Atomic essay #12 – a sonnet is a moment’s monument

Why do I love sonnets?

Atomic essay #12 – a sonnet is a moment’s monument
Photo by Matt Brown / Unsplash

Why do I love sonnets?

Perhaps it's because they're short, and I am lazy. I'd go so far as to call them my favourite poetic form, though this might well be because I've encountered them more than I've encountered any other form.

That said, there's something about their elegance, compactness and ability to evolve that is very attractive on an aesthetic level. John Donne saw this, too, calling sonnets 'pretty rooms'. I like Rosetti's description of them even better: 'a sonnet is a moment's monument'.

These two descriptions are a good starting point for how we can think about the sonnet. On the one hand, we can study their aesthetics: we can discuss the poetic choices that are made within them; we can listen to them, feel them, look at them as things of beauty. On the other, we can look at the sonnet as the preservation of a moment in time: a moment that might have otherwise been lost.

I'm not sure I'm anywhere close to figuring out what poetry is or how it works, but I do like the idea that poetry works by elevating the seemingly mundane and missable to a greater status: Philip Sidney's 'golden' world of poetry, beyond the 'brazen' we normally experience (from The Defence of Poesy). The more I look at poetry, the more I notice how small the locus is: poets have a habit of zooming in on seemingly insignificant things. There is, then, a moment of transformation – perhaps there is a better term for this – in which that tiny thing is made more universal, or else simply more significant.

But why the sonnet? Perhaps because to track the evolution of the sonnet is to track the evolution of the modern world. Coming of age in the early modern period, what poets do with the sonnet through the modern period is a microcosm for that stage in the modern period itself. Each sonnet is a room – but it is a room in a house that's still being built.

Because these posts are atomic – about one thing – I am going to save further thoughts on the sonnet for subsequent posts. I'll be sharing and analysing some of my favourite sonnets; I'll be looking at the history of the sonnet and how it has evolved; and I'll discuss ways in which one can use the sonnet as a teaching tool.