Sex, Romance, and Tradition in the Love Sonnet
How the baggage of the sonnet's structure may be exactly the point .
I have been known to say (and to write, in A Poet’s Craft and Villanelles and maybe elsewhere) that the villanelle is the most erotic poetic structure I know. And yet, when Politics & Prose Bookstore invited me to teach a special online class the day before Valentine’s Day, I was immediately inspired to teach a class on great love sonnets.
Why is this? What is so romantic about the love sonnet that it beats out even the villanelle as my romantic poetic structure of choice? Isn’t that a rather expected choice for a poet who adores the exploration of formal diversity? Is it just a matter of being conventional?
Well, yes, in a way. Because love—perhaps especially romantic love, on which so much of the power structures of the world we experience depends—is in many ways a conventionalized emotion—conventionalized in the sense of “coming together.” Our experience of loving—like our experience of poetry—no matter how unique to ourselves, how natural and spontaneous, it may feel— is always, to some extent, a group effort: a creation of, and a gift from, the group of people we are part of. We need culture to be human; we derive our ideas of self, society, relationships, emotions, and so much more from the societies in which we are born, grow, and live. Why should love be any different?
And the sonnet, as Paul Oppenheimer reminds us in his important book The Birth of the Modern Mind: Self, Consciousness, and the Invention of the Sonnet, is adept at shaping the human sense of self. In fact, the sonnet developed, if we are to believe Oppenheimer, in part out of that exact need: to shape our premodern, intuitive, tribal selves into the more complex, separately self-aware individuals required to involve themselves with capitalist modernity. Ambivalent as our relationship with modernity may be, it is the water we swim in—particularly as humans involved in the paired love relationships we tend to find most “romantic.” The sonnet understands that.
Yet great love sonnets use the power of form to change up our insulated, isolated sense of love, to disturb it into something more universal that challenges simplistic and possessive urges. They dive deep into the form that has carried “romantic love” for so long—and not only in the hearts of privileged heterosexual or bisexual white cis men such as Shakespeare and Spenser, or, more recently, privileged heterosexual or bisexual white cis women such as Barrett Browning and Millay, but more recently still, in the hearts of gay poets, poets of color, and trans poets: Marilyn Hacker, Gwendolyn Brooks, Rafael Campo, Richelle Slota—and they come up gasping, look around anew, find our eyes and hold them. Fast.
Here’s one of the love sonnets I want to discuss during the class. It’s one of the first love sonnets I ever knew. My mother used to recite it—or her favorite parts of it— aloud during the elaborate pubescent initiation into the mysteries of heterosexual love that I received from the four older females in my family:
Not in a silver casket cool with pearls
Or rich with red corundum or with blue,
Locked, and the key withheld, as other girls
Have given their loves, I give my love to you;
Not in a lovers'-knot, not in a ring
Worked in such fashion, and the legend plain–
Semper fidelis, where a secret spring
Kennels a drop of mischief for the brain:
Love in the open hand, no thing but that,
Ungemmed, unhidden, wishing not to hurt,
As one should bring you cowslips in a hat
Swung from the hand, or apples in her skirt,
I bring you, calling out as children do:
"Look what I have!–And these are all for you."
The sonnet form resembles a human hand to start with—roughly the same proportions, even a similar size in most contexts— which already endows it for me with a startling kind of intimacy. But Millay takes it a step further. Reading the poem now, I see how closely the way this sonnet inhabits its form does enact the opening of a hand.
Most of Millay’s sonnets are in the Italian form, like Petrarch’s, with a rhyme scheme of abbaabbacdecde. But this one is in the English form, like Shakespeare’s: ababcdcdefefgg—a form that enables Millay to unspool the form towards openness as adeptly as a fully impassioned
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial