘How did I get through 100 days of lockdown?’ she asks. Her response: ‘Writing a sonnet a day’.[4]

 

We continue to put chaos—whether from debilitating cancer, racial injustice, or a global pandemic—into fourteen lines.

 

It is the surprising ‘continuing vitality’ (14) of this over 700-year-old form that is the subject of Stephen Regan’s beautifully written The Sonnet, which achieves its aim to ‘provide the first comprehensive study of the sonnet in English from the Renaissance to the present’ (11). It seems strange that this most fixed of forms, whose procrustean bed of fourteen lines has become proverbial, would prove supple enough not only to survive but thrive, and that Hayes’s sonnets would feel as bracing and relevant for his twenty-first-century moment as Sir Thomas Wyatt’s did for the sixteenth-century Henrican court. For Regan, it is the sonnet’s intricate play between ‘discipline and constraint while simultaneously inviting endless permutation and innovation’ that partially explains its perdurability (11). It is the sonnet’s very compactness, ‘its tightly compressed shape’, that ‘paradoxically enables imaginative vistas of sublime intensity’ (4). The ‘dynamic internal structure’ (5) of divisible yet linked units of octave and sestet, which further divides into units of 4 + 4 + 3 + 3 (Italian) or 4 + 4 + 4 + 2 (English), expressed through alternating (rima alternata) or envelope (rima baciata) rhymes, generates an unmatched structural capacity for sequencing, parallelism, antithesis, and accumulation. According to Regan, the sonnet exemplifies ‘lyric thinking, of [quoting Helen Vendler] “thought made visible”, more powerfully and persistently than any other poetic form’ (3), a claim he supports through his careful exfoliation of the legible thoughts of his book’s sonneteers. A clear sign of the sonnet’s unique poetic imprint is its own self-awareness, how sonnets ‘reflect on their own making and their own being’ (14). There are entire anthologies of sonnets on sonnets, but no such collection of villanelles on villanelles.

The Sonnet is predominately focused on the English tradition of the sonnet form, divided in chronological chapters via standard periodization markers: Renaissance, Romantic, Victorian, and Modern, with two chapters surveying the sonnet in the Irish and American traditions. Each chapter begins with a brief summary of the period or tradition in question, and then proceeds into detailed explorations of individual sonneteers, with subsections devoted to major sonneteers as well as provocative subsection pairings of sonneteers in groups of two, three, or four. In total, over eighty poets are covered in Regan’s study.[5] Spenser’s Amoretti receives eight pages of coverage in the Renaissance Sonnet chapter, with extended analysis of Sonnets 1, 34, 75, and 89. Regan surveys Spenser’s various emotional states in the sequence, ending with the evocative absence encapsulated in the ‘dove-like’ rhymes with their ‘open vowel sounds’ of plaintive Sonnet 89 (40). 

In some cases, such as Seamus Heaney from the Irish Sonnet chapter, the subsections devoted to a single sonneteer amount to a poetic career in miniature via the writer’s lifelong engagement with the sonnet form. On the other hand, the subsections of grouped writers have been carefully curated to stimulate dialectic relationships. In the Renaissance Sonnet chapter, Regan’s section on John Donne, George Herbert, William Drummond, and Lady Mary Wroth provides a functional summary of seventeenth-century sonnets before Milton, while exploring the ‘inter-relationship of amatory and religious forms of the sonnet’ via these four writers (57). His subsection on Anna Seward, Charlotte Smith, and Helen Maria Williams in the Romantic Sonnet chapter credits these female sonneteers for the revival of the form during its long eighteenth-century hibernation. In the American Sonnet chapter, Regan provides a subsection of Paul Laurence Dunbar, Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, and Gwendolyn Brooks, which surveys the important contributions of African-American sonneteers to the form, which became in their hands an ‘instrument of subversion’ (259). As can be seen from these examples, Regan’s exploration of the sonnet is diverse in representation, and the book contains several surprises. For every expected analysis of a Shakespeare, Spenser, or Sir Philip Sidney, Regan will include an exploration of a Fulke Greville, whom he argues ‘seems to usher in a new set of possibilities’ for the sonnet, preparing the way for ‘the radical political sentiments’ of John Milton and the ‘tormented religious conscience’ of Gerard Manley Hopkins (43). The chapter devoted entirely to the Irish Sonnet is most welcome, providing the tradition with the prominence it deserves, and, like much of the book, is full of new discoveries even for experienced sonnet readers.

The book’s format, organised chronologically and by authors, feels like an expository literary anthology, accentuated by the generous sampling of sonnets reproduced in the book. Thanks to the sonnet’s brevity, Regan has included 173 sonnets in full (I counted), making the book a rich and varied miscellany stitched together with commentary. The subsections allow for detailed exploration of individual sonneteers, while the chapters as a whole track permutations and developments of the form, such as the development of the topographical or prospect sonnet in the Romantic period. Regan’s analytical methods, as explained in his introduction, are those of historical formalism, which allow for the book’s great strength, exegesis of individual sonnets, and for an exploration of the social and historical forces to which the sonnet responds. The sonnet, Regan argues, was always political as much as it was amatory, and bears, like the two sides of D. G. Rossetti’s coin, both its soul and  ‘what Power ‘tis due’ to external forces: a true monument for its compositional moment.

With its breadth, its detail, and its accessible and fluent style, The Sonnet is essential for anyone studying the form. It would serve as a superior accompaniment for a sonnet course or general introductory reader, and sonnet specialists will still learn much from its contents. There are limitations to note, however. The book should be titled The Sonnet in English, as there is little here from other language traditions, beyond the obligatory opening acknowledgement of the origin of the sonnet in Italy that appears in the Introduction. To his credit, Regan does expand the geographical and language constraints of the book in a lovely epilogue, ‘The Sonnet and Its Travels’, where he takes the reader on a tour from Charles Baudelaire to South African poet Roy Campbell, to New Zealand poet Allen Curnow, to Caribbean poet Derek Walcott, to Indian poet Vikram Seth, to Irish poet Derek Mahon, whose translation of Petrarch brings the book to a poignant recursive conclusion. There are also gaps in content: while sonnet sequences are discussed when relevant to individual sonnets Regan analyses, he theorises little about the overall purpose and process of the sequence, dismissing that possible focus in his introduction: ‘for all the imaginative ambitiousness and dramatic potential invested in the sonnet sequence, it is invariably the local stylistic effects of individual sonnets that readers respond to and recall’ (9). This focus on the individual sonnets and sonneteers means that some of the macro-aspects of sonnet history are neglected as well: Regan says nothing about the sonnet’s fortunes in the Restoration beyond skipping from Milton to the Romantic ‘revival’ (80). A chapter on the ‘Restoration Sonnet’ would be admittedly brief, and the title might strike one as oxymoronic, but explanations for the temporary withering of the sonnet’s reception would usefully complicate Regan’s tale of the sonnet’s endurance and its connection to its cultural moment. Finally, despite both the American and Modern sonnet chapters both ending with declarations of the ‘inventiveness’ (285, 391) of recent sonneteers, there is lack of an extended exploration of the radical formal experimentation from the past fifty years, represented in an anthology like The Reality Street Book of Sonnets, edited by Jeff Hilson. Important innovators of the form, like Bernadette Mayer and Terrance Hayes are not mentioned at all; according to Stephanie Burt, no living American poet has ‘reinvented the form’ as ‘assiduously’ as Hayes.[6] The omission of Hayes could be explained by his major sonnet collection occurring too late for Regan’s consideration, which only testifies again to how the sonnet outstrips any survey’s attempt—even one as capacious as Regan’s—to account fully for its ‘continuing vitality’.

I mention Hayes and Mayer not just because they are significant sonneteers who deserve recognition in a critical survey like Regan’s, but also because I want to read Regan writing about them. There is no better close reader of the formal effects of sonnet structure, sound, syntax, rhyme, and rhythm. He exfoliates their localised effects with such deft care and artfulness. Anyone who has read a sonnet sequence recently can attest to the tendency of individual sonnets to blur together and lose their distinctness. Here, Regan manages somehow to hold our attention throughout and focus his interpretive energies so that each sonnet gets its due and reveals its singular qualities. To read The Sonnet is to have the eye trained to see more, even in sonnets of well-worn familiarity. From now on, whenever I teach or write about sonnets, the first question I will ask myself is: what did Regan have to say?

 

 

Joshua Reid

East Tennessee State University

 



[1] Gubar, ‘When in Distress, Try Sonnets’, Living with Cancer, The New York Times, December 19, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/19/well/live/when-in-distress-try-sonnets.html.

[2] Hayes, ‘American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin’, in American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin (New York: Penguin Books, 2018), 11. Lines 1-4.

[3] Stewart, ‘A Sonnet A Day: Shakespeare’s Sonnet 1’, Facebook, March 22, 2020, accessed May 3, 2021, https://www.facebook.com/678442918910284/videos/198993371551947.

[4] Saphra, ‘100 Days of Sonnets: Unlocking that Maddening Door’, Jacqueline Saphra Poetry: The Poem and the World (blog), August 24, 2020, https://jacquelinesaphra.wordpress.com/2020/08/24/100-days-of-sonnets-unlocking-that-maddening-door/. See also Saphra, 100 Lockdown Sonnets (Rugby, Warwickshire: Nine Arches Press, 2021).

[5] The chapters cover the following sonneteers: The Renaissance Sonnet (Sir Thomas Wyatt, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, *Sir Philip Sidney, *Edmund Spenser, Fulke Greville, *William Shakespeare, John Donne, George Herbert, William Drummond, Lady Mary Wroth, and *John Milton), The Romantic Sonnet (Anna Seward, Charlotte Smith, Helen Maria Williams, William Bowles, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, *William Wordsworth, *Percy Bysshe Shelley, *John Keats, *John Clare), The Victorian Sonnet (Alfred Tennyson, Robert Browning, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Christina Rossetti, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, *Matthew Arnold, *George Meredith, *Gerard Manley Hopkins), The Irish Sonnet (*W.B. Yeats, *Patrick Kavanagh, *Seamus Heaney, *Paul Muldoon, *Ciaran Carson, Michael Longley, Eavan Boland), The American Sonnet (*Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Jones Very, William Cullen Bryant, John Greenleaf Whittier, Emma Lazarus, Frederick Goddard Tuckerman, Trumbell Stickney, *Edwin Arlington Robinson, *Robert Frost, T. S. Eliot, E. E. Cummings, Wallace Stevens, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, Gwendolyn Brooks, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Elizabeth Bishop, Anne Stevenson, John Berryman, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Ted Berrigan, James Merrill, Marilyn Hacker, Rita Dove, Shane McCrae), The Modern Sonnet (*Rupert Brooke, Charles Sorley, Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Edmund Blunden, Ivor Gurney, *W. H. Auden, Philip Larkin, Elizabeth Jennings, Geoffrey Hill, *Tony Harrison, Douglas Dunn, Edwin Morgan, Kathleen Jamie, Andrew McNeillie, Don Paterson, Carol Ann Duffy, Wendy Cope, Eleanor Brown, Ken Edwards, Tony Lopez, Robert Hampson, Andrew Motion, Alice Oswald). The * designates sonneteers who receive their own subsection in their respective chapters.

[6] Burt, ‘Voluntary Imprisonment’, Slate, May 28, 2019, https://slate.com/culture/2019/05/terrance-hayes-sonnet-poetry-stephanie-burt.html. See also her discussion of Hayes in Don’t Read Poetry: A Book about How to Read Poems (New York: Basic Books, 2019), 124-26.

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51.2.10

Cite as:

Joshua Reid, "Stephen Regan, The Sonnet," Spenser Review 51.2.10 (Spring-Summer 2021). Accessed April 17th, 2024.
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