Monuments in verse that capture a moment

This collection of sonnets is part of the venerable and invaluable Everyman's Library series. There are no footnotes or headnotes, simply sonnets, at least 200 of them by more than 100 different poets, in more or less chronological order, beginning in the 13th century, with Dante (translated by Rossetti) and proceeding through seven centuries to the sonnets of contemporary poets such as Geoffrey Hill, J.D. McClatchy, Elizabeth Jennings, and the editor himself, John Holland.

Along the way we encounter everyone from John Donne, Edgar Allan Poe, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to Emma Lazarus, Helen Hunt Jackson, Claude McKay, and Ambrose Bierce, who pays ironic tribute to "holy Lead! - of human feuds the great/ And universal arbiter...."

The book concludes with a charming little out-of-sequence coda: six sonnets on the subject of sonnets by Wordsworth, Keats, Rossetti, Robert Burns, and the arbiter of French classicism Nicolas Boileau.

Boileau invents a fable in which Apollo, tired of poetasters' "trite ideas/ Thrown into loose verse," creates "The rigorous Sonnet, to be framed alone/ By duteous bards, or by just taste admir'd."

But, while Boileau's sonnet praises skill, those by Wordsworth, Keats, and Rossetti embody it to the highest degree. Rossetti's memorable masterpiece, which Hollander has aptly placed at the very end of the book, leaves us with a definition that manages to be, on the one hand, crystallizing, on the other, suggestively mysterious:

A Sonnet is a moment's monument,

Memorial from the Soul's eternity

To one dead deathless hour. Look that it be,

Whether for lustral rite or dire portent,

Of its own arduous fulness reverent....

Two sonnets that very much exemplify the idea of being a moment's monument are in every other respect vastly different from each other. W.B. Yeats's "Leda and the Swan" renders a moment from classical myth with startling vividness: "A sudden blow: the great wings beating still/ Above the staggering girl...." And Wordsworth's lines "Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802" capture the serenity of early morning: "The city now doth, like a garment, wear/ The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,/ Ships, towers, domes, theatres and temples lie/ Open unto the fields, and to the sky;/ All bright and glittering in the smokeless air."

Wordsworth, who wrote one of the longest poems in the English language, his blank verse autobiography, "The Prelude," also explained why the sonnet's shorter form sometimes appealed to him:

In sundry moods, 'twas pastime to be bound

Within the Sonnet's scanty plot of ground;

Pleased if some Souls (for such there needs must be)

Who have felt the weight of too much liberty,

Should find brief solace there, as I have found.

Many poets have taken advantage of the sonnet's potential for compression: Milton, another master of the long form ("Paradise Lost"), penned sonnets of amazing power on a wide range of subjects. Sir Philip Sidney, Samuel Daniel, and Michael Drayton in the Renaissance, wrote long sonnet cycles or sequences, a genre that would be later revived by 19th-century Pre-Raphaelites like Rossetti and Meredith and in the 20th century by James Merrill in "The Broken Home." And, of course, the most famous group of sonnets that tell a story are Shakespeare's.

Hollander's book neither reprints nor much discusses sonnet sequences, but does offer sonnets excerpted from them. Indeed, in a volume of this size and scope, more emphasis would be out of place.

All things considered, this collection provides a satisfying and stimulating mix of the familiar and the unexpected, the sweetly consoling and the bitterly bracing, the romantic and the satirical, the indubitably sublime and the delightfully ridiculous.

Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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