Friday, January 05, 2007

Friday Poetry Blogging - Ventriloquism in Sonnets

One of the things that fascinates me about early modern poetry, especially sonnets, is the frequency with which the primary speaker reports the words of another speaker. Now, when we academic types talk about poetry or other literature, we separate the poet from the speaker. That should be obvious in plays, though it's scary how often words are attributed straight to Shakespeare that are spoken by characters such as Iago, because we can't assume that Shakespeare would say what he has Iago say.

It's harder to get readers to make that jump when we're reading poetry or first person narrative, especially love poetry. We weirdly imagine that such poetry must represent personal experience. Our romanticized notions of poetry (as being the deep emotional utterances of the poet as very special person) contribute to that. But, like Browning, any of us can imagine ourselves representing the words of a madman or murderer. Most of us can't do it as well as Browning did in verse, more's the pity.

In your typical early modern sonnet, especially one part of a sequence, the male speaker blathers on and on about the beloved, often lamenting his lack of sexual access and the difficulty of writing, the beloved's unwillingness to reciprocate, and so forth. Within that format, there's a lot of room to use a sort of ventriloquism to report the beloved's words or thoughts, sometimes in direct quotation, sometimes not. Often the beloved makes some perfectly sensible comment, basically something along the lines of "just write the danged poem, idiot," or "no, really, it's not going to work out," though of course they do it in iambic pentameter.

I'm working on the poetry class syllabus, so I'm having much pleasure reading through the anthology and rethinking which poems I want to teach. And on that note, here's one by Edmund Spenser. Most of the good sonnet sequences do something different; Spenser's difference is that at the end, his speaker "gets the girl."

#75 from Spenser's Amoretti (aka Little Loves. Yes, sonnet writers are sappy!)

One day I wrote her name upon the strand,*
But came the waves and washed it away:
Agayne I wrote it with a second hand,
But came the tyde, and made my paynes his pray.**
Vayne man, sayd she, that doest in vaine assay,***
A mortall thing so to immortalize,
For I my selve shall lyke to this decay,
And eek**** my name be wyped out lykewize.
Not so, (quod***** I) let baser things devize******
To dy in dust, but you shall live by fame:
My verse your vertues rare shall eternize,
And in the hevens wryte your glorious name.
Where whenas death shall all the world subdew,
Our love shall live, and later life renew.

*strand = beach, shore
**pray = prey
***assay = try, attempt
****eek = also
*****quod = said
******devize = plan

Early modern spelling was so much more fun than modern spelling!

1 comment:

  1. I have become a sonnet fan after a few poetry classes. Thanks for sharing this one. It put a smile on my face.