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Literary Blog: Sonnets Petrarchan and Shakespearean


Literary Blog: Sonnets Petrarchan and Shakespearean

(By Neither Frank nor Bill) Part !

Some favorable responses to my previous literary blogs, especially to the Shakespeare-Marlowe parody Hamlet At Wittenberg, encourage me to continue posting from time to time literary blogs presenting, with commentary, non-scholarly literary writings from my past. This is another of those.

While I was still in Berkeley High School in the early 1940s I had begun composing verses in the set forms--sonnets, ballades, triolets and villanelles--to amuse myself and please my English teachers, two of them. I don’t remember the name of the first; the second, and a powerful influence on me during those creative years, was Constance Topping, a maiden lady of British descent who lived in a big apartment house on Benvenue Avenue just east of Dwight Way in Berkeley, next door to Duffey’s Boarding House where I lived with my father. I still preserve in the originals many papers and assignments I wrote for her, with her notations in margins and her grades and comments at the end. I started out badly, writing a satire of Christian Science (I had lived with a family of whom the mother was a C.S. practitioner), quoting Mark Twain’s observation that it wouldn’t fix the broken leg of a chair; her grade was a B+, her comment included the observation that not everyone would find this belief so funny, and my belated realization was that Constance Topping was herself--yes, you guessed it. Far more successfully, I wrote for her a ballade about the squirrels who played in the trees between our two dwellings, which she observed every day as I did, That Ballade of the Dead Squirrels won a prize at the Berkeley Poets Dinner, held at the Claremont Hotel, a great honor for me. I will print that here some time.

I was especially fond of the sonnet, both the more difficult Petrarchan kind and the easier Shakespearean kind. (The latter are so easy that I have twice in my life composed them one-a-day to please women I was/am fond of--once for a girlfriend named Hazel while I was a soldier in the Japanese Language School at Ann Arbor in 1944, again in August this year when my daughter Sarah said she wanted a sonnet for her birthday, and I responded that that was too easy, I would do one a day for a week. And I almost did that, completing six.)

I am going to copy in this and subsequent blogs, with brief introductory notes, a series of the sonnets I have composed over the years, mostly while much younger. I will not include the ones for Sarah, which contain too many private references that would require long explanations. I begin with three-and-a-half (one unfinished) would-be serious ones, all in the more difficult Petrarchan form, composed while I was a Berkeley High student. Some of my deepest feelings at that time were experienced on clear, cold nights when I found myself outdoors--coming back from ushering in San Francisco (as related in a previous blog) or out late on a date with a girlfriend. These sonnets were attempts to capture and convey those feelings.

Night Sonnets (1942-3. Berkeley High School)

I          He sat upon the dampish bench and thought.
All spherical around him was the night,
Diluted just a little by the light,
A cold white light that fingered all it caught
And let it go. He raised his hand, and sought
To see it as it was, to see it right—
This could not be his hand, so blue and white,
This pale thing could not be what God had wrought.
This was not he; he was of other times;
He was not of this age; he was alone.
They were not his, these gross escapeless crimes,
These wavering, shuddering beings he had known.
Eternity was throbbing in his brain.
He should not be here. He must not remain.

II        I looked up from the street, upon a hill,
And there a massive house, blotting from view
The stars behind, against the silver-blue
Rose up before me, lifeless, black, and still.
I stood and watched it silently, until
A pale, flat, yellow light appeared in two
Small upstairs windows, and a man looked through.
Resting his hands upon the window sill
He stood, a depthless shadow, muddled-grey;
Searching the sky as one might read a book,
He saw the moon and stars—and was afraid—
For then he turned, as if to go away;
But hesitating, turned back with a look
Into the street below, and pulled the shade.

III       Upon a dim-lit corner, all alone,
A boy and girl stood in the thin night air
And spoke aloud of shining places where
They'd been that night, and people they had known.
But curiously somber was their tone,
And curiously cold for such a pair.
They spoke on bravely, seeming not aware
That these strange, hollow voices were their own.
And silently the night crept in, until
Its emptiness enveloped every word,
And swallowed others ere they could be heard.
The moon was thin and flat, the sky was clear,
And all was awful silence, deathly still,
As they were, clasping tightly in their fear.

IV      The things of earth lie bare now, as they are;
For much of them is hidden by the light
Of day, but nothing hidden by the night,
And all reveal themselves, as does a star.
The trees are black and deep; the motor car
A blind and roaring thing, and gardens bright
In sunshine, now enchanted; now the sight
Unblinded—all is clear now, near and far.

(Unfinished—re-used in one of a series of one-a-day Love

Sonnets for Hazel, to be printed here later, at least in part.)

No, thinking further: the Sonnets for Hazel mostly aren’t worth reprinting, and I will dispose of them by copying a single one here at the end, to offset the seriousness (so intended, at least) of the above. This one was composed one Saturday when I was unable to join her, as anticipated, because I was kept in on KP (kitchen police, the Army’s punishment for minor misdemeanors--I can’t remember what mine was)--and I spent much of the day mopping floors, while composing this to send to her: (Now that I read it again, after many years, I see that it isn’t a sonnet at all. I did write Shakespearean sonnets to Hazel, but this isn’t one of them, it’s just a series of rhymed couplets in iambic pentameter.)

Fate is not kind to us, my Love, my Own,
And I shall spend this Saturday alone
In Durance Unrelieved, to Expiate
Such Trivial Sins, I shall not now Relate
How Small they were--let it Suffice to Say
They were as Crimes one Perpetrates each day.
If Thou wert Captive held, however Strong
The Fortress be, Thou shouldst not Stay so Long--
I’d batter Oaken Doors, if needs must be,
And slay full Twenty Gaolers, reaching Thee.
But ‘tis the Army holds me, no Release
Can one expect from Them, nor any Peace.
Yet always I will Think upon Thy Face,
And It shall light that Gloomy Dungeon Place
As doth the Sun the Cloud, and by its Light
The murky grey Mop Water will shine Bright.

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