The students of English literature are familiar with what sonnets are. A sonnet is basically a short poem of 14 lines composed in a special pattern. This form of poetry was probably invented in Italy during Renaissance.
The form of sonnets was made popular by Petrarch. This form started a fashion which influenced poetry in Europe. Later on, it was termed as the “Petrarchan convention” of artificial love poetry.
He wrote sonnets addressing Laura de Noves whom he loved. Petrarch set her up in his mind as the ideal woman and wrote around. Similarly, Dante had idealized Beatrice Portinary. As a result, idealized women remained the literary custom in poetry all over Europe.
Great poets like Milton and Wordsworth used the Italian form. However, in Milton’s sonnet on his blindness, there is no such clear break between the octave and the sestet.
Keats’s sonnet “On first looking into Chapman’s Homer” is highly lyrical poetry written in the Italian form.
On first looking into Chapman’s Homer
Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild sunrise –
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
It is easy for an ordinary poet to write a sonnet but the lyrical feeling may get lost in composing the form. Keats has maintained the correct sonnet-form without missing the lyrical feeling in it. The line “watcher of the skies when a new planet swims into his ken” beautifully expresses the excitements of the new discovery.
There are twentieth century poets like Rupert Brooke (1887-1915) and A. E. Housman wrote sonnets. Any reader of English poetry should read Brooke’s sonnets.
There is another modern poet Charles Causley who has written number of sonnets but his “For an Ex Far East Prisoner of War” is very special for modern times. It is about a problem which concerns all in this modern world. The problem deals with forgiving and forgetting wars. This poem shows the ex-prisoner as a modern Christ who suffers on the cross and reminds of guilt and responsibility.
For an Ex Far East Prisoner of War
I am that man with helmet made of thorn
Who wandered naked in the desert place,
Wept, with the sweating sky, that I was born
And wore disaster in my winter face.
I am that man who asked no hate, no pity,
I am that man, five-wounded, on the tree.
I am that man, walking in native city,
Hears his dead comrade cry, Remember me!
I am that man whose brow with blood was wet,
Returned, as Lazarus from the dead to live.
I am that man, long counseled to forget,
Faeing a fearful victory, to forgive:
And seizing the two words, with the sharp sun
Beat them, like sword and ploughshare, into one.
If you read this sonnet, you will realize that how it is difficult to say that both lyrical and reflective poetry are different.